Dickens, Scrooge remain popular holiday subjects

"A Christmas Carol" celebrates its 175th anniversary this year
Alastair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge in Scrooge (1951) aka A Christmas Carol, directed by Brian Desmond H.
Alastair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge in Scrooge (1951) aka A Christmas Carol, directed by Brian Desmond H.

People who know Charles Dickens know Ebenezer Scrooge.

The miserly, miserable Scrooge is the central character of Dickens’ celebrated holiday story, “A Christmas Carol.” The old cheapskate entertains three ghosts on Christmas Eve, endures an evening full of shock treatment and finally achieves spirited redemption in the final stave.

The famous tale celebrates its 175th anniversary this year.

Readers may not be as familiar with Toby “Trotty” Veck, John Peerybingle and Professor Redlaw — principals in Dickens’ other Christmas stories. After Charles published “Carol” in 1843, success and public popularity inspired him to write four other short novels for the holiday season.

While the “Carol” has survived and prospered, the other tales have mostly remained out of the yule limelight.

  • “The Chimes” was Dickens’ second Christmas yarn, published in 1844. Toby Veck, a poor working man who loses his faith in human nature, is Dickens’ chief subject.
  • “The Cricket on the Hearth” came next, in 1845. Honest John Peerybingle hosts the titular cricket by the fireside, a guardian angel for the Peerybingle family.
  • “The Battle for Life: A Love Story” attracted more Dickens readers in 1846, some for the twist romantic ending.
  • “The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain,” in which chemistry professor Redlaw broods over wrongs and grief from his past, was the 1848 project.

There are reasons Scrooge has become a Christmas icon and John Peerybingle has not, according to college literary professors. And still more reasons why Dickens’ works endure 148 years after the Englander’s death in 1870.

Joel Brattin, professor of literature at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, Mass. and former president of the U.S.-based Dickens Society, said quality is the key. While Dickens’ other four Christmas novellas were popular with candlelight crowds of the 1840s, modern readers have never warmed up to the tales.

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Brattin puts it simply: “They’re not as good as ‘A Christmas Carol,'” he said, during an interview conducted in 2009.

All the Christmas books were side projects.

“He was a very busy writer,” Brattin said. ” ‘A Christmas Carol’ was something he conceived of and wrote while he was in the middle of writing another long novel. ‘Martin Chuzzlewit’ was well under way before he ever considered writing ‘A Christmas Carol’ and he had to keep writing installments of ‘Martin Chuzzlewit’ while he did ‘A Christmas Carol,’ and that’s the case for the other Christmas books, too. All those were while in the midst of other novels, too. All the Dickens novels were not only published serially, they were written serially. So he’s often busy working on two and three projects at the same time.”

Companion piece

Brattin won’t even choose a favorite among the four lesser-known books. But he will recommend the Christmas piece in Dickens’ first novel, 1837’s “The Pickwick Papers,” as a companion to the famous “Carol.”

“It’s the story of Gabriel Grubb,” Brattin said. “It’s really an ancestor rather than a descendant of ‘A Christmas Carol.’ It’s a Christmas story about a misanthropic sexton, a grave digger who sees spirits after having drunk a great deal of spirits and changes his attitude. It’s a brilliant little piece. It’s only one chapter in ‘The Pickwick Papers’ but it really has a lot of the seeds Dickens develops into Scrooge and his conversion in ‘A Christmas Carol.’ “

Dr. May Caroline Chan, associate professor of English at the College of Saint Rose in Albany, makes a choice for second best. “I’m kind of attracted to ‘The Chimes,’ ” she said.

Trotty Veck receives a holiday vision, similar to one George Bailey gets annually in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Veck’s nightmare vision shows his loved ones’ future after his death. The spirits or goblins in his local church bells show him how anyone, however good, may descend into degradation and ruin if sufficiently driven by circumstances. The chimes teach Trotty that nobody is born evil, and that vice and crime are man-made conditions. A moral — poor people have the same right to seek improvement and happiness as the rich.

“Even though ideologically I think it does something similar to what happens to Ebenezer Scrooge,” Chan said, also during a 2009 interview. “It asks the protagonist to rethink his position and look at what might happen if he continues on this path.”

Chan, who is Saint Rose’s expert on Victorian literature, said some people believe Dickens started the business of Christmas books.

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“I’m not sure I agree with that, but in the Victorian period, he’s the one who begins publishing these novellas especially for Christmas,” she said. “It’s sort of our version of those Christmas movies; every Christmas we want to see a movie.”

Brattin believes “Carol” endures because it was a well-written story. And because Scrooge is such a colorful character.

“The figure of Scrooge is easy to remember as a horrible, miserly person, but he is more than that, and that’s part of what makes the story interesting,” Brattin said. “I think he’s in many ways an appealing and interesting central character. His doubts when he sees Marley’s ghost are like our doubts would be if we met a ghost. I think it makes it easy for the reader to identify with Scrooge and that means the reader can celebrate with Scrooge at the end of the story . . . if Scrooge can change, maybe we can to, we could maybe be a little better.”

Chan agrees. Dickens’ brightest literary Christmas star was the “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner.”

“Ebenezer Scrooge is compelling because he appealed to a lot of middle class readers who saw themselves as aspiring and gaining wealth, so these are his readers,” Chan said. “To teach the readers something about their humanity in a very material world is important.”

Dickens taught with flair.

Harry Marten, a retired professor of English at Union College in Schenectady, said in 2009 that Dickens seems to be an incredibly extravagant writer. “His sentences are extravagant, his plots are extravagant, his sentimentality is extravagant.”

Dark side

Marten said Dickens had a dark side.

“He was fascinated with murder, and he was infatuated with the grotesque,” Marten said. “He used to attend public executions. He’s got a character in his last finished novel, ‘Our Mutual Friend,’ who is searching for his lost leg at a taxidermist shop. In his most popular early novel, ‘The Old Curiosity Shop,’ there’s a wax works, a traveling puppet show, there’s a dwarf villain, Quilp, who runs around the country threatening a saintly girl named Little Nell.”

Marten said Dickens used the same energy for dark passages in his stories that involved great sentimentality — like the Christmas books.

“They’ve got simpler plots,” Marten said. “They are driven almost entirely by sentimentality.”

The sentimental “Carol” movies, which have featured actors like Alastair Sim, George C. Scott, Patrick Stewart, Jim Carrey and even the animated Mr. Magoo, still get viewers. The Dickens books still get readers.

Brattin believes length of story is another reason people keep coming back to Dickens’ first Christmas book.

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“Part of why he is so famous for ‘A Christmas Carol’ as opposed to his wonderful novels is that ‘A Christmas Carol’ is shorter, and that lets it be a successful model for adaptation,” Brattin said. “It’s easier to make a movie out of a 100-page book than out of a 1,000-page book. Similarly, it was a popular performance piece for Dickens because he could essentially tell the whole story.

“He couldn’t read the whole book, he had to do some trimming and editing and he worked on it a great deal to make it a good performance piece,” Brattin added. “Part of what I think accounts for its enduring popularity is the fact that it does lend itself to adaptation, performance. One can read the whole book aloud in a family circle as a Christmas time event and keep the attention of young children.”

But people who reply on television or movie adaptations for December doses of Dickens are not getting the entire Victorian package.

“They’re missing Dickens’ language,” Brattin said. “You can capture dialogue by having characters speak it, but you miss the narrator’s comments, you miss the narrator’s observations and you miss the brilliant use of colorful metaphoric language that Dickens is so splendid at.”

Message endures

The message of the “Carol” still resonates with readers. Brattin said the festive facets of Dickens’ time come through, like the Cratchit family’s happiness in spite of poor financial standing. And Nephew Fred’s joyful embrace of the holiday season.

“At the same time, Dickens counter-positions this with social responsibility,” Brattin said. “We do have in the Ghost of Christmas Present not just jollity and food and greenery on the walls and nice things to drink, we also have concealed under the robes of the ghost Ignorance and Want. They are the things the ghost specifically warns Scrooge about and suggests that if does not do something about it, he and we might all be in trouble.”

Reach Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 395-3124 or at [email protected]

A Dickens Christmas sampler

From “A Christmas Carol”

“The Phantom slowly, gravely, silently approached. When it came near him, Scrooge bent down upon his knee; for in the very air through which this Spirit moved it seemed to scatter gloom and mystery.

It was shrouded in a deep, black garment, which concealed its head, its face, its form, and left nothing of it visible save one outstretched hand. …

He felt that it was tall and stately when it came beside him, and that its mysterious presence filled him with a solemn dread. He knew no more, for the Spirit neither spoke nor moved.

“I am in the presence of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come?” said Scrooge.

The Spirit answered not, but pointed onward with its hand.

From “The Chimes”

A blast of air – how cold and shrill – came moaning through the tower. As it died away, the great Bell, or the Goblin of the Great Bell, spoke.

“What visitor is this!” it said. The voice was low and deep, and Trotty fancied that it sounded in the other figures as well.

“I thought my name was called by the Chimes!” said Trotty, raising his hands in an attitude of supplication. “I hardly know why I am here, or how I came. I have listened to the Chimes these many years. They have cheered me often.

“And you have thanked them?” said the Bell.

“A thousand times!” said Trotty.

From “Cricket on the Hearth”

“The kettle had had the last of its solo performance. It persevered with undiminished ardour; but the Cricket took first fiddle and kept it. Good heaven, how it chirped! Its shrill, sharp, piercing voice resounded through the house, and seemed to twinkle in the outer darkness like a star. There was an indescribable little trill and tremble in it, at its loudest, which suggested its being carried off its legs, and made to leap again, by its own intense enthusiasm . Yet they went very well together, the Cricket and the Kettle.”

From “The Haunted Man”

“Here again!” he said.

“Here again! replied the Phantom.

“I see you in the fire,” said the haunted man; “I hear you in the music, in the wind, in the dead stillness of the night.”

The Phantom moved its head, assenting.

“Why do you come, to haunt me thus?”

“I come as I am called,” replied the Ghost.

“No. Unbidden,” exclaimed the Chemist.

“Unbidden be it,” said the Spectre. “It is enough. I am here.”

From “The Battle of Life: A Love Story”

At last, the younger of the dancing sisters, out of breath, and laughing gaily, threw herself upon a bench to rest. The other leaned against a tree hard by. The music, a wandering harp and fiddle, left off with a flourish … The apple pickers on the ladders raised a hum and murmur of applause, and then, in keeping with the sound, bestirred themselves to work again like bees.

The more actively, perhaps, because an elderly gentleman, who was no other than Doctor Jeddler himself – it was Doctor Jeddler’s house and orchard, you should know, and these were Doctor Jeddler’s daughters – came bustling out to see what was the matter, and who the deuce played music on his property, before breakfast. …

“Music and dancing TO-DAY!” said the Doctor, stopping short, and speaking to himself. “I thought they dreaded to-day. But it’s a world of contradictions. Why, Grace, why, Marion!” he added, aloud, “is the world more mad than usual this morning?'”

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