walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

_A Christmas Carol in Prose_, Charles Dickens

The BPL book group selection for December, I read the first 3 staves last night and the remaining 2 today. At least two people in the book group did not finish the book because they found it unreadable, largely due to the language. Only one person in the group had ever read it before; everyone, of course, had encountered innumerable homages and reworkings, plays, movies, etc.

The major take away from the group was that people didn't much care for it, and didn't feel like talking about it, either.

I got the Annotated version, edited by Michael Patrick Hearn (which got me thinking about Herne the hunter, which is apropos of absolutely nothing, since my thinking Herne was associated with Celtic solstice traditions is totally and completely without basis in fact). Some of the notes, predictably, struck me as pointless and/or not as clear as they could be. And I did not actually read all of the editorial matter (boy, is there a great lot of it). In general, however, it's really interesting. There are a lot of pictures contemporary to the writing and the period in which Dickens read it out loud for charity performances. I had not realized how inextricably Dickens and this book were in the creation of the modern English-speaking version of Christmas. I knew the Puritans had really done a number on Christmas and it took a while to recover. When I mentioned this at book group, J. repeatedly said that Queen Victoria is the one who revived Christmas and it was not Dickens single-handedly (didn't think it was, but in any event).

Here's a nice little summary:


Dickens' prose at least in this outing is full of extremely local in time-and-space references: you need to know a lot about London and English culture to make sense of long stretches of descriptive prose. This is true of a lot of nineteenth century popular fiction (okay, this is true of popular fiction. Period. End. Name drop central. It is a problem.). Given my reading history, I barely noticed this as a problem.

A couple things really stood out about this book, however. First, it is perhaps the Best Instance Ever of how people who really transform our world turn out to have done so for reasons that eventually become almost incomprehensible. Bend your brain around the idea that Christmas as good clean holiday fun involving food, games in the family circle, singing, dancing and being all smiley-happy-nice to the people around you -- bend your brain around the idea that that is rescuing Christmas from the hard core Christians who think mistletoe incites lust. Yeah. Seriously. That's what Dickens and Victoria were up against.

Second, Dickens is even a worse writer than I had thought. Never mind the opacity of the descriptions to a 21st century reader. His point of view is sloppy. _Really_ sloppy. I was a little surprised. I tried to find out from M., who had listened to an audio version (read by Jim Dale, no less), whether it sounds better read out loud. The answer was a very, very, very weak yes, maybe, I guess (that would be me paraphrasing).

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this work is a really bizarre conflation of the sacred and the mundane. The book is laced with references to the guy the birth of whom the holiday is nominally a celebration, in one case directly juxtaposed with whole families playing games commonly associated with children (this actually generated some complaint at the time, with the expectation that the sentence in question might be removed in future editions -- boy did that not happen), and that being a Good Thing in keeping with Christ's outlook on children (accurate!). While church bells ring the time of day, however, there's not really any church going or scripture reading or anything else obviously sacred/Christian/religious going on for the holiday. Dickens' forceful argument in favor of getting the day off isn't because it is a sacred day; the argument is to spend that time with family and friends, apprentices and so forth. Scrooge thinks the whole thing is humbug, and a ripoff for employers who have to pay for workers who aren't working. Cratchit's response is that it only happens once a year, and of course Scrooge is converted to the Christmas Spirit.

And that's the oddest thing of all about this book. Scrooge is converted by the Spirit of Christmas to have the spirit of Christmas. The book is all about a conversion experience and it really takes! Totally changes his outlook on life and his behavior, quite instantly and persistently. In part this happens because of efforts made on his behalf by a friend-ly spirit, Marley, who appears to be stuck in Purgatory working off his bad juju. This is a really, really evangelical style Christian thing, on one of the two holidays that are The Big Deal for Christians, but it is sufficiently separated from theology that the whole story can be reworked again and again and again, in every context imaginable and probably a few more besides that, without it triggering oh, Jesus, another religious story.

I think we've all collectively been sucked into this iconic work, and simultaneously failed to understand on a meta-level just how important this thing was in building the world in which the middle class operates to this day. I would say, hey, you should read this thing, but first off, it is clearly problematic in terms of slogging through it (short as it is) and second, even reading it doesn't necessarily convey what I got out of it.

Big thumbs up for Michael Patrick Hearn's annotations, even tho I haven't read them in detail yet, I'm sure over the years to come I will. Sort of a confused headshake for the original work. When we read it, we're not having anything remotely like the experience of readers past. What can you do?
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