God bless us, every one: University Library exhibition of Dickens' numerous Christmas tales

Posted by mjs76 at Nov 24, 2010 03:20 PM |
Think of Christmas and you think of Charles Dickens. It’s unavoidable. Though much of Dickens’ work is iconic in its own way, A Christmas Carol stands out as the sine qua non of Yuletide stories, not just through its familiarity via endless adaptations for stage and screen, but also because so much of what we consider ‘traditional’ about Christmas actually stems from Dickens’ ideas.

The Victorians invented the modern concept of Christmas – cards, trees, the lot – and Dickens, as the great 19th century populariser of concepts, was at the forefront of this invention. If Victorian society had, en masse, submitted a grant proposal to the HFFRC* to develop Christmas, there is no doubt that Charles Dickens would have been named as the Principal Investigator.

Which is why Dickens is the subject of the current exhibition in the basement of the University of Leicester’s David Wilson Library. A range of books and journals are on public display, from first editions through to modern interpretations, and what this shows is that Charles Dickens’ Christmas canon extended far beyond A Christmas Carol.

In fact he wrote five Christmas novellas between 1843 and 1848, then more than a dozen short stories and collaborations about Christmas between 1850 and his death in 1870. The festive season features in several of his other novels too, from The Pickwick Papers right through to The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

It is clear that, far from A Christmas Carol overshadowing his other work through unfair popular awareness, the tale of Scrooge, Bob Cratchitt and Tiny Tim is actually emblematic of Dickens’ oeuvre and merely the most prominent example of a recurring, almost obsessive theme within his work.

Bah, humbug!

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A Christmas Carol (John Dicks, 1880s) - from the University Library collection

But for all his sentimentality, Dickens was no moist-eyed nostalgic pining for some simpler, jollier, pre-Cromwellian time of song, dance and good food. He was a social commentator who saw the inherent bonhomie and largesse of the modern, 19th century Christmas as a vehicle for philanthropy and a greater understanding among the higher echelons of society about the struggles of the poor. The recurrent theme in his Christmas tales, most of which feature some sort of supernatural intervention, is not Christmas per se but the social benefits of Christmas as a temporary leveller of society when a day’s freedom from work and (potentially) hardship can unite mankind.

Scrooge isn’t just tight-fisted, he’s a wealthy gentleman born and raised in well-off, middle-class society, who has hoarded his wealth and thereby squandered his chance to aid his fellow man. This point is emphasised early on by Ebenezer’s refusal to contribute to a public collection by two well-dressed gentlemen who visit his office:

At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge,” said the gentleman, taking up a pen, “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?” asked Scrooge.
“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.
“And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”
“They are. Still,” returned the gentleman, “I wish I could say they were not.”
“The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?” said Scrooge.
“Both very busy, sir.”
“Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,” said Scrooge. “I’m very glad to hear it.”

And if that was too subtle for the readers, Marley’s ghost lays it on with a trowel:

Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode! Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me!”

It could be argued that the diametric opposite of Ebenezer Scrooge is not the poor-but-happy Bob Cratchitt but his own cheerily warm-hearted nephew Fred who pays a visit at the start of the story to wish his uncle a merry Christmas. Midway through the tale, the Ghost of Christmas Present takes Scrooge to Fred’s home where he not only witnesses the joyful fun of his nephew’s family but also sees that Fred refuses to bear his miserable old uncle any ill-will. And at the story’s end, though Scrooge sends the largest turkey in the shop round to chez Cratchitt, it is to Fred’s house that he travels to share Christmas dinner.

In warning us to not be Scrooges, Dickens holds up the less-iconic Fred as the ideal of goodness on whom we should model ourselves. Though perhaps it is his very goodness which renders him so much less memorable (and interesting) than his uncle.

Beyond A Christmas Carol

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The Chimes (Chapman and Hall, 1845) - from the University Library collection

Dickens followed A Christmas Carol with The Chimes, a distinctly darker tale of Christmas suffering among the poor in which the central character climbs a church tower to be told by sprites that he has fallen to his death, after which he is forced to watch the suffering of his family through the years. With its themes of alcoholism, prostitution and suicide, this one is unlikely to ever be turned into a musical** but it was a popular success, even if some critics found it overly didactic.

After the grim despair of The Chimes, Dickens went in the opposite direction the following year with The Cricket on the Hearth, probably the second best-known of the five Christmas books. In this one the social commentary takes a back seat to sentimental cheeriness and fairytale happiness and there is even a miserly employer who gains Yuletide redemption at the end. Another bestseller was assured.

The Battle of Life, the only non-fantastical story in the quintet, was followed by The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain which preaches forgiveness for past wrongs. Though successful at the time, neither of these is much discussed today except by Dickens scholars. You can see examples of all five books in the Library display, together with some of the Christmas tales subsequently written by Dickens for the popular journals which he edited such as All the Year Round (see previous Newsblog story). These included collaborations with other authors as well as solo pieces.

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All the Year Round: Christmas number 1859 - from the University Library collection

Throughout his literary career, Charles Dickens never let go of the idea that peace on Earth, goodwill to all men was a message that could have social – as well as spiritual – significance, and he used the guaranteed popularity of his work to push that message home. To the Victorians a brand new Christmas tale from Dickens was an eagerly-awaited part of the festive season and an intrinsic contemporary tradition – very much like The Morecambe and Wise Christmas Special in the 1970s or an extra-long episode of EastEnders or Doctor Who today.

The University Library’s Dickens exhibition is accessible to the general public whenever the Library is staffed, which is 9.00am to 9.00pm Monday to Friday, 9.00am to 5.00pm on Saturdays, 12 noon to 6.00pm on Sundays. Please ask at reception for access through the barrier.

*Heartwarming Family Festivities Research Council
**Incredibly, according to Wikipedia, there actually was a one-off musical production in 1992!