Friday, December 18, 2009

A Christmas Carol

English journalist Eric Hester discusses the Christmas classic, saying:
No one is going to deny that this book is a classic but I can hear the cries that Dickens was not a Catholic. I do not claim that Dickens was a Catholic; obviously he was not. I simply claim A Christmas Carol as a great Catholic classic.

Let us examine one important piece of evidence. Everyone knows the famous first sentence of this novel: “Marley was dead: to begin with.” Marley’s ghost is famous, even to those who have not read the book but have seen one of the many film versions. So I pose this question: from where does Marley’s ghost come?” There is only one possible answer: purgatory. Now purgatory is a very Catholic idea. Marley, you may remember, is described by Dickens as having to pull a long chain of cashboxes and other impedimenta.

He has to wander the earth. Of whom does he obviously remind us? why, of Hamlet’s father’s ghost. And Hamlet’s father’s ghost was from purgatory. We know that Dickens was fascinated by all Shakespeare’s plays but especially by Hamlet. Remember in Great Expectations, where the comic character Wopsle becomes an actor and, to the jeerings and barrackings of the audience, acts the part of the Great Dane.

More that this, Dickens mentions Hamlet’s father’s ghost on the very first page of A Christmas Carol only a few sentences after telling us that Marley was dead: “If we were not perfectly convinced that Hamlet’s Father died before the play began, there would be nothing more remarkable in his taking a stroll at night, in an easterly wind, upon his own ramparts, that there would be in any other middle-aged gentleman rashly turning out after dark in a breezy spot.”

The next obvious Catholic feature in the little novel is one of the things that everyone knows about it: its stress upon the celebration of Christmas. This was, and is, a Catholic thing to do and not a Protestant thing. We know from our history that the great villain, Oliver Cromwell, tried to ban Christmas altogether and to abolish all customs and traditions associated with it. Later puritans, like George Bernard Shaw, were to try something similar. The great rehabilitator of the Catholic celebration of Christmas was Dickens in this very book.
It has become a byword for celebrating a “Merry Christmas”, and “merry” is the word that Dickens actually uses, reminding us of “Merry England”, the Catholic England of the middle ages. Marley, and Scrooge before his conversion, are the very epitome of the Protestant work ethic: the worship of the false God money. The Cratchits represent the family celebration of Christmas with their eating of the goose and their drinking of what little liquor they had – “Some hot mixture in a jug with gin and lemons” with the Christmas pudding with its “half-a-quartern of ignited brandy”.

For Dickens is no puritanical teetotaller: he recognises, as good Catholics do, the value of alcohol used properly. It has always bewildered me how some say that to drink alcohol is forbidden to Christians when Our Blessed Lord’s very first miracle was to change water into wine. One is only disappointed that Dickens was not at Cana in Galilee to have described that wedding feats. St John does not do a bad job but Dickens would have described the idiosyncrasies of the master of the feast, and made our mouths water with the food on the table, as he does the Christmas shops in A Christmas Carol.

“The Grocers’! oh the Grocers’! nearly closed, with perhaps two shutters down, or one; but through those gaps such glimpses! It was not alone that the scales descending on the counter made a merry sound, or that the twine and roller parted company so briskly, or that the canisters were rattled up and down like juggling tricks, or even that the blended scents of tea and coffee were so grateful to the nose, or even that the raisins were so plentiful and rare, the almonds so extremely white, the sticks of cinnamon so long and straight, the other spices so delicious, the candied fruits so caked and spotted with molten sugar as to make the coldest looker-on feel faint and subsequently bilious.

Nor was it that the figs were moist and pulpy, or that the French plums blushed in modest tartness from their highly-decorated boxes, or that everything was good to eat and in its Christmas dress: but the customers were all so hurried and so eager in the hopeful promise of the day, that they tumbled up against each other at the door, clashing their wicker baskets wildly, and left their purchases upon the counter, and come running back to fetch them, and committed hundreds of the like mistakes in the best humour possible; while the Grocer and his people were so frank and fresh that the polished hearts with which they fastened their aprons behind might have been their own, worn outside for general inspection, and for Christmas daws to peck at if they chose.”

The Cratchits are among Dickens’s greatest creations. His pro-family and pro-life views are another Catholic feature. The unredeemed Scrooge had told those collecting money for the poor that the poor could die and “decrease the surplus population”. Just like a United Nations Commission today on the people of Africa. But the Ghost of Christmas Present throws his own words at him when Scrooge later enquires about whether Tiny Tim will live: “Oh kind Spirit! Say he will be spared.” The ghost says, “If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.” This is followed by some of Dickens’s most vituperative words:

“Man, if man you be in heart, not adamant, forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered What the surplus is and Where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child. Oh God! To hear the Inspect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust!”

Another Catholic characteristic of the book is its juxtaposition of humour, and sadness, almost tragedy. This is something found in Catholic English writers such as Chaucer and Shakespeare but it tended to end at the so-called reformation. The great twentieth century poet and critic, T.S Eliot, said that a “dissociation of sensibility” took place at that time. Thus every Shakespeare play, even the starkest tragedy contains humour. Consider the Porter Scene in Macbeth just after the murder of Duncan. Then consider the Protestant Milton. Certainly he is a great poet but where is the humour? The great Dr Johnson issued the most damning criticism of Paradise Lost, when he said that no one ever wished it a line longer than it is.

Now, in A Christmas Carol, Dickens has humour and sadness side by side not just in the plot but even in the same character. Scrooge is a sad character and very nearly a tragic one; however, even from the beginning he is also comic. It is worth stating that the French protestant novelists, Zola, Gide and Sartre, are all deficient in humour. Those who were Catholics, even if not very good ones like Proust and Balzac, have humour and tragedy interspersed. Henry James, American Unitarian, has no humour. Evelyn Waugh, Hilaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton are full of humour. Not surprisingly, Chesterton has written about the greatness of Dickens.

Our book is about redemption, a very Catholic theme. Scrooge is like St Paul, St Francis of Assisi and the other great converts who change their lives. He is in the great tradition of the sinner who repents.

All this makes for a very Catholic book. I recommend it strongly for Christmas reading. Its five chapters, or “staves”, as Dickens calls them since it is a “Carol”, make for five sectional readings. And do read it aloud. Most books are good when read aloud and Dickens is the writer par excellence for reading aloud. He himself used to perform before audiences. If you are reading the book to children, then you might decide to make the occasional judicious cut. But not much. Perhaps the reference to something in the nineteenth century.

But never underestimate children and do not leave something out just because it seems to have a difficult word in it. If you have a few copies - and a good paperback can be obtained for two pounds - then you could even dramatise it with your children or grandchildren for Christmas. This is not difficult. Let one of them read the words of Scrooge, one the words of Marley’s ghost, one Bob Cratchit and so on while keeping the narrative part for yourself to hold the whole thing together.

There have been several film versions of the book, that with Alistair Sims in the old black and white one being probably the best. But a film version is never so good. How, for example, can a film producer convey this:

“Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire: secret, and self-contained and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head and on his eyebrows and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it out one degree at Christmas.” No use having pictures of grindstones and oysters. It is Dickens’ words that work the magical effect.

The ability to laugh at yourself is a fine one, and one I learned with much other wisdom from Dickens. Laughter is very necessary in life alongside life’s more serious concerns. All life is to be found in Dickens, especially in A Christmas Carol. “God Bless Us, Every One.”



Hans-Georg Lundahl said...

So I pose this question: from where does Marley’s ghost come?” There is only one possible answer: purgatory.

Not really. Marley's ghost could come from Hell and still be in Hell. BUT have been granted to warn hhis friend so to spare him the damnation. Vide Supplementum Teriae Partis.

If you want purgatory, the Ghost of Canterville is more like it. There the ghost gets rest after someone prays for him.

Lynda @ Elegance Reclaimed said...

Thank you; whilst enjoying your writings, I am learning.

Thank you for sharing.

SF said...

Nice review, love the book!
Pulling it out now to read this week.

Julygirl said...

I am glad the article pointed out the importance of actually READING the book even though all the film versions have been widely shown throughout the years. Many years ago, upon reading this book, I realized the value of experiencing the written words of gifted writers like Dickens over seeing a film taken from a book. Upon reading the first paragraph of "A Christmas Carol" I was sucked into the rarified world of what good writing really is, and have since never wasted my time on anything less.

Alexandra said...

I've always seen Marley in the chains as purgatory...the chains holding him "down", preventing him from "rising". He wants to rise with all his soul to met God. He is not being held up, but held down. I don't think it's any more complicated than this.

I don't think the mainline English protestants ever had a problem with alcohol. Cromwell and the round heads were just a blip before the British welcomed back their king, and a more relaxed way of living returned.

I saw the Disney version of A Christmas Carol today with my son...surprisingly well done(true to book), and even got applause at the end! I've read the book many times - Dickens was one of my favorites as a young person. It's been years since I've read it though.

Georgette said...

What a great essay! I always think how Catholic and prolife this story is whenever I read/watch the story, in its many versions.

Have you seen the new cg version of it yet? I haven't seen any reviews of it so far.