The Victorian Christmas book

Think of a Christmas book, and there’s just one that springs to mind, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Written in 1843, it still resonates 180 years later. Professor Dinah Birch explains its power in a forthcoming lecture at BRLSI. Words by Emma Clegg

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, first published on 19 December 1843, had sold out by Christmas Eve that year. For the intervening 180 years it has never been out of print, and the story has been adapted multiple times for film, stage and opera. In fact a December without a production of A Christmas Carol somewhere close is unthinkable…

This does lead you to wonder what is the everlasting appeal of this story, why it has not dated, and why it continues to feel as dramatic and relevant today. Someone eminently qualified to answer those questions is Professor Dinah Birch, Emeritus Professor at the University of Liverpool, who is giving a lecture on Dickens and The Victorian Christmas Book at BRLSI on 13 December.

“One of the reasons for the appeal of A Christmas Carol is that it is extraordinarily adaptable to different points of emphasis, firstly from a psychological point of view. The reason for Scrooge’s transformation is that when he is visited by the first of the three spirits, the Ghost of Christmas Past, it takes him back to his childhood, and he is able for the first time to recognise that childhood trauma, and its consequences. Scrooge has become Scrooge because of the way he was treated as a child – and it’s when he sees that and feels that flood of compassion for himself, that his transformation can begin.

“Alongside that, there is the political dimension. Written in the early 1840s, this was a time of real poverty division, which Dickens writes about in this story and elsewhere, between the rich and the poor. And with this comes the failures of understanding where the rich have cut themselves off from their human connection with those who are dispossessed and unfortunate. So the story is making a point about industrialisation and commercialisation, and is making an appeal for humanity.”

The book also has strong connections with classic storytelling traditions. “Dickens so brilliantly exploits the narrative traditions – it’s a Christmas book, and it picks on that strand within European folk traditions of an association between Christmas and the supernatural. So the narrative touches on darkness as the folk tradition does, alongside a celebration of Christmas. The story starts with a dead man, Jacob Marley, but at the same time includes an enormously appealing element of the festive celebration.”

The Victorian revival of Christmas was a dramatic cultural change in the 1840s. Before Victoria came to the throne in 1837, nobody in Britain had heard of Santa Claus and most weren’t given a holiday from work. Victoria had always decorated a tree with her family at Christmas, a custom that had been introduced by her Hanoverian ancestors, and was taken up with relish by Albert. These traditions were then adopted by the populace, particularly by the increasingly wealthy middle classes, creating a wholesome, family time of year, and encouraging the charitable idea of giving money and gifts to the poor.

A Christmas Carol, published just six years after the Queen’s ascension to the throne, was woven around the popularity of these ideas. “The 1840s, when A Christmas Carol was written, was a time of political unrest and of poverty when there were big gaps between the rich and the poor, but these were also times of potential rebellion. The year 1848 – just a few years later, when Dickens was still publishing Christmas books – was the year of the European revolutions. So there was a strong emphasis within the middle classes, mostly middle-class people buying Christmas books, on the values of the family, on the value of personal benevolence rather than political revolution as a way of changing things. And of course A Christmas Carol is full of the advocation of charity.”
The issue of poverty was one that Dickens had experienced in his life as a child when his father was sent to Marshalsea Prison in Southwark for not paying his debts, and Dickens was sent at the age of 12 to work in a shoe polish factory where he worked long hours attaching labels on pots of blacking for six shillings a week. After his father paid off his debts Dickens was able to go back to school, but his experience of poverty in those early years of his life never left him. And at the time of writing A Christmas Carol, Dickens was an established author, but was in desperate need of money to feed his growing family and support his established lifestyle.

“A Christmas Carol was borne out of Dickens’ own problems at that particular moment in his life. He needed to make money and Martin Chuzzlewit, which he was writing, wasn’t going well. He was really worried about money, so writing this Christmas book was a way to try to solve that problem.”

His pecuniary concerns affected all aspects of his life. “Dickens started to worry not only about money, but also about the fact that he was so worried about money, and he was starting to feel very unsympathetic towards people who were dependent upon him. He was also anxious that this was corroding his own sense of compassion and moral identity. One consequence of that – and I do think this is important in the enduring popularity of A Christmas Carol – is that he doesn’t really make Scrooge a monster. Scrooge is a terrible old curmudgeon, but he makes you laugh. In the way he responds to Marley’s ghost, you are with him, you are on his side, and he can make you laugh even while he’s terrified. And because you’re on his side, you are engaged with his conversion. You care about his redemption.”

Dinah’s talk will explore the lasting significance of A Christmas Carol in the context of other books that Dickens wrote for the Christmas market. “Dickens was struck by the effect that A Christmas Carol had on the way people thought about Christmas. He went on to write four further Christmas books, The Chimes, Cricket on the Hearth, The Battle of Life and Haunted Man, and they are not without power, but they don’t really come near A Christmas Carol. They do have this central theme of the possibility of redemption, of the idea that people can change, and that was so important to Dickens – things could look very bleak, but there was always the possibility for change and growth. That’s what they all have in common.”

Dinah describes the quality of Dickens’ prose. “A Christmas Carol is so brilliantly written – the texture of the prose, its energy, exuberance, the way it changes gear so effortlessly, between comedy and pathos and appeal. Very few writers can bring that off.”
“Dickens was such a theatrical writer and he was so much engaged with the culture of theatre that he wrote it not as a play, but you can see why it translates into the various adaptations so easily. The reason for the book’s success is that all the various elements contribute to the whole, coming together in a really perfect piece of fiction.”

Dickens and the Victorian Christmas Book, a lecture by Professor Dinah Birch, is at BRLSI, 16–18 Queen Square, Bath (or watch online), on 13 December at 7.30pm.