WORLD STILL SINGING PRAISES OF DICKENS' `CHRISTMAS CAROL'

Published: Sunday, Dec. 19 1993 12:00 a.m. MST

"I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all year."

- "A Christmas Carol."

As he worked on a new story toward the end of 1843, Charles Dickens said he felt as if Tiny Tim and Bob Cratchit were ever tugging at his coat sleeve, impatient for him to get back to his desk and continue the story of their lives.

Although "A Christmas Carol" didn't immediately sell as well as Dickens had hoped, it came to exert that grip on the whole world.

Now 150 years old, its Victorian mixture of fireside merrymaking and spectral gloom and doom followed by triumphant redemption shows no sign of fading.

New editions are in the bookshops and new versions are on theater stages, television and radio.

Once more, the crusty miser Ebeneezer Scrooge is reformed and turned into a fairy godfather by Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future who lead him through scenes of happiness, poverty and want.

Dickens had this to say about old Ebeneezer:

"Oh, but he was a tightfisted 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 current popularity of the story is as astonishing as ever," said Malcolm Andrews, lecturer in English literature at the University of Kent and editor of The Dickensian that three times a year brings the latest in studies of the great novelist.

"Nearly 50 separate editions are in print in Britain and there are well over 225 adaptations for stage, screen and radio here and in the United States. It is also on cassette, record and compact disc. It is a ballet, an opera, a musical, several animated cartoons and several movies and its characters are used everywhere in advertising," Andrews said in an interview.

The story survives, he thinks, because of Dickens' "ability to tap a kind of folktale quality."

"Although Dickens set it specifically in the 1840s, his original idea was to give it propaganda power to ease the hardships of the poor, to promote charity and give people a sense of the larger family community. One of the triumphs of the redeemed Scrooge is that he takes a fatherly responsibility for Tiny Tim, the crippled son of his poor clerk, Bob Cratchit," Andrew said.

Dickens got the idea when he visited the northern industrial city of Manchester where he made a speech referring to the necessity of educating very poor children. Cratchit and his family almost duplicate Dickens' own poor childhood, and the Ghost of Christmas Past leads Scrooge through the Medway river landscape of north Kent which Dickens knew from his boyhood in Chatham.

Seven months before he began the story Dickens had thought of Christmas appeals for poor children, hence their prominence in the tale. The Ghost of Christmas Present produces from his robes two abject children: a boy called Ignorance, and a girl named Want.

Dickens described them thus:

"Yellow, meager, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds."

The story has the feel of snow, cold air, green holly leaves and red berries and blazing hearths. The reader feels the beating of human hearts in good cheer and in dread.

Dickens confessed to being gripped by the story as he wrote it and said he "wept and laughed, and wept again."

He wrote to his American friend, Cornelius Felton, a professor at Harvard University, that it so excited him that he "walked about the black streets of London 15 and 20 miles a night when all sober folks had gone to bed."

Felton called Dickens "one of the greatest minds of the age . . . the most original and inventive genius since Shakespeare."

To the novelist Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Dickens wrote that the subject seized him with strange mastery and that the writing of it so closely preoccupied him that he "never left the house before the owls went out, and led quite a solitary life."

Dickens, then 31, wrote "A Christmas Carol" in about six weeks, from early October to November 1843.

He said he wanted to write a "cheerful, glowing, heart-warming story in which he would appeal to all of people's warmest feelings."

In fact, he needed money. He had a large family whose members constantly pestered him for favors and his latest novel, "Martin Chuzzlewit," was selling much less well than his previous books.

As a result, Dickens was even repaying Chapman and Hall, his publishers, for an advance they had given him, although his works had raised them from nobodies to wealth and fame.

Dickens wrote the story in London in his house at 1 Devonshire Terrace, York Gate, facing Regent's Park, where he lived from 1839 to 1851. There he also wrote "The Old Curiosity Shop," "Barnaby Rudge," "Martin Chuzzlewit" and "David Copperfield."

Five of Dickens' 10 children were born in the house but its association with England's greatest novelist did not save it. In the 1958, the house was demolished and replaced by an office block.

Dickens insisted on a low price of five shillings, just under $5 in those days, for copies of "A Christmas Carol" as he wanted it widely bought and read. But he also demanded an expensive format, with gilt edges, colored end-papers, a blue and red title page and hand-colored plates by John Leech.

It was his first story to be published whole and not in weekly or monthly parts and by doing it, Dickens invented the special Christmas book.

The "Carol" was published on Dec. 17 and by Christmas Eve one week later it had sold 6,000 copies. It went into a seventh edition within four months.

The novelist William Makepeace Thackeray said of it: "It seems to me a national benefit, and to every man or woman who reads it a personal kindness. The last two people I heard speak of it were women; neither knew the other, or the author, and both said by way of criticism, `God bless him!' . . . What a feeling is this for a writer to be able to inspire, and what a reward to reap!"

One legend has it that an American factory owner on reading the story gave his employees an extra day's holiday.

Dickens had letters by every post from complete strangers to say they had read the story aloud and delighted their families.

From the sales of the first 15,000 copies, Dickens got less than 750 pounds (then about $3,400) when he had hoped for 1,000 pounds (about $4,500) and he said he should have produced the book more cheaply. He got nearly double the sum for the first 20,000 copies of his next Christmas story, "The Chimes," which is now little regarded.

"It's utter tosh to say that Dickens invented Christmas but `A Christmas Carol' gave the festive season a deep emotional charge, in addition to any religious one," says David Parker, curator of the Dickens Museum in London.

"What Dickens demands is that Christmas is the operation of memory, thinking of the past and its joys and sorrows, its good and bad fortunes. It is remembering, experiencing and feeling everything and allowing that to shape the man, to shape moral sentiment."

Vicky Featherstone, who is directing a stage version of the story at the Octagon Theater in the Lancashire town of Bolton this Christmas, said the tale survives because it is a story in the old-fashioned sense of the word.

"It has a sense of horror, love, morality and a central character who has a major journey that we follow. It is fundamentally about people taking responsibility for each other within a community," she said.

"But it goes much further than charity: It's about opening your eyes to what is going on around you and being prepared to do something about it and that's as relevant now as in Victorian times."

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