A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens, Penguin RRP £7.99
Following last year’s horrific film, A Christmas Carol has now become so ubiquitous that it has even inspired a Sony advert. Is there no limit to the bloated monstrosity that Christmas has become, I hear you cry. The answer to that, as I struggle through angry mobs of shoppers on the last shopping weekend before the big day, fingers turned white from clutching heavy bags, and having spent twice as much as I originally intended, is probably no. Every year I feel vaguely ashamed at my own consumption, even before I embark on two days of stuffing my face with cake and marzipan. I struggle to remember the time when the sparkly lights on the high street made me think of the stars in the clear, crisp Christmas Eve night sky, and I believed that it was possible for an elderly fat man to squeeze his way down my parent’s post-war chimney.
Ok, so before I slide too deep into mawkish sentimentality to ever haul myself out, and get hopelessly off topic and forget this is even meant to be a book review, I’ll return to A Christmas Carol. A book so iconic that I feel kind of ashamed even thinking about reviewing it, A Christmas Carol follows Ebenezer Scrooge through a journey of Christmas discovery (and epic sequencing issues, the thing I love most about this book being that Dickens couldn’t even be bothered to go back through his draft and sort out the fact that Scrooge was meant to be visited by a Christmas spirit a night for three nights, starting on Christmas Eve…but oh look, they managed to do it all in one night because the spirits can do anything, and Scrooge has learnt his lesson in time for Christmas morning).
Everyone knows the mechanics of this tired old tale. Three ghosts, Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmas Yet to Come turn up on Christmas Eve to haunt Scrooge out of his unseasonable ways. Christmas Past takes him back to his childhood, abandoned at school over the festive holidays, and to the days of his youth as a clerk in London, engaged to a pretty girl before his increasingly miserly ways drove her away. There is a real sense of a wasted life here, and Scrooge fits in perfectly in Dickens’ line-up of embittered elderly characters, such as Mr Smallweed in Bleak House, disappointed with life and only finding joy in persecuting those around them. Scrooge barely recovers from his trip down memory lane before he is confronted by the ghost of Christmas Present, who takes him out onto the snowy streets to see how others, such as the family of his persecuted clerk Bob Cratchit are celebrating. It is the third ghost, however, the terrifying grim-reaper-esque Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come who really has an effect on Scrooge, showing him his own death scene, lying forgotten with the very linen from his bed stolen and sold by the people preparing his body. He realises how alone and unhappy he is, and how he could easily buy some friends by throwing his wealth around and lightening up a little.
So, Scrooge emerges from his ordeal a changed man, having realised that saving all your pennies and being generally miserable is not going to make you a popular person, or get you an impressive number of mourners at your funeral (a major consideration in the 1840s, and the thing that I’m pretty sure swayed it for him). As the snow lies thick on the ground, and the cute Victorian people scuttle about with Christmas card rosy cheeks, Scrooge starts his epic spending spree by commissioning a small boy to buy a giant turkey. A Christmas Carol was published in 1843, when England was seeing a major resurgence in the celebration of Christmas, and new traditions, like the tree (thanks Prince Albert) and sending of greetings cards were emerging. This novel got caught up in that, and has become a part of how we celebrate.
Every year, on Christmas Eve, on the train home to the bosom of my family, I read A Christmas Carol. There is something comforting about the tired old story, but as I grow older, and Christmas becomes less of a novelty (this will be my twenty-sixth), I wonder if the magic is fading. I struggle to summon sympathy for Tiny Tim anymore. Even with his little crutch and completely unrealistic forced happiness.
Scrooge is, of course, a hideous, dried up old man. Eating gruel alone in the dark is not the way to spend Christmas Eve However, Bob Cratchit’s perfect family, happy in their own poverty, are just as disturbing. Real life, I like to think, is somewhere between the two. Real life is spending Christmas with your family, but sometimes sneaking outside to have a fag behind the hedge and get some peace because Grandma is shouting in one ear, and Cousin Roy in the other, and Mum is freaking out about the turkey drying out. Everyone knows this, but every year perfectly sane individuals seem to think that if they shop at Marks and Spencer, decorate the table like something from a John Lewis advert, and spend a quarter of their yearly income on presents, then Christmas will be perfect and magical, everyone will get on, and we won’t have to hide the brandy from Uncle David to stop him having one of his episodes. For this, and all other Christmas related falsehood, I blame Charles Dickens.
So, thanks Dickens for your sickening tale of good familial relations and forced charity, thanks to you I’ll be spending this weekend overeating on turkey, arguing with my family over monopoly (will we never learn?), and taking receipt of a truckload of Boots toiletries. I shall smile and look grateful and exclaim that I have never wanted anything more than I wanted a 500ml tub of Royal Jelly cellulite scrub and everyone will be happy and it will be the best Christmas ever.