Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol wasn’t meant to be just an entertaining holiday story. It was also a serious attempt to change the Victorian attitude toward the poor and insert a few family values.
A Christmas Carol
Dickens’ ghostly tale might just be the best known Christmas story out there. Most of us know about the miserly Mr. Scrooge whose reply to all things Christmassy or charitable is “Bah! Humbug!” He hasn’t an ounce of kindness in his cold heart for those less fortunate than himself. But then, on Christmas Eve, he is visited in a dream by three ghosts: the ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Yet to Come.
These ghosts force Scrooge to view his selfish past actions, and he gets a glimpse into the life of his clerk, Bob Cratchit. He sees how the Cratchit family celebrates Christmas with love in their hearts – even though they are poor and have a sick child.
Then Scrooge is forced to look at what his own future will be if he doesn’t change his ways. It’s a sad one indeed. No one attends his funeral and some people are even happy at his demise. Scrooge is shaken to the core when he sees what he has become. He wakes from his disturbing dream a changed man and vows to make amends for his past deeds.
The story is written in the form of a novella and its full title is A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas. It’s a short book with a long title that had a big influence on Victorian society.
In the early 1800s, London was a city filled with poverty and misery. It was a time of debtors’ prisons, workhouses, and child labor. There was no compassion. If people were poor, it was surely from their own doing and they had to suffer the consequences.
Even children were not excluded from those consequences. The concept of childhood, as we know it today, didn’t exist. Poor children were put to work in mines and factories as soon as they were able – often around the age of six. It wasn’t unusual for younger and smaller children to be lowered down chimneys to clean them.
At this time in the UK, Christmas wasn’t widely celebrated. Cromwell and the Puritans had outlawed many Christmas traditions a few hundred years earlier. And even though Cromwell was long gone, the Christmas celebrations were slow to return, and for many people, December 25th wasn’t even a day off work.
Why was it Written?
The condition of the Victorian poor was a subject close to Dickens’ heart because of his own boyhood experience. When Charles was around eleven years old, the Dickens family fell on hard times. Young Charles was sent to a boot black factory to work off the family’s debt and get his parents and siblings out of debtors’ prison. This experience caused him to be forever charitable to the poor.
In 1843 when Dickens read a parliamentary report about how the Industrial Revolution had increased the number of young children working and the awful conditions they worked in, it set his blood boiling. He intended to write a scathing speech in response to it, but then he had a better idea. He would write something with more impact. He would write a story. A story that would prick the social conscience of Victorian England.
Writing the Book
When the idea for A Christmas Carol, began to form in Dickens’ mind, it was late October or early November, and Christmas was fast approaching. His publisher didn’t want to take on the project because he didn’t think there was enough time to get it written and published before the holiday. In addition, he didn’t believe there would be much of audience for it, because Christmas was a minor holiday.
Even though the publisher had no faith in the project, Dickens did. And he decided to pay for publication himself. For the next six weeks, he wrote like a man possessed. On 19 December 1843, just six weeks after he began writing it, A Christmas Carol was published. The first batch of 6,000 copies sold out in a week.
Effects of the Book
Dickens’ little book had the desired effect: It showed the Victorians the importance of families being together and of being kind to everyone. It pricked the conscience of society and caused people to reevaluate how they treated the poor among them. Charitable giving increased almost immediately after the book’s publication.
Lord Jeffrey, editor of the Edinburgh Review, wrote to Dickens: “Blessings on your kind heart… you may be sure you have done more good by this little publication, fostered more kindly feelings, and prompted more positive acts of beneficence, than can be traced to all the pulpits and confessionals in Christendom.”
A Christmas Carol became Dickens’ most popular work. It has been published in many editions, translated into several languages, and has never been out of print. The story has been adapted for stage, film, and television more than any of his other books.
It has even influenced our language: The book popularized the sayings, “Merry Christmas” and “Bah Humbug,” and the name “Scrooge” has become synonymous with miser.
*There’s a good film about the writing of A Christmas Carol called The Man Who Invented Christmas. It came out in 2017 and is worth a look if you get a chance.
Happy Holidays to All!
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