For more than three decades running I have re-read Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol
on or around December 25th. Perhaps doing so has been an escape from the experience or memory of a generally unhappy occasion. Though it had the usual trappings of dinner, presents, and visits from relatives, my childhood Christmas usually was disappointing, when not outrightly miserable, so that even now I'm inclined to think the crucial day should be spent most fitly on one's knees in fasting and prayer. Contrariwise, maybe it was identification with one of the book's most famous characters. My family also had a Tiny Tim, my brother Hughie, crippled with cerebral palsy, though Hughie could only jabber or utter wails, certainly not pronounce, "God bless us, every one." To read Dickens's miniature epic of redemption and the transforming power of good resolutions might only have been acknowledgement that, yes, this is how Christmas should be.
But there must have been something else that kept me reading A Christmas Carol with annually renewed pleasure. First, the physical book. I don't know how we came by it-it was certainly not the kind of object typically found in a snowbound Nova Scotian farmhouse in the 1950s. A small, gilt-edged 1920 reproduction of the 1843 first edition, in dark red cloth with gold lettering, it included the matchless illustrations by John Leech, later as symbiotically associated with the book as Ernest Shepard's drawings for The Wind in the Willows and Winnie the Pooh. As the introduction by the great U.S. bibliophile A. Edward Newton points out, six thousand copies were sold on the first day of publication but Dickens was mightily disappointed in his initial profits. Someone had not bothered to check how costly its hand- coloured prints were going to be.
I know these facts now, and also how A Christmas Carol has some of the tics and spasms that make Dickens's prose, especially in later novels, often unbearable. The cruel and unusual punishment of the metaphor. The generically limp heroines, whom John Glassco once termed "Mary Doormat"-the feisty Mrs. Cratchit is an exception, the young Scrooge's sister Fan, or estranged girlfriend Belle, are the rule. The windy diffuseness and ill-judged asides. The pornographic pity. The pathological sentimentality and overwrought fantasy, of which only a card -carrying hysteric could have been capable.
Today's socio-economic climate makes me wonder whether Dickens and we haven't got the unreformed Scrooge all wrong. If Scrooge had yielded to the many charitable appeals made to him in his counting-house, he wouldn't have had enough left to pay Bob Cratchit or anyone else. Seen in this light, his inquiry about the alternatives of prisons, workhouses, and tread-mills seems perfectly reasonable. What about Bob Cratchit? He was probably paid the going rate, and his finances would have improved had he the discipline to curb the growth of his outsized family by availing himself of some means of contraception, or at least restraining his animal instincts. And what of the reformed Scrooge? Cratchit gets a raise-the next thing, he'll be organizing a union. In terms of poverty and social ills, Scrooge does nothing but throw money at the problem.
I know all these facts and ask these questions, but I also know that, once he began it, the child I was could not put the damn thing down. And this was true despite its many puzzling points. I didn't know what "lay" meant when Dickens prefaced his story by saying, "I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it." I hadn't a clue what "Stave" on the contents page meant. I couldn't figure out what "Scrooge's name was good upon `Change'" signified. Just prior to his restless night, Scrooge "took his melancholy dinner in his usual melancholy tavern," and a tavern seemed to me an odd place to do it-you didn't go to Pictou County taverns for dinner, or at least I didn't realize you could. I also failed to understand why, to Scrooge, the appearance of Jacob Marley's ghost might have been due to "an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato."
Hardly a page passed without some trip or stumble of this kind, which an alert if obtuse editor today would strike out, reasoning that they get in the way of the story. Are we to understand that it's a tribute to Dickens's psychological power and narrative skill that he prevails despite strewing such obstacles and obstructions? Yes, perhaps, but they may also be the grit that allows a child to fashion the pearl that Dickens meant for him or her to have. A child's reading should not be too easy, because reading is part of life. Life, needless to say, is not always easy to live, and the lessons that stick with us always hold an inherent germ of difficulty. Dickens, a Victorian congenitally incapable of separating instruction from entertainment, knew this.
The hedonistic modern in us rejects the admixture. The ideological modern in us, whether on the left or the right, cannot fathom someone like Dickens, who was, as George Orwell so beautifully termed him, "generously angry". The cynical modern in us is furious at Dickens's capacity to make us laugh or weep. We, who have the attention span of a may-fly, cannot comprehend how Dickens is able to stamp an image-Scrooge's door-knocker takes the form of Marley's face "like a bad lobster in a dark cellar"-permanently on our brains.
Dickens, in some ways the inventor of the modern Christmas, would be appalled at the commercial mish-mash of greed and gluttony we have made of it. He does, however, point away from its original importance as a Christian observance. True, he briefly tips his hat to Christianity when Scrooge's nephew makes a little speech about Christmas's being "the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely," this being "apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that." But that early passage is virtually the last we hear about sacred names and origins: the rest of the book is pagan all the way.
Yet, on a deeper level, Christian myth and iconography is at work. The Spirit of Christmas Past is a kind of sacred child. The next ghostly visitor, whom Leech memorably engraves as a loose -robed, bare-chested god of plenty, can be viewed, without undue wrenching, as Christ working his wonders of generosity in the world. The "Last of the Spirits", "draped and hooded, coming, like a mist along the ground, towards him," literally and figuratively speaks of judgement and Last Things. Overarching all is the Christian idea that a vision can turn an individual human being from an oblivious and self-condemning path toward an understanding and practice of the Good.
Though I may have intuited these elements early, I did fall prey to a curious, almost dyslexic error-this despite my many re-readings. For a long time I occasionally referred to somebody or other as looking like the Ghost of Christmas Past, alluding to some shrunken, wasted, ghastly figure. Then, as late as writing this essay, I made a second mistake, this time supposing the Spirit of Christmas Past to be the lusty, lavish, and rubicund god that Leech depicted. Dickens's actual spirit of the past, however, is an odd hybrid: though its hair is white, "the face had not a wrinkle in it, and the tenderest bloom was on the skin. The arms were very long and muscular; the hands the same, as if its hold were of uncommon strength."
Was my misconception just a product of careless reading or forgetfulness? Or was it due to the difficulty of registering the complex, ambiguous Spirit of Christmas Past compared to the simpler, more vivid pictures offered for the spirits of the present and future? I don't know. I now wonder whether the initial error did not encapsulate inchoate memories about my often forlorn or disillusioning Christmases past, and whether my second error was merely an overcompensation for them. We bring so much to what we read.
I pick up the little, wine-red book again. It is warm and glowing, like the rosy coals Scrooge was happy to heap on his counting-house grate in the aftermath of his eventful Eve. I pick up the book again and again. l
Fraser Sutherland's most recent book is Jonestown: a poem (McClelland & Stewart).