Everybody knows the story of Scrooge. Everybody from Alistair Sim to the Muppets to his namesake duck has played him. I won’t waste your time talking about the story, but have you read him?
Everybody knows Dickens, but did you like him when you met him? I didn’t, in high school. Great Expectations was the most boring, pointless, excruciatingly unending experience of my reading life. My only expectation was that it had to end eventually, and my only hope was never to have to read Dickens again.
A Christmas Carol isn’t like that at all. It is a joy to read.
Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change for anything he chose to put his hand to.
You can’t beat writing like that. And it’s short; it makes its point and shuts up.
There seems to be something magical, or at least natural, about novella length. A Christmas Carol and The Old Man and the Sea were both novellas, and either would have been destroyed if it had been stretched out to novel length.
(TOM&TS a novel? Forfend! You’d need the heart of a bookseller to make that claim.)
Dickens was in financial and artistic trouble when he wrote A Christmas Carol and it was the making of the rest of his career. You can get the whole story of its origin from either The Man Who Invented Christmas by Les Standiford or Inventing Scrooge by Carlo De Vito.
A Christmas Carol was prefigured by the story of Gabriel Grub, chapter 29 of The Pickwick Papers, a story within a story which is often reprinted separately today under the title “The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton.” Old Grubb was so miserable that he chose to spend Chrismas night in a graveyard to avoid human contact. Goblins caught him there and put him through miseries which led to his redemption. The parallel is obvious.
After the ringing success of A Christmas Carol, Dickens wrote another Christmas novella during each of the succeeding four years. These five little books were published together during Dickens lifetime as Christmas Books. That version, with original illustrations, is avaliable from the series The Oxford Illustrated Dickens.
That volume often appears in bookstores seasonally, but you don’t have to seek it out. There will be some kind of Dickens Christmas collection every year. I have in front of me A Christmas Carol and other Christmas Classics, 2012, Fall River Press, which has the five novellas and seventeen other Dickens seasonal stories. Again, however, there is nothing special about any particular version. The stories have been around a hundred and seventy years and they don’t change.
Yesterday, I saw this year’s version in Barnes and Noble, leather bound, red, with gold and white pen style illustrated cover. This version is called A Christmas Carol and other Christmas Stories. It looks like the kind of book you would put in the living room to impress your snooty guests, but the stories inside don’t care about the cover.
As a point of honesty, I slipped into the B&N website just now to confirm my memory. This version was the 300th book that came up when I searched Dickens Christmas. Obviously more people buy Dickens than read him.
A few years ago I decided to read one of the other stories each year at Christmas time. That isn’t as logical as it seems, since Christmas is not a time of leisure. I eventually got through three and a half of the other four. I read The Chimes first and enjoyed it. It was something of a Christmas Carol reprise, and not as good as the original, but worth reading. A Cricket on the Hearth was once the most popular of these books. I didn’t get through it, not because I wasn’t enjoying it, but because that was the year time did me in. I still plan to read it someday. Maybe June would be better. The other two were worthwhile but not earth shaking.
For the sake of completeness, the Dickens Christmas books, in order, are:
A Christmas Carol
A Cricket on the Hearth
The Battle of Life
The Haunted Man