Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Ghost of Dickens' Past

So what exactly was Charles Dickens doing in a Scottish cemetery at the twilight hour? 

He had gone for a walk, after giving a public reading of his work—a nineteenth century version of a book tour. As shadows deepened, he came upon a cemetery called the Canongate Kirkyard, and he went in to look around. The wind in the trees whispered like ghosts, and an owl gave a mournful cry.

Suddenly one peculiar epitaph caught his eye:

Here Lies Ebenezer Lennox Scroggie: 
A Mean Man

What in the world had this man done in life that he would be so vilified in death?  How awful to lie for eternity beneath such a condemning stone. Could a man like this ever change?

Canongate Kirkyard, Edinburgh, Scotland

As it turned out, Dickens had misread the stone, perhaps due to the dying light of day and his own slight dyslexia. The headstone actually referred to Scroggie as a “meal man,” a popular name for a corn merchant. Scroggie, a relative of the famous economist Adam Smith, has been described as “a jovial and kindly man”—although a bit of a philanderer.

But no matter. Dickens’ imagination had already been sparked by musings about this “mean man,” and he would go on to immortalize Mr. Scroggie as Ebenezer Scrooge in his most famous tale, A Christmas Carol.  It’s unclear in the original story exactly what Mr. Scrooge’s profession is, but we do get the sense that he is a hard-headed—and hard-hearted—business man. In fact, Dickens describes him as "...a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!"

Marley's ghost visits Scrooge

During the story, Scrooge is visited first by the ghost of his former business partner, Marley—and then by the three Ghosts of Christmas—Past, Present, and Yet to Come. Scrooge looks back on his selfish life and feels remorse for failing to help the poor and needy. He vows to change if only he can somehow be given a second chance.

In fact, Dickens was well-acquainted with the poor and needy. At twelve years of age, he was forced to sell his books and drop out of school to take a job in a blacking factory—because his father had been put in prison. It was a grim time for young Charles, and he saw men, women, and children suffering the debilitating effects of poverty. Those images would haunt him throughout his life, and they certainly influenced his writing, and especially the story of Ebenezer Scrooge.

A Christmas Carol was published on December 17, 1843, with a red cloth cover and gilt edge pages. It was an instant critical success, and shortly thereafter, it began to be adapted for the theater. In his lifetime, Dickens gave over 100 public readings of the tale. 

Sadly, one publisher stole the book and published it without permission. Dickens sued and won, but the culprit simply declared bankruptcy, leaving Dickens to pay the considerable legal fees. Ironically, the story that has sold a gazillion copies worldwide and has been produced countless times on stage and screen was not a financial success for the author. Bah, humbug!

Scrooge and Bob Cratchett

But as Scrooge learned, it’s not always about the money. Charles Dickens gave the world an amazing Christmas present when he wrote A Christmas Carol, a story that has touched the hearts of readers and audiences for more than 150 years with its simple but powerful message. We can start again. It’s not too late to change. There is still hope. It's more blessed to give than to receive. Good news for everyone who needs a second chance.

Sounds a lot like the Gospel to me.

Stark Raving Mythopath would like to thank Donna Patton. Her article on Scrooge in the Times-Gazette of Hillsboro, Ohio, introduced me to the origins of A Christmas Carol.

Dickens pictured with his characters

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Patty! Your version is much better done than mine with more detail.