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A Spotlight on Charles Dickens & “A Christmas Carol”

Charles Dickens (1812-1870) continues to be recognized as one of the greatest English novelists. Unlike many of his predecessors he was able to enjoy popularity among readers during his lifetime.

The Influence of His Early Years

Born in Portsmouth, Hampshire (England) on February 7, 1812, Charles Dickens spent his happiest childhood years in Chatham, Kent. In 1822 he moved to London where he lived until 1860. Although his parents were from a middle class background, his father often brought the family into hardship and embarrassment through his financial extravagance. When Charles was 12 his father was sent to prison for his outstanding debts. As a result, Charles had to leave school to work in a factory. During this brief descent into the working class, he developed a sensitivity to the underprivileged and oppressed. His experience of the struggles of the common man influenced his later writings.

When his father was released from jail, the family fortune improved and Charles was able to return to school, despite opposition from his mother who appreciated the financial security provided by the factory work of her eldest son. At 15, Dickens left school and became a clerk in a solicitor’s office and a shorthand reporter in the law courts, before becoming a parliamentary and newspaper reporter.

Charles Dickens came to adulthood in the reformist years of the 1830’s. The influence of a Christ-centered revival in England led to a new social activism. One of the first results of the Reformed Parliament was the abolition of slavery in the British Isles (1833) that was due primarily to the work of William Wilberforce (1759-1833), a strong advocate of Evangelical Christianity dedicated to cessation of the slave trade and the emancipation of slaves. Wilberforce and others spearheaded prison reform and took up the cause of the poor. This movement of social reform, particularly that which dealt with the plight of the poor, and the children of the poor, influenced Dickens’ political thought, although it is not apparent that he ever drew deeply from the theological or spiritual roots of the movement.

His Literary Style and Works

Dickens nearly became a professional actor in 1832 and was highly attracted to the theater. His descriptive narrative style, his keen ear for characteristic speech, his description of people’s comic mannerisms, and his ability to verbally set the scene, make his works readily adaptable to the stage.

In 1833 he began contributing short stories and descriptive essays to newspapers and magazines. Some of these were reprinted in a work that came to public attention, entitled “Sketches by Boz” (February 1836). This led to a commissioning to write a comic serial to be published with the engravings of a well-known artist. The result was the “Pickwick Papers” which soon catapulted Dickens to recognition as the most popular author of the day.

His next works included a play and pamphlet dealing with the topic of the poor being allowed to enjoy Sunday as a day of rest and worship. After the publication of these works he was able to resign from his newspaper job and edit a magazine, (“Bentley’s Miscellany”), in which “Oliver Twist” was serialized (1837-39).

“A Christmas Carol” (published in 1843) was rather suddenly conceived and written in a few weeks while Dickens was engaged in writing another serial, “Martin Chuzzlewit”. His view of life and its essential values become more clear in this, the first of his Christmas books. What others dismissed as “Christmas philosophy”, he himself spoke of as a “Carol philosophy” that the meaning and spirit of Christmas be lived throughout the year.

It has been suggested, according to N.C. Peyrouton, in an article in the Dickensian (Spring, May 1963, p.106) that the theme of “A Christmas Carol” parallels the theology that “the salvation of man’s soul is effected by the change of heart and life wrought by Christ’s Spirit.”

As Tiny Tim observed, during this season we must reflect upon “He who made lame beggars walk and blind men see.”

In “Ebenezer Scrooge: A Christmas Carol” we contextualize Dickens’ work with the inspiring thought of another 19th century writer, Boston’s own Phillips Brooks*, who like Dickens, wrote on the Christmas theme and our need to invite Christ into our lives:

“We hear the Christmas Angels
the great glad tidings tell,
O come with us,
Abide with us,
Our Lord Emmanuel.”

*Phillips Brooks (1835-1893) was an American Episcopal bishop born in Boston. In 1869 he received a call from Trinity Church, where he resided until 1891. In addition to writing many sermons, which were compiled and published in book form, he wrote the words to the well-known carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem” which is incorporated into this musical adaptation of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”.