One of the things I promised myself I would do, once I retired, was to find time to catch up on my reading – and, in particular, my reading of the classics. So the December readalong on Caroline’s seductively named blog Beauty is a Sleeping Cat came at precisely the right moment. And the cream on the cake (or, if you will, the plum in the pudding) is, that I – who never win anything – actually won a book in the free giveaway. (Thanks again, Caroline and Delia, of Postcards from Asia). This provided added inspiration.
As I was already in the middle of two other books, one in Hebrew (non-fiction) and one in English (fiction), and time was short, I chose the seasonally appropriate A Christmas Carol as the subject of my book review. So, without further ado, here it is.
WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS
I think the last time I read A Christmas Carol was in school – I won’t say how many years ago – and naturally, my perceptions of the book have changed dramatically since then. At the age of twelve, I was not a great Dickens fan, and it was only the fact that this was one of the set books in class that year that brought me to read it.
One of the criticisms frequently levelled at Dickens is that his characters are, in fact, caricatures. I think this is true, to a certain extent. Whenever you have a character, such as the misanthropic and miserly Ebenezer Scrooge, who appears to embody all the bad qualities – or, conversely, all the good qualities – so much so that they appear to personify a particular quality, they cannot be other than a caricature. Scrooge’s “conversion”, too, seems to be too sudden and not quite believable. For, let us not forget, although the protagonist is visited by three spirits, the visit of the first is sufficient to make him say “submissively” to the second: “Conduct me where you will. I went forth last night on compulsion, and I learnt a lesson which is working now. Tonight, if you have aught to teach me, let me profit by it.” Furthermore, Scrooge has already understood that there is more to philanthropy (in its original and true meaning of “Love of One’s Fellow Man”) than the mere giving of money, for in speaking of a benevolent master (his own former employer, Fezziwig), he says: “He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count ‘em up: what then? The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.” This is immediately followed by a rush of regret for his treatment of his clerk, Bob Cratchit.
On second thoughts, however, I am reminded of probation officers’ reports (of which I have read many, over the course of my career), in which they refer to the defendant’s outwardly expressed repentance and stress the need for further “treatment”. Possibly the Three Spirits – or whoever sent them – were alert to the danger of backsliding once the initial shock of the first meeting wore off.
Still, it is the meeting with the Ghost of Christmas Past which I find the most intriguing, the one which leaves the Reader with the most questions. Why did Scrooge become the way he is at the start of the book, why did he make the choices he made? Why was he, even at such an early stage in his life, ”a solitary child, neglected by his friends“, in a heart-rending picture that reminds me of the flashbacks in the Harry Potter books, of Severus Snape as a young boy? Who was the young girl to whom he was at one time betrothed and who broke off their engagement because she realised that Scrooge had begun to care for money more than he cared for her? We are never even told her name!
Progressing to the third stave, the description of the Ghost of Christmas Present embodies all the popular perceptions of what Christmas is supposed to be. We often forget that Dickens, perhaps more than any other writer, helped shape the western ideal of the White Christmas as a festival of feasting, parties, gift-giving, and decorated Christmas trees, just as it is Dickens who has shaped our perception of lower-class Victorian England with its workhouses, filthy gin-filled taverns, poverty-stricken, noisome backstreets, fallen women and wretched, starving children..
If the truth be told, by the end of the third stave and the visitation of the Second Spirit, it seems Scrooge has learned his lesson, but literary balance requires the visit of the Third Spirit, the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come – and, indeed, it is the visit of this spirit which is the most frightening, and which gives the book its truly spooky nature (if you discount the preliminary appearance of Marley’s ghost). This is the Visit which prompts Scrooge’s heartfelt cry and promise to change, to honour Christmas in his heart and not shut out the lessons taught by the three spirits. The change is so complete that I, for one, would have found myself doubting its lasting nature – were it not for Dickens’ assurance that “He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old City knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world…and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.” Nothing can bring back the lost years or change the Past, but Dickens clearly believed in Redemption through Repentance and that our future is in our own hands.
All that is left to us then, is to share this master storyteller’s closing words, whether or not we share his religious beliefs:
“May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us, Every One!“