Thursday 22 August 2019

How Dickens resurrected Christmas

Caomhan Keane looks at a new movie which reveals the inspiration behind the great writer's mission to revive the true spirit of a celebration in decline

On the write track: Dan Stevens as Dickens in The Man Who Invented Christmas
On the write track: Dan Stevens as Dickens in The Man Who Invented Christmas

Caomhan Keane

It's the most magical time of the year, and while Charles Dickens may not have actually 'invented' the holiday - as a forthcoming movie, The Man Who Invented Christmas suggests - he certainly applied the paddles to a season that had gone frigid from puritan disinterest.

A 'behind the Carol' type look at how Scrooge, Tiny Tim and the ghosts of past, present and future came into being, the Dan Stevens-fronted flick is also a semi-biopic of how "the most popular author since Shakespeare" wrote the most widely read book since the Bible.

Three years before he penned A Christmas Carol, Dickens was like One Direction for the 'bonnet and bowler set'. A literary precursor to the 'British Invasion', fans in America were clipping his hair, creating busts of his likeness, following him wherever he went and spying on him and his wife while they slept.

Horrified by their table manners - and their copyright laws which meant he made not one dollar from the many pirated copies of his work - he returned to Britain and, in a Taylor Swiftian huff, spit his frustrations at the former colony out on the page, both in his travel book, American Notes, where he compared the Yanks to animals, and in a section of Martin Chuzzlewit, his next major novel.

By the age of just 31, he had written The Pickwick Papers, Nicholas Nickleby and The Old Curiosity Shop. Fans greeted the ship carrying the final section of the latter's serialised story at the dock screaming "Is Little Nell dead?" at those on board.

But, much like Swift, Dickens' literary tantrums produced diminishing returns, both artistically and critically. His follow-ups Barnaby Rudge, Master Humphrey's Clock and the aforementioned Notes bombed.

His wife, Catherine, was expecting the fifth of their 10 children, their home had just undergone an expensive remodel, while his father, John, had been getting loans from his publishers behind his back, who in turn threatened to slash his wage to €50 a week. Dickens needed a hit.

Inspiration struck after a speaking engagement in Manchester. "He was sickened by the way the working class were treated," says the film's screenwriter Susan Coyne, who has adapted Les Standiford's book.

"At the height of the Industrial Revolution it was considered the worst place in Europe for workers' conditions. He wanted to take a hammer blow to the middle class on behalf of the poor man's child."

What wasn't known at the time A Christmas Carol was published was that Dickens himself had been such a child. His father, a clerk in the Royal Navy, was imprisoned when Charles was 12 for failing to satisfy his debts. Dickens was forced to leave school and work 10-hour days at Warren's Blacking Warehouse pasting labels on pots of boot blacking, shaping him both politically and personally.

"As much as he was riled up at the poverty he witnessed in Manchester, he also had this terror of it. He was deathly afraid he would end up impoverished again and was filled with this fear that a past - which he was personally so ashamed of he told no one about it - was catching up with him."

And thus, he struck upon the format of the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future.

The holiday itself had fallen from grace, no more celebrated at that time than St Brigid's or St George's Day. But Dickens had his finger on the zeitgeist. Queen Victoria and her Bavarian husband Albert had slowly been importing Germanic traditions, such as the tannenbaum (Christmas tree), Christmas cards and caroling, while Dickens (above) himself had many happy memories of snowy Christmases.

"Dickens had lived in the country when he was a boy and remembered those family traditions," says Coyne. "But the puritans had pretty much stamped the celebration out and it only really survived in the countryside, a tradition as quaint as Morris dancing.

"Dickens had a passionate feeling about it being the one time of the year when people really needed to stop and take stock that we all belong to the same race and we all have obligations to one another."

Unfortunately, his publishers didn't share his faith that "the staging of a nostalgic English Christmas might help restore the social harmony that had been lost in the modern world".

So he decided to go it alone, publishing it himself. Written in six weeks, it sold out its initial print of 5,000 and would go on to sell 15,000 by the end of the year.

"It's a book about the joy of doing good," says Coyne. "It isn't a hammer blow or a lecture, but an exhortation to be joyful and celebrate and be generous."

Overnight, thanks to its message of friendship, kindness and giving, the number of people giving to charity exploded, while rumours emerged of factory owners buying their employees turkeys.

But how did writing A Christmas Carol affect him as a writer?

"After A Christmas Carol it was more personal, stories that were darker and more complex, like David Copperfield and Great Expectations. He was more passionately social and political. He was critical of society.

"Nowadays, we know so much about shame and how that cripples a person and can prevent them from being who they need to be. Writing A Christmas Carol was like therapy. It released something."

While we may not be able to credit Charles Dickens with single-handedly bringing Christmas back, he certainly helped to revive it by bringing its purpose as a season of goodwill into sharp focus… with a little dollop of magic for good measure.

The Man Who Invented Christmas will be shown in cinemas nationwide from December 1.

Irish Independent

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