It only took Charles Dickens six weeks to write “A Christmas Carol.”
In 1843 he didn’t have Wite-Out, spellcheck, or Alexa. But Dickens succeeded without those aids because he knew exactly what he wanted to say and why. His ability to write in such a multi-nuanced manner has been a gift to readers and theater lovers ever since.
But “A Christmas Carol” didn’t start out as warm and fuzzy with all the feels.
Appalled by the findings of a journalist friend (everyone needs one) who compiled interviews from children of all ages about harsh labor practices in the United Kingdom, Dickens thought he should write an informational political protest pamphlet.
After mulling it over, he shifted his methodology to a story with otherworldly characters personifying relatable yet not-obviously regrettable traits – at least not to our main character, Ebenezer Scrooge (but who am I to offer up a spoiler alert for a 178-year-old book?).
In a 2016 Time magazine article, “The Real Reason Charles Dickens Wrote ‘A Christmas Carol,’” John Broich further explained the impetus for the story:
“Dickens read the testimony of girls who sewed dresses for the expanding market of middle-class consumers; they regularly worked 16 hours a day, six days a week, rooming – like Martha Cratchit – above the factory floor. He read of 8-year-old children who dragged coal carts through tiny subterranean passages over a standard 11-hour workday. These were not exceptional stories, but ordinary. Dickens wrote to one of the government investigators that the descriptions left him ‘stricken.’”
These days, any professor of English Literature 101 will say Dickens intended the themes of “A Christmas Carol” – greed over employee/human worth, superiority of class and caste, deeming those less fortunate as deserving of their fate – to be markers of his time.
But unless I’ve missed something, it could have been written yesterday, despite today’s child labor laws (but I’ll leave my soapbox to the side).
“A Christmas Carol” has always captured my imagination. I love the idea of being dragged to the past with a spirit eternally tormented by his own awful behavior while living. Of looking beyond our own in-the-moment survival techniques to see how we can do better just by observing others being better. And most importantly, of being lulled into the future to see the worst of what mankind could become if we don’t all pull it together and stop treating each other like crap, despite our socio-economic differences.
Sprinkle all this with time-travel skills Dr. Who would be jealous of and a giant door knocker that talks and Dickens had a winner for the ages.
Ever since I’ve lived in Maine, I’ve gone to see the annual Portland Stage Company production of “A Christmas Carol.” I’ve taken my children, a few different guys (I dumped the one who fell asleep), my BFF, and have gone by myself. Last year, like so many others disheartened by COVID-19 and endless quarantining, I listened to Jonathan Winters’ recorded voice read it from cover-to-cover on NPR on Christmas Eve.
This year, I am crushed once again by not being able to see “A Christmas Carol” live in the little theater on Forest Avenue. This year, after everything was set in motion, Portland Stage made a cautious and careful decision to close the live show before it opened because a few crew members were exposed to COVID-19. Such a difficult turn of events is what Dickens would have called “a personal kindness for national benefit.”
For those of you who are crushed alongside me, let’s support Portland Stage by paying to watch the digitally taped version of the 2021 production, which is being made available to the public on Dec. 18. I’m not sure if Portland Stage’s admirable “personal kindness” is a business decision Ebenezer Scrooge would have made (the show is a major financial linchpin for the company), but we can still look to the immediate future with the most loving of spirits, real and imagined.
After this year is over, all eyes will be on Portland Stage for the 2022 annual production of “A Christmas Carol.” Another run that’s warm and fuzzy, with all the feels.
Natalie Ladd is an award-winning columnist, freelance writer, and Portland restaurant veteran. She loves Boston sports, California cabernets, and has never sampled a cheese she didn’t like. Reach her at [email protected].