Professor John Sutherland considers how Dickens’s A Christmas Carol engages with Victorian attitudes towards poverty, labour and the Christmas spirit.
By Dr. John Sutherland / 03.14.2014
Emeritus Lord Northcliffe Professor of Modern English Literature
University College London
Prince Albert – the newly installed husband of Queen Victoria – is popularly associated with institutionalising the British family Christmas, an institution which is still with us. It was Albert, for example, who brought from his native Germany the tannenbaum, or Christmas Tree. 1841 is the normally given as the date for this happy importation. The Christmas tree replaced the traditional British ‘yule log’ – wood designed to give winter warmth, not something to deck with pretty lights, fairies, favours and (round its base) presents. Both the tannenbaum and the Yule log (along with mistletoe) were incorporated into Christian festivity from pre-Christian pagan rituals associated with the seasonal turn of the year – the rebirth of the land and the green gods. There is no Biblical warrant for Christ’s day of birth being 25 December.
Shortly after the arrival of the Christmas tree into the British parlour, Dickens, with A Christmas Carol, institutionalised what one could call the modern ‘spirit of Christmas’. Dickens subtitled his story ‘A Ghost Story for Christmas’. The ghosts are imported from folklore and legend, not the Christian gospels. The famous spirit of Christmas designed by the artist John Leech for the first edition of A Christmas Carol clearly draws on classic pagan iconography:
John Leech’s illustration of the ghost of the paganistic Christmas Present from the first edition of A Christmas Carol, 1843. / A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost Story of Christmas, to give the work its full title, was the first, and the most popular, of Dickens’s series of Christmas books. The volume, published by Chapman and Hall on 19 December 1843, was an immediate success and the initial print run of 6,000 copies sold out within a matter of days. Dickens had hoped the book would clear his debts with Chapman and Hall but the lavish production, including four woodcuts and four colour plates by John Leech, meant Dickens only made £230 from the first printing. Worse was to follow when a plagiarized version of the book appeared in January 1844. Dickens took the publishers of the pirated edition to court but, even though he won the case, he found himself liable for costs of around £700 when the guilty party declared bankruptcy. His bitterness at the whole affair resurfaced years later when he came to describe the labyrinthine and corrupt workings of the Court of Chancery in Bleak House (1853).
Dickens had warm memories of his own childhood Christmases and, now the father of a young family (as was Prince Albert), made the annual event a merry holiday. Feasting, games, and domestic dramas were the order of the ‘twelve days of Christmas’ in the 1840s Dickens household.
Money lending, scratching pens and ghosts
A Christmas Carol opens with Ebenezer Scrooge in his chilly ‘counting house’ on Christmas Eve (Stave 1). Outside London, the ‘great wen’ is shrouded in filthy brown fog. It is the ‘hungry forties’. The 1840s saw huge distress among the working classes and mass starvation in Ireland. ‘Chartism (a working-class reformist movement) raised the fearful possibility of revolution. It was a nervous time.
Opposite Scrooge’s door a dying woman is sitting in the gutter – ghosts of rich businessmen dancing around her. It is they who have brought her to this sad pass.
John Leech’s illustration of a dying woman outside Scrooge’s door, surrounded by the ghosts of rich businessmen, from the first edition of A Christmas Carol, 1843.
Since his partner Marley’s death, seven years previously, Scrooge is the sole proprietor Scrooge & Marley. He is a money lender. He lends money, but he is not inclined to part with money. Two gentlemen, soliciting charitable donations, are dismissed with an angry ‘Bah! Humbug!’. Another visitor, his nephew, injudiciously wishes his uncle a merry Christmas: ‘Merry Christmas!’, explodes Scrooge, ‘every idiot who goes about with “Merry Christmas” on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding!’ The nephew, like the two gentlemen, is ‘humbugged’ off (Stave 1).
At the end of his 12-hour day Scrooge dismisses his clerk, Bob Cratchit. Cratchit – his name evokes a scratching pen – is a ‘scrivener’. Before typewriters and photocopying machines, the necessary copying of business and legal documents was done long hand. The typewriter girl was 40 years in the future. Cratchit has one day’s holiday a year, and earns 15 shillings (75p) per six-day week: half a crown a day. On it he supports a large, happy, but chronically hard-up family. The family favourite is Tiny Tim, a little ‘cripple’ boy (on his father’s shoulder, in the illustration below):
Illustration of Tiny Tim with his father, Bob Cratchit, from Dickens’s adaptation of A Christmas Carol for public readings, 1868. / In 1853 Charles Dickens adapted the hugely popular A Christmas Carol for a touring public performance. For his performances, Dickens used special copies of the texts that had extra-wide margins to allow space to make alterations and add stage directions. This book is a printed version of a reading copy, published in 1868. It may either derive from an original reading copy, or have been transcribed on behalf of the publishing firm. It was published in Boston, US, by Fields, Osgood & Co, the publisher who sponsored Dickens’s American reading tour in 1867.
That Christmas Eve Scrooge, alone in his cold empty house is destined to be haunted. First by his partner, Marley, doomed to wander forever as penance for his hard-heartedness.
Dickens’s public performances
Dickens’s first Christmas Carol performance lasted around three hours and was held at City Hall, Birmingham, to a crowd of 2000. Initially the performances were purely charitable, but by the end of the 1850s Dickens began to accept payment and increased the number of performances. They proved exceedingly popular and enraptured audiences in both the UK and America. Altering expression, accent and gesture, Dickens played the characters so well that he was said to possess them.
As well as his first, A Christmas Carol was Dickens’s last performance, on 15 March 1870.
John Leech’s illustration of a Scrooge visited by the ghost of his partner, Marley, from the first edition of A Christmas Carol, 1843.
Then, overnight, the miser is visited by three spirits of Christmas Past, Present, and Future. In the last visitation, Scrooge is shown his own gravestone and realises the worthlessness of a life devoted to money-grubbing.
Dickens, ghosts and Christmas
A Christmas Carol concerns a cold-hearted miser, Ebeneezer Scrooge, who is visited on Christmas Eve by the ghost of his dead partner, Jacob Marley. During the night three further spirits – the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future – also appear to Scrooge, each holding a mirror to his behaviour and highlighting the unhappiness resulting from his misanthropy. The Ghost of Christmas Future, the most sinister of the three spectres, also reveals the gloomy consequences for Scrooge, and those like Bob Cratchit and his son Tiny Tim whose livelihoods depend upon him, should he fail to mend his ways.
In addition to Scrooge’s own plight the story also addresses wider social issues, particularly in the scene where the Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge the two children Ignorance and Want: ‘From the foldings of its robe, it brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt down at its feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment’ (Stave III). Both children are the direct result of the poverty afflicting much of Victorian society. Dickens was a fierce defender of children, and took every opportunity to highlight the disastrous implications of neglect, financial hardship and a lack of education on their wellbeing.
Dickens had written about misanthropes, Christmas and the supernatural before in the Gabriel Grub episode of The Pickwick Papers (1837), but it was A Christmas Carol which truly caught the public imagination. The associations between Christmas, the supernatural and Dickens have lasted ever since. Names and dialogue from the story have also entered the language. Those who dislike Christmas are given the name ‘Scrooge’, but they do of course have the option of replying with Scrooge’s vehement ‘Bah, humbug!’ to any call for seasonal good cheer.
John Leech’s illustration of a Scrooge at his gravestone with the ghost of Christmas Future from the first edition of A Christmas Carol, 1843.
Scrooge wakes up – it is Christmas morning and he is a changed man. From now on he will be good-hearted: good-hearted most of all to the Cratchit family and Tiny Tim, to whom he will be a year-round Father Christmas.
How a society treats its children
How a society treats its children, Dickens believed, is the true test of that society’s moral worth. His religious beliefs were complicated, as are most people’s. But very simply, he favoured the New Testament over the Old. He wrote a version of the gospels for his own children, The Life of our Lord, four years after A Christmas Carol. Dickens, we can assume from the centrality of childish innocence in his fiction, was particularly moved by Christ’s injunction: ‘Except ye … become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven’. Christmas celebrates the birth of a child. So does all Dickens’s great fiction: not least A Christmas Carol.
The first stirrings of the tale can be found in a visit Dickens made to Manchester a month before he began writing. One of the great orators of his time (only fragments of his eloquence, alas, survive) he spoke at the city’s Athenaeum on 5 October.
It was a memorable evening for those present, and those who read accounts of the speech in the next day’s papers. As Dickens’s biographer, Michael Slater, describes
Dickens dwelt on the terrible sights he had seen among the juvenile population in London’s jails and doss-houses and stressed the desperate need for educating the poor. This occasion seems to have put into his mind the idea for a [Christmas Eve tale] which should help to open the hearts of the prosperous and powerful towards the poor and powerless but which should also bring centrally into play the theme of memory that, as we have seen, was always so strongly associated with Christmas for him.
The Athenaeum speech was also an opening shot in his campaign, which bore fruit eight years later, to get a public library for the adult working classes in the city. Nor were children forgotten. They too needed the printed word. In the early 1840s Dickens took a particular interest in ‘ragged schools’. As he described them, in an article in 1846:
The name implies the purpose. They who are too ragged, wretched, filthy, and forlorn, to enter any other place: who could gain admission into no charity school, and who would be driven from any church door; are invited to come in here, and find some people not depraved, willing to teach them something, and show them some sympathy, and stretch a hand out, which is not the iron hand of Law, for their correction.
Illustration of ragged school pupils in torn and tattered clothing from Ragged School Rhymes, 1851.
Alexander MacLagan, a Scottish poet and lyricist, wrote and compiled this collection of songs and poems themed around ‘ragged’ schools. Ragged schools were institutions that provided free education for the poorest children at a time when it was not provided by the British government.
Who was MacLagan’s intended audience?
On the one hand, Ragged School Rhymes may have been assembled for ragged school pupils. Composed in a simple form, the songs and poems are easy to recite and suitable for children with basic literacy skills. Their subjects teach upright moral qualities such as thankfulness and hard work.
On the other hand, it may have been aimed at potential patrons as a giftbook that promotes the ragged schools’ work and principles. In the Preface MacLagan writes that he intends to ‘enlist the sympathy of a few warms hearts in the benevolent and truly Christian movement’. Publishing books of fiction or poetry was a common way to raise funds for charitable institutions, such as ragged schools.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s support
Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s familiarity with the ragged school movement stemmed from her sister’s work at a girls’ ragged school. In a similar vein to MacLagan’s publication, Barrett Browning strove to raise support and funds for the cause by publishing ‘A Plea for the Ragged Schools of London’ in 1854. Its influence can also be traced in ‘The Cry of the Children’, an appeal against England’s reliance on child labour.
Charles Dickens’s visit to a ragged school
Throughout his life Charles Dickens advocated free public education for all – in common with the central principle of the ragged school movement. He was vocal in his belief that better access to education would relieve poverty and petty crime.
In late 1843 Dickens visited Field Lane Ragged School, London. Face-to-face with children living in abject poverty, he was appalled by the ‘frightful neglect by the State’ (Daily News letter) that could lead to such disparity between rich and poor. The visit inspired A Christmas Carol, written later that same year. Dickens continued to bring the public’s attention to the ragged school movement, contributing a letter to The Daily News and an article to Household Words in 1846 and 1852, respectively.
Charles Dickens’s ‘letter on ragged schooling’ from the Daily News, February 1846.
‘Ragged’ schools were charitable organisations that aimed to provide free education to poor and destitute children in 19th-century Britain. They were generally situated in improvised accommodation in poor metropolitan areas, and included only the facilities that could be easily begged or borrowed.
Charles Dickens here describes his 1843 visit to the ragged school in Field Lane, Clerkenwell – also the site in which he had set Fagin’s den of child pickpockets in Oliver Twist (1838). Remarking that London is a host to a ‘vast hopeless nursery of ignorance, misery and vice; a breeding place for the hulks and jails’, he laments the ‘frightful neglect by the State of those … whom it might, as easily and less expensively, instruct and save’. While calling the curriculum in ragged schools ‘very imperfect’, he notes that for even the worst behaved of the children ‘something had already been done’. He implores those with funds to support the ragged schools, as he himself would go on to do both financially and in his writings. Dickens’s visit to the ragged school directly influenced A Christmas Carol (1843), inspiring the book’s central themes of poverty, education, miserliness, ignorance and redemption.
Industry, poverty and utilitarianism
Manchester – the ‘workshop of the world’ – was famous not merely for its industry but the utilitarian philosophy that drove it. It may not be clear what Scrooge’s line of business is. But his beliefs, before his change of heart, are crystal clear – pure Manchester.
‘Are there no workhouses?’ he asks, when the two gentleman ask for a charitable donation. If the poor die (like the poor woman outside his house) it will, he says, solve ‘the surplus population’ problem (Stave 3; Stave 1). Concern with over-population had been stimulated by the stern philosophy of Thomas Robert Malthus who foresaw catastrophe for England if its masses were not ‘checked’ by famine, war, or disease. For the more thoughtful, the anxiety was fostered by the census which, since 1821, had been counting how many inhabitants there were in the country. In 1841 the figure was approaching 29 million – there were serious doubts as to whether British agriculture could feed them, something which led to the repeal of the Corn Laws, in 1846, allowing cereals to be imported from the New World.
Malthus foresaw catastrophe for England if its masses were not ‘checked’ by famine, war, or disease. From An essay on the principle of population, 1803.
The 1840s were not merely ‘hungry’ but hard hearted. It was a philosophy embodied in Ebenezer Scrooge – not merely a solitary miser (like, for example, George Eliot’s Silas Marner) but the ‘spirit of the age’ in human (and, arguably, inhuman) form. Hard heads, hard hearts, good business. Soft heads and soft hearts lead to the bankruptcy court, Scrooge would have said. Dickens disagreed.
Children worked, like slaves, in Manchester factories (as Michael Slater points out, the chimneys in the background of John Leech’s illustration of the destitute children ‘Ignorance and Want’ are more reminiscent of Manchester’s industrial landscape than of London streets). Six months after A Christmas Carol was published the 1844 Factories Act decreed, however, that 9-13 year olds could only work nine hours a day, six days a week. This was regarded as a humane reform.
Why were they wanted for this work? Children were cheap labour but, more importantly, their fingers were small and dexterous. But the machines were dangerous. There were crippled Tiny Tims by the hundred in Manchester.
John Leech’s illustration of the children ‘Ignorance and Want’ with industrial chimneys in the background, from the first edition of A Christmas Carol, 1843.
Published in 1840, Michael Armstrong, the factory boy depicted life for children in a Manchester factory as horrific and unnatural.
The spread of mechanisation in manufacturing from the late 1700s created unparalleled economic growth in Britain. Textile output for example increased in volume by around fifteen times between 1800 and 1900 and employed thousands of people in highly-mechanized cotton mills.
The success of the ‘factory system’ nevertheless came at a tragic human cost. Children were exploited for their size and nimbleness and were often forced to work twelve hours a day in highly dangerous conditions for little pay. In 1832 novelist Frances Trollope conducted a visit to Manchester to examine the condition of children employed in the textile mills there. During her investigations Trollope consulted with campaigners of factory reform who were able to describe the plight of the young boys and girls involved in the cotton trade.
In 1840 Trollope began to publish her novel Michael Armstrong: Factory Boy in monthly parts, a story of a factory boy who is at first rescued by a wealthy benefactor but who is later returned to the mills. The central aim of Trollope’s work was to both expose the misery of factory life and to suggest how private philanthropy alone was not enough to solve the widespread misery of factory employment. The images shown here are illustrated by French artist Auguste Hervieu who accompanied Trollope on her visits to the northern mill towns.
The modern reader – of whatever age – is less sensitive to sentimentality than our Victorian forebears. At Dickens’s readings from his novels, audiences would regularly be moved to open tears by, for example, the death of Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop, or the murder of Nancy in Oliver Twist. One suspects that many Victorian tears were shed over the foreseen (but happily forestalled) death of Tiny Tim.
Dickens designed the externals of his book with the meticulous care he applied to its contents. It would be, he instructed his publishers, a handsome five-shilling production: ‘Brown-salmon fine-ribbed cloth, blocked in blind and gold on front; in gold on the spine … all edges gilt’. Dickens spared no expense. John Leech’s half-dozen illustrations should be coloured, he instructed. The result was a book whose production costs, and relatively high price (five shillings), meant that this most popular of works returned, on its first 5,000-copy print run, small profit for Dickens.
The carefully designed and plush front cover to the first edition of A Christmas Carol, 1843.
The first edition shot off the bookshop shelves even before Christmas Day 1843. And A Christmas Carol has sold massively ever since. It is the most filmed, and TV-adapted of his works. And, one suspects, as long as there is Christmas, there will be Dickens’s wonderful tale alongside it and Tiny Tim’s benediction, ‘God Bless Us, Everyone’.