The Ghost of Christmas Past
From the December 24, 2001 issue: Charles Dickens's triumph.
Dec 24, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 15 • By J. BOTTUM
This essay is reprinted in The Best Christian Writing 2002, edited by John Wilson (HarperSan Francisco).
IT'S ALMOST IMPOSSIBLE not to know how it opens. "Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that." Charles Dickens's "A Christmas Carol" has been filmed at least forty-two times and dramatized for the stage in dozens of versions--the first almost immediately after the book's publication in 1843, a pirated play that Dickens spent 700 in court costs fighting before he won an uncollectable judgment against its producers (and thereby found material for the great Chancery case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce that lies at the center of "Bleak House," but that's another story). "Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail," the famous first paragraph of "A Christmas Carol" ends.
But who remembers how the second paragraph runs? "Mind! I don't mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country's done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail."
You don't get much of that narrator's voice in the films we've all seen, over and over, every Christmas--with Alastair Sim in the 1951 version, or George C. Scott in the 1984 version, or Mr. Magoo in the 1962 cartoon, for that matter. You don't get the wordiness: "I don't mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly." You don't get the facetiousness: "my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country's done for." You don't get the hallucinogenic animation of inanimate objects. You don't get the comedy running over and under the sentimentality. You don't get the manic speed, or the almost insane energy, or the sheer delight in writing down words. You may get the story--but you don't get Dickens.
And as for that story, it is, on its face, something of a mess. Of course, we don't demand much coherence from the plot, which is in itself a revealing fact about the success of Dickens's art. His friend, unofficial agent, and biographer, John Forster, claimed that Dickens took a "secret delight" in giving "a higher form" to nursery stories, and the fairy-tale quality is one of the things the reader feels immediately in "A Christmas Carol." You would no more complain of its creaky plot than you would demand greater structural integrity for "Rumpelstiltskin."
BUT THE PLOT isn't what anyone would call tight. After talking to Marley's ghost until "past two" in the morning, Scrooge "went straight to bed, without undressing," only to awake to meet the Ghost of Christmas Past at midnight--two hours before he fell asleep and "clad but slightly in his slippers, dressing-gown, and nightcap."
Well, as the reformed Scrooge says on Christmas morning, "The Spirits have done it all in one night. They can do anything they like. Of course they can." One feels pedantic objecting to the illogic of ghosts, but in "A Christmas Carol" they behave more inconsistently than even ghosts deserve. Apparently nothing the poor Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come shows Scrooge comes true. Bob Cratchit won't weep, "My little, little child! . . . My little child!" at the memory of his departed son--for at the story's end, after Scrooge's reformation, we are assured that Tiny Tim "did not die." The new Scrooge will presumably meet his own death not alone, his very bed curtains stolen from around his corpse, but surrounded by his adoring nephew Fred, Fred's wife, Fred's wife's plump sister, and even Tiny Tim, to whom he became "a second father."
Even the Ghost of Christmas Present doesn't manage to get much right. The guests at Fred's Christmas party won't make fun of Scrooge, because Scrooge will be there. The Cratchits won't have their little goose, "eked out by apple-sauce and mashed potatoes." They'll have instead the enormous "prize turkey" Scrooge has sent: "He never could have stood upon his legs, that bird. He would have snapped 'em short off in a minute, like sticks of sealing-wax." John Sutherland, the marvelous solver of minor literary problems in such books as "Was Heathcliff a Murderer?" and "Who Betrays Elizabeth Bennett?", has a funny little note about the problems the family faced roasting that turkey. No wonder Bob Cratchit was a "full eighteen minutes and a half, behind his time" at work the next morning. The monstrous thing couldn't have been fully cooked until almost midnight. And didn't the Cratchits wonder where their meal had come from? For that matter, what is the poultry shop doing "half open" at six on Christmas morning--and why hasn't the poulterer already sold his prize bird, which, intended for a Christmas feast, is going to go bad in very short order?
Meanwhile, the characters are as unconvincing as the plot. The critic Edmund Wilson once suggested that the solution to the main figure's psychology lies in recognizing that Scrooge is a deeply divided man who will shortly revert to his miserliness. But even to speak of "Scrooge's psychology" seems to miss the point, like demanding to see character development in Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf.
And yet, neither is Scrooge simply a placeholder for a fairy tale's moral of conversion. He was probably intended to be that, but Dickens can't leave him alone. Scrooge has far too much energy, takes far too much joy in being joyless. "If I could work my will . . . every idiot who goes about with 'Merry Christmas' on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart." "You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato," he says to Marley's ghost. "There's more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!" He's Ralph Nickleby and Arthur Gride, the businessmen villains of "Nicholas Nickleby," ratcheted up too much to be a mere marker of villainy--just as after his conversion, he's "Nicholas Nickleby"'s Cheeryble brothers, or Fezziwig from his own past, cranked up in absolutely insane glee: "Shaving was not an easy task, for his hand continued to shake very much; and shaving requires attention, even when you don't dance while you are at it."
But it isn't just Scrooge that Dickens can't leave alone. He can't leave anything alone--which is exactly what ends up making "A Christmas Carol" a triumph: the energy, the madness, the darting from thing to thing, the extravagance invested in every moment. George Orwell spotted this in Dickens. His fiction contains thousands of named characters, and every single one of them has more put in him than necessary.
Even the unnamed characters can't help becoming Dickensian. While Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Past watch old Fezziwig's party, "In came the cook, with her brother's particular friend, the milkman. In came the boy from over the way, who was suspected of not having board enough from his master, trying to hide himself behind the girl from next door but one." Why do we have to know all this? Dickens is like some mad magician, incapable of not transforming each thing that happens to catch his eye. In the obituary he wrote for the Times when Dickens died, Anthony Trollope seemed almost to complain about how unfair it was: Every other novelist has to bend his fiction to match reality, while reality bent itself to match Dickens; by the time he was done creating a fictional bootboy like Sam Weller or a fictional miser like Scrooge, real bootboys and misers had turned themselves into Dickens's characters.
THE VARIOUS THEORIES that dominated twentieth-century criticism never quite figured out what to do with Dickens. The literary Edwardians detested him for what they thought of as his sentimentality, his indulgence of the grotesque, and his female characters desexualized into "legless angels"--and also for his Victorian energy, so alien to their own ironic lethargy. There were moments during the century when Freudian interpretation seemed to grant some real insights into literature (although, as Harold Bloom put it, one always felt that Shakespeare was a better reader of Freud than Freud was of Shakespeare). But one of the reasons Freudianism failed as a theory of literary interpretation is that it could never get its arms around Dickens: He didn't seem to have any psychology at all in his books--just psychological truth.
Social criticism, in its turn, tried to claim Dickens as merely the unsystematic brother of Marx and Engels, and "A Christmas Carol" as simply the more popular version of "The Condition of the Working Classes in England in 1844." Even more sensible critics did little better, consistently preferring to think about authors like William Makepeace Thackeray and George Eliot instead. Louis Cazamian found little in Dickens besides a philosophie de Noël. Orwell knew in his bones that Dickens was an author "worth fighting for," and yet he finally had to argue against Scrooge's conversion, on the grounds that Dickens never grasped the social--as opposed to the personal--structure of evil. F.R. and Q.D. Leavis painted themselves into such a corner that they ended up insisting "Hard Times" was Dickens's most important work. Even critics as good as Edmund Wilson and Lionel Trilling didn't really succeed: They were too honest to deny that Dickens was, like Shakespeare, the great writer of his age, and then they went back to reading authors on whom they could actually use their gifts.
Curiously, postmodernism managed better, not in its multicultural aspect of race, class, and gender, but in its fascination with language--for one of the things that makes Dickens run is language. Think of the names in his fiction: Scrooge and Jarndyce and Betsy Trotwood and Oliver Twist. And think of his propensity for describing inanimate objects with the adjectives of life. It is the "higher form" of nursery stories, for Dickens needn't bother with brooms and wardrobes magically come alive. The life and the magic are in the words. In the Cratchits' kitchen, the "potatoes, bubbling up, knocked loudly at the saucepan-lid to be let out and peeled." Scrooge has "a gloomy suite of rooms, in a lowering pile of building up a yard, where it had so little business to be, that one could scarcely help fancying it must have run there when it was a young house, playing at hide-and-seek with other houses, and have forgotten the way out again."
The most Dickensian moment early in "A Christmas Carol" comes when Scrooge arrives home in the evening to see Marley's face in his door-knocker: "He did pause, with a moment's irresolution, before he shut the door; and he did look cautiously behind it first, as if he half expected to be terrified with the sight of Marley's pigtail sticking out into the hall." English literature has had perhaps a dozen authors who could or would have done the door-knocker. Only Dickens is capable of the pigtail.
At the appearance of the Ghost of Christmas Present, Dickens squanders five hundred words (out of twenty-eight thousand in the story as a whole) describing the shops of a fruiter and a grocer:
There were great, round, pot-bellied baskets of chestnuts, shaped like the waistcoats of jolly old gentlemen, lolling at the doors, and tumbling out into the street in their apoplectic opulence. There were ruddy, brown-faced, broad-girthed Spanish Onions, shining in the fatness of their growth like Spanish Friars, and winking from their shelves in wanton slyness at the girls as they went by, and glanced demurely at the hung-up mistletoe. There were . . . Norfolk Biffins, squab and swarthy, setting off the yellow of the oranges and lemons, and, in the great compactness of their juicy persons, urgently entreating and beseeching to be carried home in paper bags and eaten after dinner.
That phrase "the great compactness of their juicy persons" could be imitated if one tried. Most parodies of Dickens get no further than the Dickensian sentimentality and philosophie de Noël. But it was this sort of odd, wordy construction that James Joyce, with his infallible eye, seized upon when he reached Dickens in the historical parodies of English prose that make up the maternity chapter of "Ulysses." And the truth is that Dickens's language could be peculiar; this is the man who gave English the phrase "our mutual friend," when what he meant was a shared or common friend.
WHAT CAN'T BE IMITATED is the energy. The Edwardians were right about Dickens's Victorianism--except that he was a hyper-Victorian, with all the virtues and vices of his age raised to something like the platonic ideal by the enormous power of his stamina. The biographer Edgar Johnson seems mistaken when he says that Christmas has for Dickens only "the very smallest connection with Christian theology or dogma." There's plenty of Christianity in the Christmas books, from the preface, in which Dickens claims his purpose was to write "a whimsical kind of masque" that might "awaken some loving and forbearing thoughts, never out of season in a Christian land," to the most sentimental moment in "A Christmas Carol," in which Tiny Tim "hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see."
But Johnson is at least correct that the secularizing impulse has begun its implacable work. Even G.K. Chesterton, normally Dickens's most consistent defender, complained that Dickens, faced with the single event around which the world has developed the most mythology, decided to invent his own Christmas mythology. But that's because traditional Christmas images actually involve the Christ who will become the Savior with his death and resurrection, and Dickens always wanted to avoid the hard cosmological edges of Christian theology. To read "The Life of Our Lord" that Dickens wrote for his own children is to think the key moment in Christian history is Christmas, not Easter, and the key teaching of Jesus is "Suffer little children, and forbid them not to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven." This is a massive diminishment of what St. Paul knew was the scandal of Christianity, but it's very Victorian--a reflection of all that was advanced, generous, liberal, high-minded, and doomed in the Gladstonian vision of a modern Christian state. "English flatheads" and "little moralistic females à la George Eliot," Nietzsche called them, who thought they could preserve Christian morality without much Christian religion.
IN THE MONTHS before "A Christmas Carol" was written in 1843, the serial publication of "Martin Chuzzlewit" had not been going well, the first of Dickens's full novels to receive less than universal acclaim. His sending of his characters Martin Chuzzlewit and Mark Tapley off to America helped, and, as he later noted, the book gradually "forced itself up in people's opinion." But Dickens lived on his popularity; he needed esteem, and the tepid response to "Martin Chuzzlewit" brought home to him just how tired he was. He was supporting a huge household beyond his income, he had to act as his own promoter and copyright protector, and he had written six major novels in seven years. "It is impossible to go on working the brain to that extent for ever," he told Forster. "The very spirit of the thing, in doing it, leaves a horrible despondency behind."
So he decided, in cold, commercial calculation, that he would write a Christmas story and make the 1,000 he needed to take his family away to Italy for a long vacation. Of course, being Dickens, he couldn't leave it alone. He began "A Christmas Carol" early in October and completed it before the end of November--while, as he described it, he "wept and laughed, and wept again, and excited himself in a most extraordinary manner in the composition; and thinking whereof he walked about the black streets of London fifteen and twenty miles many a night when all sober folk had gone to bed." Demanding to oversee every aspect of publication, he forced upon his publisher expensive plates and bindings, and although the book's first printing sold out in a single day, the initial quarter's profits brought him less than a third of the money for which he had hoped.
That, too, was Dickens. As prolific an author as there has ever been, he was always living not on what he had done, but on money received for the promise of his next book. When "A Christmas Carol" was finished, he and Forster "broke out" like madmen, with "such dinings, such dancings, such conjurings, such blind-man's-bluffings, such theatre-goings, such kissings-out of old years and kissings-in of new ones [as] never took place in these parts before. . . . And if you could have seen me at the children's party at Macready's the other night . . . "
Jane Carlyle did see him at that party for the actor William Charles Macready's children. She hadn't slept well for weeks--hadn't slept at all for two nights--and she was quarreling again with her husband, Thomas Carlyle. But once there, she found herself, like everyone else, caught up in the Dickensian world. "Dickens and Forster, above all, exerted themselves till the perspiration was pouring down and they seemed drunk with their efforts," she described it in a letter.
Only think of that excellent Dickens playing the conjuror for one whole hour--the best conjuror I ever saw. . . . Then the dancing . . . the gigantic Thackeray &c &c all capering like Maenades!! . . . After supper when we were all madder than ever with the pulling of crackers, the drinking of champagne, and the making of speeches; a universal country dance was proposed--and Forster seizing me round the waist whirled me into the thick of it, and made me dance!! like a person in the treadmill who must move forward or be crushed to death. Once I cried out, "Oh for the love of Heaven let me go! you are going to dash my brains out against the folding doors!" "Your brains!!" he answered, "who cares about their brains here? Let them go!"
The party rose "to something not unlike the rape of the Sabines!" and then Dickens carried Forster and Thackeray off to his house "'to finish the night there' and a royal night they would have of it I fancy!" But Jane Carlyle went home and slept--and slept and slept, her first healthy sleep in what felt to her like years. There's some deep reflection in that scene, an image for the age: The mad Victorian extrovert Charles Dickens, his most popular story just finished, gathering up everyone around him and infusing them like puppets with his own Christmas energy. And in it, the mad Victorian introvert Jane Carlyle at last finding peace.
J. Bottum is Books and Arts editor of The Weekly Standard.