The Evolution of A Christmas Carol on Page and Stage

This post is written by Kyle Truman. Kyle writes: ‘the primary objective for my dissertation was to evaluate the true nature of Dickens’s intentions when he wrote  A Christmas Carol and provide an appraisal of the significance of this novella to his life. I started the course as an associate student but very quickly moved up to part-time status after gaining a more comprehensive understanding of what a research-based MA entailed & never looked back. I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Pete and John and other members of Buckingham University and in the absence of a formal ceremony this year, received my Master of Arts in March 2020.’ 

When ranking famous festive stories, A Christmas Carol commands a respectable second slot after The Nativity. Yet the Carol is more than just a good yuletide yarn, it is part of the Christmas DNA and even in households where there are few books, the Carol’s story is still well known and Scrooge himself part of the common vernacular. It is embedded in the collective psyche, rightfully claiming the status of a ‘culture text’ and this moral fable of Scrooge’s self-reform has resonated with its audience since the first edition sold out almost overnight in December 1843.

A Christmas Carol was lauded as ‘immortal’ and a ‘treasure’ on publication and achieved a number of notable firsts: it was the first in a series of Dickens’s Christmas books that would forever connect him with the season; it was the first to be read in public and it was pioneering in its presentation and packaged specifically for the Christmas market. Dickens’s release was contemporaneous with Cole’s first Christmas card design, Tom Smith’s crackers and Santa Claus himself and the anticipation for Christmas grew as these new fancies captivated willing new consumers. Dickens, the magi and the stars were clearly aligned as he charmed the masses with his first Christmas story. It has been universally accepted that The Second Report of The Children’s Employment Commission, Dickens’s visit to a ragged school in the east end of London and his speech at The Athenaeum in Manchester acted as the catalyst for A Christmas Carol, all of which occurred in the months leading up to its publication.

But then my interest was piqued by great grand-daughter Monica Dickens’s comment that the Carol was conceived as a ‘cold-hearted money spinner’ and prompted a new appraisal and a more accurate evaluation of Dickens’s true intentions when he wrote the Carol. This was a direct challenge to the philanthropic essence of A Christmas Carol and the supposed altruistic motivation behind its design and this was to form the basis for my thesis. It would appear that a tale that was designed to promote goodwill and deride avarice was in fact motivated by the author’s primary objective to generate personal wealth. Clearly this prompts the question of the Carol’s relevance and validity at the time it was published in the hungry forties, through to contemporary times. So, if we accept that Dickens was looking to furnish his own personal needs and in doing so created a seminal text with sacrosanct status, does this work’s integrity suffer if the messages are still relevant today. ‘And so, out of the very need and greed it decried, A Christmas Carol was born.’

There are many obvious changes when comparing the original text to the final Reading version of the Carol. If the range of sources and the inspiration that Dickens drew from are consistent, notably Gabriel Grub’s story from The Pickwick Papers, the nature of the messages have changed, become diluted or simply disappeared at the author’s hand. The text developed significantly from its early formative strands before it migrated to novella format before being condensed for his Reading tours. Whilst the text characterises the hungry forties, it is not anchored to one point in time and would logically benefit from his revisions over the years. Dickens was chiefly looking to challenge ignorance, personified in the Carol as Ignorance and Want, yet these prominent characters had disappeared in the final Reading versions of the text. It could be suggested that their removal transforms the Carol in novella form from being a protest song, to simply a piece of entertainment. So, it’s proven that certain ethics and statements were lost, whilst others were reinforced in its later incarnation as a Reading text. However, the exclusion of the charity collectors, corrupt organisations and other forms of social criticism seems to have had little effect on the net takeout. Instead, Bob Cratchit and family enjoy greater prominence, so perhaps prioritising the light triumphing over dark was more conducive to a shared Reading experience. I suggest that its value should be reassessed and redefined by a different criteria relevant to the timelines of A Christmas Carol and Dickens. Extrapolating this point further it could be argued that after the last Reading performance, its validity can no longer be defined by the author and is now overseen by the Carol’s audience. It is now our perception of the narrative against an ever-changing backdrop that is critical.    

A Christmas Carol has pursued its own journey starting with its publication over 175 years ago, on becoming a success in print, a sensation on the subsequent Reading tours in both the UK and America and its status today. A Christmas Carol is a novella, a one man show, a Reading, a play, performed on radio, in film, in animations as a musical and even with puppetry. In his lifetime Dickens was providing entertainment for a class that was largely ignored. He offered the masses a personal distraction for those that could read, or a collective experience not usually afforded to the people as they gathered in groups to listen to the Carol or take their place in the shilling seats. There was indeed a feeling that audiences were growing together in this collective experience. They were empowered with a new sense of goodwill and a desire to share life’s journey with their fellow man. If the Carol lost the edge in its core social commentary through its various iterations, it still resulted in a work that has inspired self-analysis, reform and greater consideration to the plight of others.

Published by Pete Orford

I'm course director of the MA in Charles Dickens Studies at the University of Buckingham in conjunction with the Dickens Museum in London. I am currently editing Pictures from Italy for the Oxford Dickens collection, and I'm Chief Investigator for The Drood Inquiry (www.droodinquiry.com). My book "The Mystery of Edwin Drood: Charles Dickens’s unfinished novel and our endless attempts to end it" was published by Pen and Sword Books in 2018.

3 thoughts on “The Evolution of A Christmas Carol on Page and Stage

  1. You’re so right, Kyle–‘A Christmas Carol’ is out of Dickens’s hands now, and curated by the world at large. What, one wonders, would the Inimitable have made, as an audience member, of its animated adaptation as ‘Beavis and Butthead Do Christmas’ (1995)? Laughter or tears?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve seen a lot of Carols, mostly for research purposes,and nothing scrapes the barrel quite so low as the Barbie Christmas Carol…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The structure of the MA is designed to support and train students to postgraduate level before they commence on thier main thesis. So in the first half of the course each student writes an Extended Research Proposal (outlining their planned topic), an Annotated Bibliography (detailing the key works they’ve read and plan to use) and an Intermediate Essay where they get to trial writing at Master’s level. On completion of these they then move on to writing their main thesis. In Kyle’s case, the Intermediate essay allowed him to use his own local knowledge alongside Dickensian research, investigating Dickens’s Public Reading Performance in Leamington Spa from the perspective of the town – what did it mean to have Dickens himself turn up one night for a performance? How was it advertised and anticipated? And what was the reaction? It was a fascinating account that put a new spin on Dickens’s reading tour.

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