Imagine me sitting in the wingback chair of an oak-panelled gentleman’s club, perhaps smoking a calabash pipe as you read the following. Dickens. What a towering figure of 19th century literature he represents, especially as it is the 200th anniversary of his birth in 2012. The Museum of London launched its Dickensian London exhibit on 9 December, and me and a colleague of mine called Caroline scuttled forth to Foyles who were hosting the first of a series of Dickens book clubs hosted by Alex Werner. Alex is the curator of the Dickens and London exhibit and knows a very great deal about both. He did not seem to mind our being late at all, and I liked him on contact.
The book club itself was held in a glorious corner of Foyles called the gallery, simply decorated for Christmas with twinkly LED lights and poinsettias. I had expected a crowded throng of bibliophiles: in fact there were around ten of us, most of whom I presume had crammed appropriately in advance of the session. I certainly had. If you want a salutary lesson in how copious a writer Dickens was, try downloading his entire works on your Kindle the night before your book club. Takes absolutely ages (in comparison to Jilly Cooper anyway). I reread as much of the Christmas Carol as I could get through in half an hour, and suitably prepped and with keenly held opinions, I was ready for my first ever London book club. In my Sheffield book club I was renowned for never actually reading the book, so having skipped through the first few pages I felt unusually ready to contribute.
As we tippy toed into the room, our guide was saying how Dickens had had 6000 copies of his Christmas Carol printed, and go so carried away with the illustrations and the quality of the edition, at one point they weren’t sure the book would break even. As it was, the Christmas Carol really captured the imagination: the urban fairy tale, the redemptive storyline, the memorable and extraordinarily named characters: Marley, Cratchit, the eternally wet Tiny Tim, and most extraordinary of all Ebenezer Scrooge. What one forgets (what I forget) is how bitingly satirical the book itself is in comparison to all the twinkly film adaptations.
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, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice.
Redemptive storytale or not, it is a scathing attack on those who value work and money over friends and family. Were it not told with such cleverness and humour, I think it would be pretty unreadable. Apparently, there are critics of Scrooge’s redemption: that even though he is redeemed, the way in which he shows that redemption is through buying a shedload of stuff. He does not seek to remedy society’s ills, he intervenes with just one family, and gives them full bellies and presents. I think that criticism is unjust, but I do think a Christmas Carol holds up a jolly interesting mirror to our own Christmas. Even the super-wizzo affair the Cratchits affair looks pretty poxy in comparison to the modern-day bank-holiday laden, TV special crammed grubfest that most of us enjoy these days. Their Christmas is more tangerine than PS3.
This is not mere coincidence. Dickens was a great deal closer to the Puritan era than we are, and when he was writing the trend was still for a quiet, rural Christmas. The urban Victorian snowy scene that has spawned a million Christmas cards was developing, but was not yet fully formed when Dickens was writing. When he published a Christmas Carol, he was just building on the groundswell of popular opinion that had been growing for some time. The invention of the Christmas card in 1843, through Prince Albert’s introduction to Britain of the Christmas tree, the invention of the Christmas cracker (an extrapolation of wrapping up bonbons in paper, fact fans). His is one of the first secular visions of Christmas – his book cements the values of enjoying each other’s company and helping those less fortunate than ourselves. He printed 6000 copies of the first edition on 17 December 1843: within a week they had sold out, and by the end of February 1844, eight rival Carol theatrical productions were playing in London. Eight! Dickens was ecstatic – you would be yourself. It was not the business success he wanted or needed at the time, although he did start doing readings both for charity and for profit. He was particularly fond of A Christmas Carol – as Margaret Oliphant once observed, it actually made people behave better.
These days it is very unlikely that you would come to this book without having seen some sort of film or TV adaptation of it first, and I think that is a shame. Dickens had a photographic memory – he was one of the first novelists to be filmed because the descriptions and characters in his books are so extraordinarily vivid. I don’t think Dickens is particularly well served by his adaptations though – they tend to lose the humour and the wit of the books.
There are a LOT of things going on to celebrate Dickens 200th birthday, biggest of which is the London and Dickens exbition at the Museum of London. Having a keen appetite for things to do in London under a tenner, I asked if the exhibition was free. Our host looked briefly at the floor before saying, “Ah, no. We’ve had to arrange a great deal of loans, so we’ve had to charge. It costs £8, and you get discounted entry if you book in advance.” Of course, he knew not that any attraction costing less than £10 makes a happy “kerching!” sound in my head. He assured us that the exhibition was both accessible and interesting, but all things considered he thought it was much more important that we read Dickens. I told you I liked him.
You can visit the Museum of London Dickens and London exhibition until June 2012, and full details (including of family events across December) are given here. Entry to the main exhibit costs £7 if booked in advance. http://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/London-Wall/Whats-on/Exhibitions-Displays/Dickens-London/Default.htm
Here’s a review of that exhibit from a real expert on Victorian London who I follow on Twitter, @victorianlondon http://catsmeatshop.blogspot.com/2011/12/visiting-dickens-london.html. He’s really worth following if you are interested in this fascinating period of history.
Details of further free Foyles Dickens book club events (hosted by the Museum of London’s Alex Werner) are available from here: http://www.foyles.co.uk/Public/Events/Detail.aspx?eventId=1372
More information about the Christmas Carol itself is available from here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Christmas_Carol