Behind the Classic: Charles Dickens and the Politics of Christmas

In the new ‘Behind the Classic’ series, editor-in-chief Roselinde takes you on a trip to well-known novels and their less well-known backstories. In this first, seasonally appropriate instalment, she explores the political backdrop of the most famous Christmas story of all: Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

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Copyright: Richard Jones

When you think Dickens, you think Christmas and when you think Christmas, you think A Christmas Carol. In 1988, the Sunday Telegraph gave Dickens the title ‘The Man who Invented Christmas’ and up until this very day ‘Dickensian Christmas’ is a common term. It seems that even now, Dickens and Christmas go together as horse and carriage.

Dickens built this reputation with his world-famous novella, A Christmas Carol. This ‘song in prose’ was first published in 1843, and has never been out of print since. Dickens, like many Victorians, felt nostalgia for the warm-hearted English Christmas traditions of yore and emphasised the Christian virtues of kindness and benevolence that he felt were vital to the Christmas feast. In his short story “A Christmas Dinner” he writes:

“There seems a magic in the very name of Christmas. Petty jealousies and discords are forgotten; social feelings are awakened, in bosoms to which they have long been strangers (…) Kindly hearts that have yearned towards each other, but have been withheld by false notions of pride and self-dignity, are again reunited, and all is kindness and benevolence!”

Yet, inspiring more kindness towards one’s family and friends was not his sole motive. Instead, Dickens – whom many critics recognize as a great social reformer – had a distinctly political agenda. The Poor Law Amendment act of 1834 stated that only poor people who were in a workhouse were able to receive government funding. To discourage people from claiming this money, conditions in workhouses were made as unappealing as possible. More often than not, the houses were overcrowded and the inhabitants were underfed, made to work under dangerous conditions, segregated and treated as prisoners. Furthermore, in the ‘hungry 40’s’, child labour was becoming more and more popular. The Industrial Revolution caused many families to move to London to work in the factories. To be able to provide for the entire family, many parents were forced to send their children to work. In fact, this is something that Dickens experienced first-hand: at age twelve, he was sent to a blacking factory to help pay for his father’s debts. As an adult, Dickens still deeply resented Malthusian theory that led to the liberal market’s extortion of children. In A Christmas Carol that resentment is embodied by the characters Ignorance and Want, two ghastly children that Scrooge encounters with the Ghost of Christmas Present. Dickens writes:

“‘Spirit, are they yours?’ Scrooge could say no more. ‘They are Man’s,’ said the Spirit, looking down upon them. ‘And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased”.

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Ignorance and Want. Drawing by John Leech, from the original 1843 edition.

With his Christmas parable, Dickens wanted to inspire people to provide for poverty-stricken citizens in a humane fashion. Ignorance and Want teach Scrooge how unjust he was when he suggested that the poor can simply go to prison or a workhouse. Note that by naming these two in one breath, Dickens implies that they are largely the same.

The big question is, of course, did it work? Did the novella actually make people spend more time with their family, as well as more money on charity? The answer, perhaps unsurprisingly, is yes. In 1843-44, there was sudden burst of charitable giving in Britain and the popularity of Dickens’ works and, in later years, his public readings, made the effect spread beyond the borders of Britain. The Queen of Norway sent gifts to London’s crippled children signed “With Tiny Tim’s Love” and an American factory owner called Mr. Fairbanks famously closed his factory on Christmas Day and sent all his employees a turkey. Moreover, historians agree that the way in which we currently celebrate Christmas – with family gatherings, food and drink and festivity – is largely the result of the Victorian revival of the holiday, spearheaded by the Carol. The tradition of ‘new year’s resolutions’ proves that even the theme of redemption is still prevalent.

According to Jan Lokin, former chairman of the Dickens Fellowship (Haarlem branch), people hardly consider the Carol a political work anymore. Instead, the public regards the novella a fairy tale with a few frightening passages. Yet, Lokin believes that Dickens would not mind this development. After all, the workhouses have been closed, governments take more effort to provide for the poor and the Carol still fulfils one of its main purposes: to make people feel the “magic in the very name of Christmas”.

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