Dickens: Nightmare before Christmas

Charles Dickens was driven by demons when he wrote his much-loved yuletide tales. Award-winning author Justin Cartwright feels the pain

When I was asked to choose one of Charles Dickens's books to write about for BBC Radio 3's The Essay series on "the Writer's Dickens", I immediately picked A Christmas Carol, because Dickens's love of Christmas has always intrigued me. It came as a surprise to learn that A Christmas Carol is his most read book and that "Bah! Humbug!" is the best-known phrase in all his work.

Its popularity, I think, rests on the understanding that Christmas was deeply affecting to Charles Dickens and that A Christmas Carol was far more than a simple ghost story; it is trembling with emotions that come straight from the heart. Dickens himself reported tears as he wrote it. For him, I think, Christmas was a refuge from the memories that plagued him, memories of a childhood fraught with anxiety and mistreatment. The horrors of the time he spent working in Warren's Blacking Warehouse grew in his memory and came to represent all his insecurities and all his longings. He also came to idealise Christmas as a time of untrammelled happiness and peace, a respite in a harsh world.

From very early in Dickens's writing, Christmas is a favourite subject: Sketches by Boz of 1836, for example, has a story, "A Christmas Dinner", which describes a family Christmas party during which old resentments are forgotten and old wounds healed. Dickens wrote "Christmas time! That man must be a misanthrope indeed, in whose breast something like a jovial feeling is not roused – in whose mind some pleasant associations are not awakened – by the recurrence of Christmas." The memory of a child who has died also features: this story is very obviously the progenitor of Tiny Tim and the genesis of A Christmas Carol.

As a result of the Puritan interregnum and the Industrial Revolution, the traditional Christmas had lost ground over nearly 200 years, but now, in the early 19th century, a revival was taking place, soon to be helped on its triumphant way by Prince Albert's introduction from Germany of the Christmas tree. And Dickens was the high priest of the traditional Christmas.

In The Pickwick Papers, Dingley Dell is the setting for a demonstration of how one generation passes to another the traditions of Christmas, which Dickens regarded so highly, traditions that the Wardle family had observed, from – as Dickens says – time immemorial. He paints a picture of a pre-industrial, even mediaeval, Christmas that places the happiness of the servants and the children at its heart. And as he became wealthy, Dickens loved to be at the centre of Christmas, the master of the revels. The whole family was enlisted to perform pieces he had written on Twelfth Night. It was clearly an antidote to his lifelong fear of poverty and disgrace, always a possibility in Victorian England, as his father had proved.

A Christmas Carol is about the working poor: Scrooge's nephew, Fred, and his clerk Bob Cratchit celebrate Christmas with a warm heart as best they can and they celebrate it for its own sake. When Scrooge describes it as a whole day of making money lost, Fred says: "I have always thought of Christmastime, when it has come round – apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that – as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!"

This is the authentic voice of Dickens. What is often seen as gross sentimentality in Dickens is the very real sense that he had been betrayed by his family: his mother, he said, was keen for him to be sent back to the blacking factory, for which he could never forgive her: "I do not write resentfully or angrily: I know how all these things have worked together to make me what I am, but I never afterwards forgot, I never shall forget, I never can forget, that my mother was warm for my being sent back." In fact, he is writing with the deepest imaginable resentment and bitterness. In A Christmas Carol, Dickens takes a sensual – almost spiritual – delight in the abundance and open-handedness of Christmas; lavishness and plenty were to become another theme. This is his description of Scrooge's chamber transformed by the spirits: "Heaped up on the floor, to form a kind of throne, were turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, sucking-pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince-pies, plum-puddings, barrels of oysters, red-hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth-cakes, and seething bowls of punch, that made the chamber dim with their delicious steam."

There is an element of mythologizing in the story of the blacking factory, both by Dickens and critics. Warren's factory was in fact owned by a relative of the Dickens family who was doing the family a favour by taking young Charles on. But whatever the justification for sending him there, it was an appalling experience – as we read in David Copperfield: "No words can express the secret agony of my soul as I sank into this companionship. I worked from morning to night with common men and boys, a shabby child." His father, released from Marshalsea, once came to look through the window to where his son and other workers were on public display, much to Charles's utter confusion and humiliation. "I wondered," he wrote "how he could bear it." It seems that Charles may have started work there at the age of 11 rather than 12 as is generally accepted, and it is probable that he worked there for about a year. That time made him aware that he was on the edge of the abyss of social ruin.

In his autobiography, he wrote: "I know I do not exaggerate, unconsciously and unintentionally, the scantiness of my resources and the difficulty of my life... I know that, but for the mercy of God, I might easily have been, for any care that was taken of me, a little robber or a vagabond." It was the Victorian nightmare of social regression. So Christmas was idealized as the time when people were at their most affectionate and generous. There is something moving and even a little desperate about Dickens's love of Christmas.

When I was a boy in South Africa, Dickens was one of the first writers I got to know well. His books opened a door to an unfamiliar, mysterious, richly comic and very human world. I longed to be able to understand it and experience it.

In South Africa we gave each other Christmas cards of traditional snow-scenes, and we incinerated our Christmas pudding with the help of brandy. My father was something of a Dickensian character himself, good-hearted but inept, and almost incinerated himself in the process one year. The traditions of Christmas were keenly observed, in the blazing heat of midsummer. I love the tradition still and for the same reasons as Dickens – the security, the sense of continuity, the compassion and the feeling of being in some way more human. But as I write this, I wonder if I didn't acquire these feelings from reading Dickens. I was at boarding school for nine long years, a thousand miles away from home, and even now I sometimes feel that aching emptiness that Dickens evokes with such skill. I would hide in the dormitory in the afternoon to read, desperate to get away with the help of books from the airless world of the boarding school. It would be unfair on my kind parents to say I felt abandoned, but what I did feel – and I recognise in Dickens – was a sense of never-ending emptiness, of days stretching out interminably, full of pointless rituals and shot through with the fear of punishment.

To this day, I can remember the deadness of the Sundays when those who had no relatives or friends living nearby, spent the day in dreadful limbo; the other boys would come back from their homes in the evening, full of accounts of fun and lavish food, and those of us who hadn't been asked out – it had to be formally requested by a parent – would sit silent and miserable over the Sunday evening soup. Soup and deprivation had for many years an affinity in my mind.

When I was a young man, with aspirations of being a writer, I turned against Dickens. He seemed to me then to reside in a deeply artificial and overly sentimental universe. The truth is, Dickens is sentimental, and sometimes shallow, but what I came to see clearly was his craft. Writing is, after all, just the act of creating new and believable life on the page. And Dickens has created richer and more memorable characters than any writer in history.

Dickens also has an astonishing ability to manipulate our sympathies and to direct our affections to the more human of his characters at the expense of the bogus, the pompous and the cruel. I particularly enjoy his lampooning of lawyers. But most of all, I appreciate how he rejoices in humanity and I also see, after living here for many years, just how his writing fostered the belief that good-heartedness is an indispensable British virtue. And I see more clearly than ever after reading it again that A Christmas Carol contains many of Dickens's obsessions, the obsessions that drove him on, and they include the love of Christmas, redemption for children and kindness.

J M Coetzee wrote recently, "Art that is not great-souled, as the Russians would say, that lacks generosity, fails to celebrate life, this art lacks love." Dickens celebrated life as no other writer has ever done. He was indeed great-souled.

BBC Radio 3 will broadcast Justin Cartwright's essay on Friday at 10.45pm as part of its week-long series, 'The Essay: The Writer's Dickens'

News

literature

News
Dermot O'Leary attends the X Factor Wembley Arena auditions at Wembley on August 1, 2014 in London, England.

television

News
news
Arts and Entertainment
At this year's SXSW festival in Austin, Texas

Music Why this music festival is still the place to spot the next big thing

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished
tvReview: The latest episode was a smidgen less depressing... but it’s hardly a bonza beach party
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Mexican government reportedly paying Bond producers for positive portrayal in new filmfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Disney’s flying baby elephant is set to return in live-action format
filmWith sequels, prequels and spin-offs, Disney plays it safe... and makes a pachyderm
Arts and Entertainment
Nazrin with Syf, Camden
photography
News
The QI Elves photographed at the Soho Theatre. They are part of a team of researchers who find facts for the television programme 'QI'.
people
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv0-star review: Sean O'Grady gives it his best shot anyway
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss