In praise of A Christ­mas Carol

What Dick­ens’ com­fort­ing — and dis­com­fit­ing — Christ­mas tale lacks in joy, it makes up for in fa­mil­iar­ity.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - READS - By LISA O’KELLY

IT has been 170 years since Charles Dick­ens’ A Christ­mas Carol was first pub­lished, by Chap­man and Hall on Dec 17, 1843, but its char­ac­ters and plot are so em­bed­ded in the psy­che of read­ers in the West – and much of English-speak­ing Asia – that it feels as though the story has been around since the be­gin­ning of time.

As An­thony Horowitz writes in his in­tro­duc­tion to the lat­est Puf­fin Clas­sics edi­tion, even peo­ple who haven’t read the book know ex­actly who Ebenezer Scrooge is – and Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim and Ja­cob Mar­ley. Like Fa­gin in Oliver Twist, Oliver him­self and so many of Dick­ens’ char­ac­ters, they have a life out­side its pages.

I thought I’d read the book long ago. But when my daugh­ter, Molly, aged 10, came home from school with a copy and be­gan read­ing it aloud, I re­alised with a jolt that I never ac­tu­ally had.

In many ways, the fa­mil­iar­ity of A Christ­mas Carol makes it a per­fect com­fort read. My seven-year-old son, Christy, and I were both gripped as Molly read it to us by the fire one cold, dark evening re­cently. And, at 125 pages, it is short enough to read over one or two cosy sit­tings. But there is no deny­ing that in other ways, it is the op­po­site of feel good. As we all know, Scrooge is a bit­ter and twisted old miser, dam­aged, like Dick­ens, by childhood ne­glect. He cares noth­ing for the peo­ple around him, pri­ori­tises ma­te­rial wealth above love and hap­pi­ness, over­works and un­der­pays his clerk, Cratchit, and de­tests Christ­mas, which he views as “a time for find­ing your­self a year older and not an hour richer”. His for­mer part­ner, Mar­ley, lies in an un­quiet grave, tor­mented by the con­se­quences of his pen­nypinch­ing life. Poverty and need, ig­no­rance and want are all around. Not much joy there.

Dick­ens was aim­ing to high­light the plight of the poor at Christ­mas, and the par­al­lels be­tween the Vic­to­rian Eng­land he de­picts and 21st-cen­tury Bri­tain are strik­ing – and dis­com­fit­ing. The char­i­ta­ble fund be­ing set up by the portly fundrais­ers who knock at Scrooge’s door, look­ing in vain for a dona­tion, re­sem­bles noth­ing so much as to­day’s food banks: “Many thou­sands are in want of com­mon nec­es­saries; hun­dreds of thou­sands are in want of com­mon com­forts, sir,” they tell him. “We are en­deav­our­ing ... to buy the poor some meat and drink, some means of warmth.” (“Are there no pris­ons?” Scrooge replies.) Scrooge him­self is run­ning a Vic­to­rian ver­sion of Wonga from his un­der­heated count­ing house: no won­der the care­worn cou­ple he vis­its with the ghost of Christ­mas fu­ture are so happy to hear he has died, tak­ing their debts – they hope – along with him.

You could ar­gue that A Christ­mas Carol is also too scary to be clas­si­fied as a com­fort read. The ghosts – and what they re­veal to Scrooge – are gen­uinely spooky. Even though I knew what was com­ing, I could not pre­vent a se­ri­ous chill go­ing up my spine when the ghost of Christ­mas past ap­peared: “The hour bell sounded ... with a deep, dull, hol­low, melan­choly one. Light flashed up in the room upon the in­stant and the cur­tains of his bed were drawn. The cur­tains of his bed were drawn aside, I tell you, by a hand ... and Scrooge, start­ing up into a half-re­cum­bent at­ti­tude, found him­self faceto-face with the un­earthly vis­i­tor who drew them: as close to it as I am now to you ...”

The story is so bleak, too. Dick­ens pulls no punches when de­scrib­ing the fate that awaits Scrooge if he doesn’t change his ways: he will die un­mourned and for­got­ten, buried in a lonely, weed-choked grave­yard, his pos­ses­sions stolen by his char­lady and the un­der­taker.

“If he wanted to keep ’em af­ter he was dead ... why wasn’t he more nat­u­ral in his life­time? If he had been, he’d have had some­body to look af­ter him when he was struck with Death, in­stead of ly­ing gasp­ing out his last there alone by him­self.”

And as ever, Dick­ens does his best to move us to tears. Who could fail to be af­fected by Tiny Tim’s deathbed scene with his fa­ther, Bob Cratchit? Or by the sight of the boy’s “va­cant seat ... in the poor chim­ney cor­ner, and a crutch with­out an owner, care­fully pre­served”?

But I would say you can al­ways de­rive great com­fort and plea­sure from be­ing prop­erly scared, or moved by such bril­liant writ­ing. And the fi­nal chap­ter of A Christ­mas Carol re­ally does warm the heart. You can al­most feel the ur­gency of the last pages as Scrooge, hav­ing seen his own grave, wakes up, thrilled to be alive, des­per­ate to make amends and to change the way he lives his life. Dick­ens is said to have stayed up un­til 3am writ­ing it. You close the book feel­ing there is hope for a bet­ter fu­ture – and there is not much that is more com­fort­ing than that. – Guardian News & Me­dia

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