‘I wish to be left alone’ said Scrooge. Since you ask me what I wish, gentleman that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at Christmas, and I can’t afford to make idle people merry’. – A Christmas Carol
Ebenezer Scoorge is a miser and Christmas-hating protagonist in the Victorian book by Charles Dickens called ‘A Christmas Carol’. If you don’t already know the story, we have a classic tale of someone lacking in kindness, which is even harsher when it is told to us during the festive season of goodwill and good tidings to all men. Dickens created a character of pity, scorn and loneliness, but also one where he is able to tease out compassion and redemption by the end of the story on Christmas Eve. The themes of this story are in the forefront of my thoughts this festive season, but also due to my participation in a local pantomime run by local people for the community in early December.
Charles Dickens wrote the book in under six weeks in 1843, which was then published in time for Christmas. The novel gives us an insight into the poverty and urban living conditions in the Victorian ages. It is reported that Dickens was horrified after reading the government report: ‘The Parliamentary Commission on the Employment of Women and Children’ which showed the horrific conditions in factories. Dickens was moved after reading the report and visited similar poor conditions in Manchester. The result was the idea to write ‘A Christmas Carol’, and the most he felt he could do was to make the horror of the report more known by writing a story… “Something that would strike the heaviest blow in my power”. This was the conception of his now renowned timeless social and moral human story of ‘A Christmas Carol’.
“At this festive season of the year, Mr Scrooge, … it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”
“Are there no prisons?”
“Plenty of prisons…”
“And the Union workhouses.” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”
“Both very busy, sir…”
“Those who are badly off must go there.”
“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”
“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.” – A Christmas Carol
I remember seeing on television the story in a film of Scrooge as a child in Trinidad and Tobago in the 1970/80s. I even remembered miserly persons called a “Scrooge”, and so the story has a wider readership and context than a Christmas story. However, the book was suggested a couple of years ago for our book club and therefore I was happy to finally read this classic story. I didn’t realise the meaning of the simple anti-Christmas term “Bah Humbug!” until I read ‘A Christmas Carol’.
The other characters in the book are interesting and add the element of wonder and awe to what is essentially a ghost story – the business partner Jacob Marley, the three spirits of Christmas past, present and future, the Cratchit family and Tiny Tim are like a conscience for the mean, bitter and solitary Scrooge. The spirits take Scrooge on a journey through his sad life and display his obsession with money and callousness, but also with some remedial twists like Bob Cratchit still toasting to Scrooge although he is a mean and demanding employer. The spirits are there to have Scrooge’s life flash by him highlighting his wrongdoings, but also the spirit of the future brings the perceived truth of this own demise…and death should he not change his wicked ways. This is just my short synopsis but ‘A Christmas Carol’ has the recurring theme of compassion and redemption that can help us to lead better lives, especially in a Christmas story during the wintery December month.
This is the even-handed dealing of the world!” he said. “There is nothing on which it is so hard as poverty; and there is nothing it professes to condemn with such severity as the pursuit of wealth!” – A Christmas Carol
There is a lot written about the book and I am lucky to stumble upon a whole page dedicated to it on the British Library’s Discovering Literature website here. There is much to learn from the book about the historic Victorian way of life, the issues faced with publishing the first copy, and the importance of the book in cultural terms. It is just as popular as it was then as it is now!
Dickens apparently was not protected by copyright laws, as there was no copyright legislation at the time to protect creative works. His novel was copied and performed by theatres within weeks, and there were various versions of the story being circulated at the time. It is mentioned in this Osgoode Law School blog post that he was annoyed but also one of the first advocating for copyright laws to protect creative works. You can also see how profitable the show was for its’ time by the Theatre playbills, which are available to view digitally. What is remarkable to this day is the beautiful illustration that were commissioned and created by John Leech in the first version of the book. They are still splendid and are able to light up social media to this day. Like Dickens’ story itself, these playbills and illustrations are available for reuse without fear of copyright infringement. I do hope he was able to get some financial benefits at the time for his work.
“Bah!” said Scrooge, “Humbug!” He had so heated himself with rapid walking in the fog and frost, this nephew of Scrooge’s that he was all in a glow; his face was ruddy and handsome; his eyes sparkled, and his breath smoked again. “Christmas a humbug, uncle!” said Scrooge’s nephew. “You don’t mean that, I am sure.”
It has been an extra special experience this month to be involved in a pantomime of ‘A Christmas Carol’ with a local volunteer group, Panda Pantomime Productions. Pantomime has a long history of fun and informal theatre. This year we aimed to have four performances on the streets and in local venues – I only took part initially as a payback to Tom, who had helped me with fundraising musical entertainment in the past. I was happy for him to ask me to host the pantomime in my neighbourhood but didn’t expect to actually take part in it!. We started rehearsing about eight weeks ago to a very uninspiring ready-made script but thanks to the creative writing skills of Theresa – she was able to adapt the story to our times, local area and topical issues that we can all relate to. Luckily there are no copyright issues too! In the end, I am really proud of being able to participate in one of the highlights of my year.
We had brilliantly engaged audiences, both children and adults, and lots of great feedback and fundraising at the performances. Local businesses donated raffle prizes, the council gave us a little support, venues opened their doors to us, and a big thanks to Audi Car Showroom in Chingford for their donations and time given by dedicated staff in the pantomime. It was a great way to challenge my non-existent acting experience and also to get to know a whole new group of lovely people. I was able to live, breathe and absorb the true story of ‘A Christmas Carol’ in a contemporary setting.
‘The Christmas Carol’ is one of the stories that were being shown as Pantomime across the country when I checked on Twitter. Pantomime is a great way to experience theatre in the colder months of the year and is great to keep the venues profitable – it is reported that 2.7 million tickets were sold annually (BBC Source). I also still have much admiration for the team at PwC who started their corporate pantomime in the 1980s and still put it on annually by their staff, for their staff and communities. Over the years, I have also attended a few excellent Pantomimes at the Hackney Empire, where you are able to get value for money with great actors in a fabulous historic East End theatre.
This December, in classic coincidence, the BBC aired on the run-up to Christmas the screening of a three-part episode of ‘A Christmas Carol’. It was great to compare it to the books, and also our low-budget version in pantomime. I liked it all the same and it was extra interesting to see all the characters played in different ways by professional actors, but also to a bigger budget with special effects, elaborate costumes, makeup and in Dickensian architectural scenes in London. The use of a mixed-race family for the Cratchits, contemporary issues and dark atmosphere created a lot of conversation on social media. I only recently realised that there is apparently a good version of this classic story by the makers of the Muppet Show. Perhaps I can look at that version another time.
“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach!” – A Christmas Carol
And so with this moral tale, there is a spiritual conversion in the ending with Scrooge finding a second chance having examined ‘an intimate inspection of his soul’…bringing about regret and redemption for his past misdemeanours and miserliness. In the month of December, this Dickensian story will be around for a long time yet to entertain and warn us of the human condition. It is a great reminder that it is best to live in the present with goodwill, compassion and good cheer to others. This is a festive happy ending that will guide us in whatever time lies ahead.
He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us!
And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!