George Orwell said the best test of literary merit is survival and, by that standard, A Christmas Carol must rank as one of the greatest works of literature ever produced.
Scarcely a December has gone by since it first appeared in 1843 in which a stage adaptation hasn't been performed somewhere in London there's currently a production at The Young Vic by a South African company (pictured) and it has been made into countless films, the latest being Robert Zemeckis's, due for release in 2009. If Dickens had written just this one story and no other, his immortality would still be guaranteed.
Yet, set against his body of work, A Christmas Carol is pretty thin gruel. For one thing, it runs to only 74 pages in the Oxford University Press edition. Contrast this with the same publisher's edition of Bleak House, which runs to 914 pages.
Nor was it written in circumstances likely to produce great art. Sales of Martin Chuzzlewit, Dickens' previous novel, were beginning to fall off in the autumn of 1843 and his wife, Catherine, had just become pregnant with a fifth child. A Christmas Carol was conceived as a quick money-maker. He wrote it in just over six weeks, making sure it was ready in time for the Christmas market, and published it himself, calculating that his share of the profits would be greater than any fees he might get from a publisher. Admittedly, as Dr Johnson pointed out, only a fool doesn't write for money, but few authors can have been as mercenary as Dickens when he sat down to compose A Christmas Carol.
These facts alone don't mean it isn't any good, but even his most generous critics wouldn't rank it in the first tier of Dickens' work. It embodies the same sledgehammer sentimentality Oscar Wilde bemoaned of The Old Curiosity Shop. Tiny Tim, who bore "a little crutch, and had his limbs supported by an iron frame", is a character unworthy of the novelist who created Mr Micawber and Mrs Havisham. As Margaret Oliphant put it, A Christmas Carol is the "apotheosis of turkey and plum pudding".
How to account for its longevity, then? The answer is simple: it has become inextricably bound up with Christmas in the public imagination. It has survived for the same reason Slade's "Merry Christmas Everybody" has survived not because either is any good, but because each is guaranteed an airing every December.
Orwell was wrong: survival, by itself, isn't proof of literary merit; provided a piece of work can become a seasonal staple, it can stand the test of time and still be second-rate.
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