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'

Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
News
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
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.

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam