London in Literature – A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Classic

If you have majored in English Literature, chances are you have studied Dickens at least once. Even if you have not studied Literature, Dickens must have been mentioned in passing during a conversation. To this day, BBC broadcasts A Christmas Carol every year almost religiously. Not to mention The Muppet Christmas Carol or the Oliver Twist movie you probably watched as a child. Even during his lifetime, Dickens surpassed the world of the literati and was a man of the masses. However, to understand Dickens’ influence and his impact on Christmas, one needn’t need read further than this quote. “Dicken’s dead? Then will Father Christmas die too?” a girl is rumoured to have said upon Dickens’ passing. According to Michael Slater, “This identification of Dickens with the festival of Christmas, so deeply inscribed in the popular culture of the English-speaking world, began when he was still a young man, just over a month short of his thirty-second birthday, but already firmly established as England’s favourite novelist” (2003: xi). Upon the publication of A Christmas Carol, Dickens sold 5,000 copies of this beloved classic and since the 17th of December 1843, A Christmas Carol has never been out of print.

The Inspiration behind A Christmas Carol

Still, A Christmas Carol isn’t just a Christmas story. Dickens, who regarded himself as one of the common people and who had received no formal education as a child, sympathised with the plights of the working class and particularly with children who faced daily exploitation in the hands of factory owners. In fact, A Christmas Carols seems to have been conceived among such social turmoil. There was an interesting chain of events that led up to the composition of the novella in October of 1843 that cannot be coincidental: firstly, the horrifying revelations of the Second Report (Trades and Manufactures) of the Children’s Employment Commission dismayed Dickens so that he contemplated writing a very small pamphlet called “An appeal to the People of England, on behalf of the Poor Man’s Child”. On the 5th of October 1843, Dickens also gave a speech in Manchester at the benefit for the Manchester Athenaeum discussing and tackling the appalling circumstances that he had encountered among the younger population in London’s jails, stressing the importance of educating the poor. He had also seen one of his nephews during his Manchester visit who is said to have inspired the character of Tiny Tim. The boy was disabled and faced all sorts of difficulties that Dickens had also observed in his daily life in London and this likely further encouraged him to write the story. (Also, money. He needed money.)  

London in Literature

Throughout this semester, we’ve had a glimpse of all sort of different perceptions of London: from how a city impacts the vulnerable (with Stella Gibbons’ Starlight) to a London that is filled with wonders and delights to a young woman that has come into society (with Frances Burney’s Evelina). A Christmas Carol, though it may be light-hearted, is also a novel about the socio-cultural tensions in 19th century Victorian England where the rich expected the government to take care of the poor and the government expected the upper classes to help along, where parliamentary acts failed catastrophically. Dickens often remarked upon such failures in his work: “Are there no Union workhouses? Are they still in operation?” Scrooge enquired in exasperation when asked to make a donation for “the poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at present time”. The gentleman that was asking for the donation replied, “They are. Still, I wish I could say they were not.” According to the notes of A Christmas Carol, “the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, the working of which Dickens fiercely attacked in Oliver Twist, divided England and Wales into twenty-one districts, in each of which a commissioner empowered to form ‘poor law unions’ by grouping parishes together for administrative purposes and to build workhouses for the reception of the destitute”. Dickens, finally, shows a London in its full variety: from the mighty Mayor’s home, the Mansion house, to overrun Camden Town; he takes the reader on a walk through Scrooge’s London and his own reality. 

Merely 70-pages-long, A Christmas Carol can be enjoyed in a sitting; to be read in the afternoon of Christmas day or Christmas evening. The London of A Christmas Carol might be “cold and bleak”, but there is a heart and a warmth to the tale, that it could evem change the mind of a modern-day Scrooge.

Written by Elena Zolotariov, IES PhD Candidate.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: