Authors: Les Standiford
However supportive he was of his somewhat high-strung illustrator, Dickens himself was fretting over the details of his project to the last minute. In addition to Leech’s color plates and woodcuts, he had called for title pages printed with bright red and green, and hand-colored endpapers of a green to match. When in early December he examined a few pre-publication copies run off by Chapman and Hall, however, he was greatly disappointed. The green titles seemed drab to his eyes, and the hand coloring on the endpapers had rubbed off and smudged. In addition, he noted that Chapman and Hall, perhaps seeking to extend the shelf life of the book, had noted its year of publication as 1844.
Dickens immediately reverted the date to 1843—what on earth could they have been
?—and ordered the color of the endpapers switched to yellow, which would not require any hand work. He also changed the colors of the title page to red and blue, and the half-title page to blue. Though it was a lot to get done in a short time (resulting in the production of a few rare copies that jumbled some of Dickens’s instructions), the printers managed to complete their work by December 17. And on December 19, Dickens had 6,000 copies of his “little Carol”—its cover a bit more russet than bright red—finally ready for sale.
he concept for
A Christmas Carol
—the simple story of a miser named Ebenezer Scrooge, haunted on Christmas Eve by his dead partner and the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future—did not come to its author out of nowhere, for Dickens had always been greatly enamored of the holiday: “I have always thought of Christmas time as…the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year,” says Scrooge’s nephew Fred as the story opens, “when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.” The holiday “has done me good,” he continued, “and will do me good; and I say, God bless it.”
While the words are attributed to a character in a novel, there is little doubt that the sentiments are those of the author. Dickens had in fact expressed similar feelings about the season in previous works, including one sketch describing a happy Christmas family gathering during which a number of simmering feuds and resentments are laid to rest. Titled “Christmas Festivities,” it was originally published in
Bell’s Life in London
in December 1835, and later it was included in
Sketches by Boz
as “A Christmas Dinner.”
“That man must be a misanthrope indeed, in whose breast something like a jovial feeling is not roused—in whose mind some pleasant associations are not awakened—by the recurrence of Christmas,” the piece begins. And if the mention of such a misanthrope conjures up images of a Scrooge-to-be, later in the sketch there also comes a reference to an innocent child who dies:
“Look on the merry faces of your children (if you have any) as they sit round the fire. One little seat may be empty; one slight form that gladdened the father’s heart, and roused the mother’s pride to look upon, may not be there.
“Dwell not upon the past; think not that one short year ago, the fair child now resolving into dust, sat before you, with the bloom of health upon its cheek, and the gaiety of infancy in its joyous eye. Reflect upon your present blessings…not upon your past misfortunes…. Fill your glass again, with a merry face and contented heart…your Christmas shall be merry, and your new year a happy one!”
For the Christmas issue of
The Pickwick Papers
in 1836, Dickens had also written “The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton,” a short fiction about a gravedigger who is redeemed by the intervention of a pack of goblins. Grub is described as “an ill-conditioned, cross-grained, surly fellow—a morose and lonely man, who consorted with nobody but himself, and an old wicker bottle which fitted into his large deep waistcoat pocket.” He is the sort of fellow who raps a carol-singing urchin’s head with his knuckles, and who delights to find a coffin arrived at his graveyard on the holiday: “A coffin at Christmas! A Christmas Box. Ho! Ho! Ho!”
Yet after Grub is mystically spirited away by the goblins and treated to a series of glimpses of the lives of the unfortunate, including one family’s grief as the “fairest and youngest child lay dying,” he comes to understand the error of his ways. “He saw that men who worked hard, and earned their scanty bread with lives of labour, were cheerful and happy…. Above all, he saw that men like himself, who snarled at the mirth and cheerfulness of others, were the foulest weeds on the fair surface of the earth [and] he came to the conclusion that it was a very decent and respectable sort of world after all.”
This little fable, while a pale shadow of what a more mature Dickens would create some seven years later, is proof that the basic elements of
A Christmas Carol
had been incubating for some time. There are also some hints of the delightfully mordant humor that would leaven Scrooge’s miserliness. It is difficult not to appreciate a grump who can chortle over a coffin as a “Christmas box.”
In such touches, we see hints of what would flower in
A Christmas Carol,
with its misanthrope so riled by goodwill that he declares a curse on holiday revelers: “If I could work my will,” says Ebenezer Scrooge to his nephew, “every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He
!” Or, that immortal reply to poor Fred’s wish that he have a Merry Christmas: “Bah! Humbug!”
And while it may seem superfluous to summarize such a well-known tale (one commentator has said of it that “if every copy were destroyed to-day, it could be rewritten tomorrow, so many know the story by heart”), still, a brief recounting of what grew bit by bit in Dickens’s mind as he strode about the dark London streets seems in order.
fter being accosted in his offices at the accounting firm of Scrooge and Marley by his far-too-merry nephew Fred, our aging bachelor protagonist, Ebenezer Scrooge, makes his way home through the fogbound and bustling Christmas Eve, pausing only when he is approached by a do-gooder seeking donations for the poor:
“Many thousands are in want of common necessaries,” this portly gentleman informs Scrooge, “hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”
“Are there no prisons?” Scrooge asks the man. “And the Union workhouses? Are they still in operation?”
Having dismissed this emissary with a series of such questions, Scrooge continues to his doorstep without further incident, though he is somewhat disconcerted to find that his doorknocker seems briefly to take the shape of the face of his years-dead partner Jacob Marley—a vision with “a dismal light about it, like a bad lobster in a dark cellar.”
The moment passes, however, and Scrooge goes on inside, where, as he takes his evening gruel, the ghost of Marley appears before him in whole form. Marley explains to a disbelieving Scrooge that for his own sins of avarice he has been condemned to wander in a kind of purgatory all the seven years since his death, and he further announces that three ghosts will follow on his heels to Scrooge’s chambers.
“Without their visits,” Marley tells Scrooge, “you cannot hope to shun the path I tread.” The first, he says, will arrive by one o’clock in the morning, and though Scrooge asks—in the spirit of efficiency, of course—if it mightn’t be easier if all three came at once, Marley disappears.
While Scrooge wonders if that visit of Marley’s is nothing more than a bad dream occasioned by an undigested bit of beef or a fragment of an underdone potato, he is indeed roused at the appointed hour. A spirit who seems by turns youthful and greatly aged carries Scrooge on a tour of his past, where he is reminded of a friendless childhood, and one evening in particular, abandoned in a dismal schoolhouse with only the characters in books for company.
Following a brief appearance of his beloved and long since departed younger sister, the dream-tour shifts to the warehouse offices of Scrooge’s first employer Fezziwig, where business is quickly pushed aside for a Christmas Eve party of epic proportions. Hardly has Scrooge recovered from this display of Fezziwig’s huge spirit, than the Ghost carries him along to a memory of his one and only sweetheart as she breaks off their engagement: she knows that a rival has displaced her in his eyes, and when young Scrooge demands to know whom, she tells him simply, “Gain.”
The tour of Christmas Past ends with a quick glimpse of what might have been—his former fiancée now married, with a brood of children tearing about a festive house on Christmas Eve, and a good-humored husband arrived home to let her know that he has chanced to see her former friend Scrooge this day, alone and pitiful in his countinghouse as his partner Marley lies dying.
The memories are almost more than Scrooge can bear, and he falls upon the Ghost in a fury—“Leave me. Take me back. Haunt me no longer”—and finds himself abruptly returned to his bed.
The ordeal so exhausts Scrooge that he apparently sleeps through Christmas day, awakening again the next morning at the stroke of one, and this time ready for anything. Given what has already taken place, “nothing between a baby and a rhinoceros would have astonished him very much.”
Thus, when a voice calls from his living room, Scrooge climbs down from his bed without hesitation. When he opens the door to his living room, he finds those spartan chambers transformed into a veritable Yule forest bedecked for the holidays, a fire raging in his normally meager hearth, and a jolly Christmas Viking-Ghost seated atop a thronelike assemblage of roasted game and turkeys, geese and sucklings, puddings, pies, and cakes.
The bewreathed Ghost of Christmas Present, clad in fur-trimmed robes of green, takes Scrooge on a tour of the holiday-thronged streets of London that ends with a visit to the home of Bob Cratchit, Scrooge’s clerk, where a poor but grateful family—including the crippled Tiny Tim and his several siblings—enjoy a feast of goose and applesauce and mashed potatoes and gravy, and, finally, a pudding “like a speckled cannonball…bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top.”
Scrooge is struck by the affection that passes between Cratchit and his afflicted son and even asks of the Ghost if Tiny Tim will live, but the miser is equally touched by Cratchit’s gentle reproach of his wife when she refers to Scrooge as “an odious, hard, unfeeling, stingy man,” this despite the fact that we have seen the clerk unable to pry as much as an extra lump of coal from his boss to stoke the office fire.
These characters who fascinate Scrooge so are not a handsome family, we are told, and their clothes are worn and scanty. “But they were happy, grateful, pleased with one another, and contented with the time.” And even as the vision fades away, Scrooge holds “his eye upon them, and especially on Tiny Tim, until the last.”
There is one more stop with Christmas Present, this at an evening dinner party to which Scrooge’s nephew had invited his uncle during their encounter of the day before, and where this time it is the nephew who defends Scrooge and his fabled hardheartedness against the slurs and catcalls of the others of the group. Yes, it is a shame that his uncle cannot appreciate the spirit of the holidays, his nephew Fred admits, but adds quickly, “I am sorry for him…. Who suffers by his ill whims? Himself, always.”
The tour of Christmas Present might have ended on that vaguely generous note, if Scrooge had not then noticed what seemed to be a claw poking from beneath the Ghost’s robes. Seeing his surprise, the Ghost pulls back the robes to reveal the wretched sight of a boy and girl huddled there: “Yellow, meager, ragged, scowling, wolfish…. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing.”
In response to Scrooge’s stunned wonderment as to where these two have come from, the Spirit tells him, “They are Man’s…. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree.”
Scrooge stares back at these children of the Saffron Hill school incarnate. “Have they no refuge or resource?” he murmurs.
“Are there no prisons?” comes the Spirit’s mocking answer. “Are there no workhouses?” And before Scrooge can answer, the clock strikes midnight, and Christmas Present is gone.
The final Spirit, that of Christmas Yet To Come, is much more threatening than his predecessors, a sepulchral creature that glides toward Scrooge “like a mist,” its face hooded and using only a spectral hand to communicate. This ominous creature guides Scrooge through the London streets, first to a knot of men who discuss in callous tones the death of an unnamed associate and their disinclination to so much as attend the funeral, unless, of course, “a lunch is provided.”
From there, the hooded Spirit conveys Scrooge to a dismal boneyard, where a charwoman brings a heap of bedclothes taken from her former employer’s house to pawn: “Ha, ha!” the woman laughs as the boneyard master pays her for her troubles. “This is the end of it, you see! He frightened every one away from him when he was alive, to profit us when he was dead! Ha, ha, ha!”