I am a bit of a geek when it comes to Charles Dickens'A Christmas Carol. I have taught/lectured on it from both the English Literature and the Popular Culture 'angles'. I collect different editions of the book and interesting ornaments/memorabilia. I have blogged on it and written political parodies on it. So when my latest acquisition - Marley's Ghost - arrived today, I was pretty excited.
- Marley in his pigtail, usual waistcoat, tights, and boots; the tassels on the latter bristling, like his pigtail, and his coat-skirts, and the hair upon his head. The chain he drew was clasped about his middle. It was long, and wound about him like a tail; and it was made (for Scrooge observed it closely) of cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel. - A Christmas Carol
As always, when reading/teaching 19thC literature, it is
frightening how close we are to returning to the mores of Victorian society under this present government. The notion of the 'deserving and undeserving poor' [which had actually been around since Tudor times] played a big part in the distribution of charity in Victorian patriarchal hierarchy.
When Scrooge in A Christmas Carol early in Chapter One asks the two gentleman who are seeking charitable donations to help the poor:
'Are there no prisons?' asked Scrooge.'Plenty of prisons,' said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.'And the Union workhouses?' demanded Scrooge. 'Are they still in operation?''They are. Still,' returned the gentleman, 'I wish I could say they were not.''The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?' said Scrooge.'Both very busy, sir.''Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,' said Scrooge. 'I'm very glad to hear it.'
it is somewhat similar to Iain Duncan-Smith's shameful comment this week:
'I am happy for people to visit food banks. I don't have a problem with them'.
The story of Marley's Ghost is that he, the late partner of Scrooge, visits the latter on Christmas Eve to warn him that unless Scrooge changes his ways he is doomed to become a restless spirit like Marley:
'I wear the chain I forged in life,' replied the Ghost. 'I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?'Scrooge trembled more and more.'Or would you know,' pursued the Ghost, 'the weight and length of the strong coil you bear yourself? It was full as heavy and as long as this, seven Christmas Eves ago. You have laboured on it, since. It is a ponderous chain!'
Scrooge tries to argue that he is only doing what a good Victorian should be doing, making and reinvesting his profits - see the Protestant Work Ethic :
'But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,' faltered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself.'Business!'' cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. 'Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!'
This is to me one of the most important statements in the book. It resembles the biblical quote, parallels of which can be found in all the great religions:
For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? Mark 8:36
Another important statement occurs when the Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge the figures under his robe. This ornament of mine shows a sanitised pair, illustrations from the book show a more frightening pair
From the foldings of its robe, it brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt down at its feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment.'Oh, Man! look here. Look, look, down here!'exclaimed the Ghost.They were a boy and girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.'Spirit! are they yours?'Scrooge could say no more.'They are Man's,' said the Spirit, looking down upon them. 'And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!' cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. 'Slander those who tell it ye! Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse! And bide the end!''Have they no refuge or resource?' cried Scrooge.'Are there no prisons?' said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. 'Are there no workhouses?'
The John Leech original illustration
The last 'comparison' with the present day/Victorian times I will make is using the 'metaphor' of Tiny Tim. He is presented in the book as a fragile, sickly child who, although his father is in regular employment, it is not possible for the family to afford the good food and medical treatment that he needs for what is a curable condition without which he will die.
We have seen under this present government an erosion in both confidence and financial support for the NHS, despite David Cameron's electioneering promise that the Conservative Party was 'the Party of the NHS' [January 2010
] We have learnt how many working people, including parents of course, cannot exist solely on their wages but have to rely on welfare benefits and/or food banks to feed themselves/ their families. When the cry goes up that we are in a period of austerity and cuts have to be made one remembers the quote of the late Tony Benn:
If we can find the money to kill people, we can find the money to help people.
In other words, no military campaign has ever been put aside because we are in a period of austerity......
Are we getting close to returning to the sort of society and times that Dickens wrote about in 1843? Please think about this and when listening to the pleas and excuses of the government in the forthcoming election campaign perhaps it will help to decide where we go next.