Since the first publication of A Christmas Carol in 1843 it has been reproduced so often, and in so many different forms, that
it has become as much a part of Christmas as mince pies or turkey. There have been dozens of films, starring everyone from Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson to Mr. Magoo and Mickey Mouse, operas and ballets, an all-black musical (Comin’ Uptown, which opened on Broadway in 1979), Benjamin Britten’s 1947 Men of Goodwill: Variations on “A Christmas Carol”, even a BBC mime version in 1973 starring Marcel Marceau.
Given the hundreds of rivals which flooded the market after Dickens’s success –the Carol’s large sales meant that writing a Christmas story became as much a part of the Victorian novelist’s life as recording a novelty Christmas single is for today’s pop stars – but why is this particular story still so firmly rooted in the public imagination? Dickens’s original audience had no doubts as to why the Carol struck such a chord: it was a good story that also did much good. The powerful description of Scrooge’s conversion also succeeded in changing the hearts and minds of many of its readers, who were seduced and bullied by Dickens’s prose into comparing their ability to improve the lot of those around them (the poor, the sick, the lonely) with the fate of those pitiful ghosts Scrooge sees whirling through the night air: ‘The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power for ever’.
Many of the ways in which the Carol moved its readers have since passed into critical folklore. Jane Welsh Carlyle reported that ‘visions of Scrooge’ had so worked on her husband’s ‘nervous organisation’ that ‘he has been seized with a perfect convulsion of hospitality, and had actually insisted on improvising two dinner parties.’ An American factory owner, who attended a Christmas Eve reading of the Carol in Boston in 1867, was so moved that thereafter he closed his factory on Christmas Day and sent every worker a turkey. ‘Dickens’ Christmas Carol helps the poultry business amazingly,’ as one wag noted in Wilkes’s Spirit of the Times (1867). ‘Everybody who reads it and who has money immediately rushes off and buys a turkey for the poor.’
Given how thoroughly the Carol has managed to infiltrate the iconography of our own Christmas celebrations – and it is hard to turn on a television or open a newspaper without seeing the flickering ghost of Tiny Tim or hearing faint echoes of ‘Bah! Humbug!’ – it would be reassuring to think that the same spirit of generosity is one that still moves our hearts at this time of year. Reassuring but not necessarily right. In an increasingly secular world, the annual returns of this story to our stages and screens have certainly become something like an alternative Christmas ritual, as the three wise men are replaced by three instructive spirits, and the pilgrimage to a child in a manger is replaced by a visit to the house of Tiny Tim. But although the Carol was enjoyed by its first readers as distinctly modern – as modern as Christmas cards, which were sent for the first time in the same year as its publication – the reasons for its popularity now seem quite different. It serves as a timely reminder of the simple pleasures that seem to have been lost sight of in the seasonal scrum of shoppers, an annual invitation to the pleasures of nostalgia. The danger, of course, is that this ends up making Dickens’s central demand, that our generosity should extend far beyond our immediate family and friends, sound as old-fashioned and quaint as the gothic lettering on Ye Olde Tea Shoppe.
There is a sad moment in the opening pages of Dickens story, as a small boy, ‘gnawed and mumbled by the hungry cold as bones are gnawed by dogs’, stoops down at Scrooge’s keyhole ‘to regale him with a Christmas carol’: a short burst of ‘God bless you merry gentleman! May nothing you dismay’. Scrooge ignores him, but by the end of the story his carol has clearly worked its magic, as Scrooge’s new-found joy spills over into cries of ‘a merry Christmas’ to strangers in the street, and the narrator’s final words expand the ideal family of the Cratchits to include his readers past, present and yet to come: ‘God bless Us, Every One!’ That’s an optimistic and upbeat ending, but it may be significant that the carol is being misquoted: it’s not ‘God bless you merry gentleman!’ but ‘God rest you merry, gentlemen’. Not a bad change if you’re looking for some loose change, but one that warns how easily the heart-warming reassurance ‘Let nothing you dismay’ could turn into a form of indifference towards the poor and dispossessed. After all, the cold little boy never reappears in the story. It is as if Dickens saw in him the first warning signs of his own fate as a novelist, offering a Christmas carol to listeners who could end up either ignoring it or failing to answer its appeal. ‘God rest you merry … Let nothing you dismay’: one wonders what Dickens would have made of the regular sight in London or New York of happy audiences leaving the movie theater after a seasonal showing of Scrooged or The Muppet Christmas Carol and carefully stepping over the beggars on the sidewalk.
Robert Douglas-Fairhurst is Fellow and Tutor in English at Magdalen College, Oxford. He was educated at Pembroke College, Cambridge, and Princeton University (Procter Visiting Fellow, 1991-1992), held a Junior Research Fellowship at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge in 1995-1996, and from 1996 to 2002 was Fellow and Director of Studies in English at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. He is the author of Victorian Afterlives: the Shaping of Influence in Nineteenth-Century Literature (OUP, 2002), general editor of the Anthem Press series Nineteenth-Century Studies, and editor of the Tennyson Research Bulletin. He also writes regularly for the Daily Telegraph, Observer and Times Literary Supplement. He is currently editing Great Expectations for OUP and researching a book on Victorian magic.