How Dickens Invented Christmas — and Why it Matters
Dr. Goldie Morgentaler
I’ve very mixed feelings about this lecture.
“I swallowed that book whole. Truly in one enchanted gulp. It would not be an exaggeration to say that I fell in love then and there with the author and his work, and especially with the extraordinary inventiveness of his mind, that still gives me endless delight. And with his use of language, and his idiosyncratic construction of sentences. To this day, although I’ve read through all of Dickens several times, I still get great pleasure out of just reading a Dickens sentence.” about 4:30-4:57
This is lovely, and what’s more it’s useful to me.
“…Christmas had become a holiday primarily of the lower classes, and was largely ignored by anyone with a claim to gentility.” circa 5:55-6:05
Is this true? The Geffrye Museum’s Christmas exhibition really led me to believe the divide was more rural/urban, as did Michael Slater’s lecture on the Christmas books. I’m not sure she’s right about this? I’m not certain she’s wrong, but.
Dickens’ “father was a naval clerk, and his mother came from a family that was in service to an Earl”. 6:10-6:16
Now that’s just wrong. Correct me please if I’m in error, but she’s gotten his parents’ backgrounds reversed.
The pushcart girl in Covent Garden father Christmas anecdote gets aired. (6:40)
“So he established a tradition of specialised holiday stories all by himself”.
This is misleading in a few ways. Slater points out how important Irving was as a predecessor here, and of course the Household Words/All The Year Round Christmas stories, which really establish the genre, are collaborative. Substantially though, it’s true that he popularises/’invents’ this genre, and that we tend to understate his importance as a generic innovator.
“In fact today’s common greeting of ‘Merry Christmas’ only came into wide circulation after the publication of A Christmas Carol.” 7:00-7:11
To the extent I trust her at this point, that’s interesting.
“The plot of this very long short story draws on the tradition in Britain of telling ghost stories at Christmas time. A Christmas Carol is a ghost story with a fairy tale ending.” 7:12-7:26
“Dickens was, and still is, often accused of being cloyingly sentimental…”
Honest question: was he, at the time? Is this more of an after-the-fact formation? Who was saying it, contemporarily, and to be honest… to what extent did they pronounce that to rhyme with ‘chav’? Were such accusations of sentimentality coded language about how he was popular, uneducated and not highbrow?
“…especially in indulging a fondness for describing the deaths of children…”
This is often repeated, but it’s simply incorrect. Dickens will hardly ever show you an on-screen death. In the whole of the canon, you find it but rarely. You may–often very quickly–see a body, but the death, especially of a child, you will mostly not be in the room for. David’s being downstairs when Dora dies is, if anything, the model for a Dickens death. It honestly surprises me that specialists, who ought to know better, are so sloppy on this point: it ain’t subtle.
“…Tiny Tim being a case in point.”
Yes. In that you do not fucking see him die. How hard is this?
Perhaps that ‘describing’ is meant simply to allude to the fact that people die in these (at a normal rate for Victorian children, tbh, especially considering the event-centred novelistic context), but I am not inclined to largess on this point. ‘Describing’ means describing, like Brexit means ‘what the shit’. You either see something happen in the narrative or you don’t. People use a word that suggests ‘lavishly dwelt on’ when the reality is that the events in question are ‘only alluded to’. That is so misleading as to be false.
“The fondness caused Oscar Wilde to come up with the witticism that ‘one must have a heart of stone to read the death of Tiny Tim without laughing.” (9:00-9:18)
Look, I know this is a lecture given to a mixed group of non-specialists, some of whom are possibly even barbarians from STEM. But even so, the quote is:
“One would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without dissolving into tears…of laughter.”
So you’ve got the wrong child there. And it’s too integral to your argument for that to be a voiced typo. And we also don’t see Nell die. People repeat this quote like Wilde wasn’t in active daddy-issues rebellion against the cultural ascendency of Dickens. Chesterton, who is in the same position vis a vis Wilde and is, for this and for personal reasons, inclined to get on better with Dickens, flat tells you this. Why are we repeating this as if it’s not a very specifically contextualised clap-back, as well as not being true? My god, it’s like reading cavalier poetry without knowing about the English civil war or listening to a Drake without knowing who Meek Mill is.
I really admire this woman’s passion and she says some good things, but an abridgement does not need to be active disinfo. I mean this is a shanda fur die goyim, Goldie.
Apparently the “Queen of Norway famously said that no one can be really bad who can cry over the death of Tiny Tim.” (9:50-9:59)
But you know, how much can I believe Morgentaler now, etc. It looks to be quoted in a 1906 newspaper from my home state, but now I am a facts nihilist who believes in nothing, and Bevier’s just in Macon county, what do they know about Norway or indeed about anything? I drive through that town and don’t notice.
Decently funny Tiny Tim does not die joke delivery.
“Dickens actually lost money on [the Carol]”.
Well, yes, though not in the long term, Callow tells us. (Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World) That’s fine, it’s true as far as it goes.
“they represent the underbelly of Victorian society: the desperate poverty lying hidden beneath the outer robes of respectable middle-class Victorian prosperity.”
That is REALLY nicely put.
“To Dickens’ credit, he resists the temptation to prettify these children.” (13:55-14:04)
Why are you so embarrassed to like him? ‘To Dickens’ credit’, like he doesn’t know what he’s doing here. It’s that very common casual condescension where he’s concerned, like you’re surprised he managed to get his shoes on in the morning. It’s his book. This is his point about child poverty. Of course he didn’t sentimentalise them here, the analytic object you are working in is his argumentative conception.
“We know that the inspiration for the Carol had grown out of Dickens’ visit a few months earlier to a ragged school, which is what the Victorians called charity schools for poor children.”
This is what I mean? It suggests that Dickens made such a visit once, rather than being intimately familiar with such institutions in his own country and every one he visited and being mired in the minutiae of his city, as well as extensively researching and working actively on school reform circa Nicholas Nickleby. It makes him into the Sultan of Agrabah: in the animated Aladdin series Jasmine, at the close of one episode, says they need to do something about the poor people in Agrabah. Her father blinks and says, with wonder, poor people? In Agrabah? Dickens isn’t a shocked, sweet but clueless micro-reformer.
I’d forgive these little isolated incidents, but as the lecture goes on they coalesce into something much more substantial and weirder.
Callow also specifically cites the Children’s Employment Commission Reports (pages 105, 138, 142) as the impetus for Carol, quoting letters to that effect. You see the difference between seeing how the other half lives (the implication being ‘for the first time’) and being shocked by an extensive, in-depth report in a field you work on that is also a popular longread in the sector, right? So I’m reasonably confident saying Morgentaler’s wrong here, or at least that her statement is fairly misleading (and misleading in an increasingly clear direction…).
“…he was obliged to do this work in front of a large window, so that the people passing on the street could look in and witness his humiliation.” (16:45-16:51)
Welllllll, not the whole time. Only when the premises moved. But that’s largely true.
I wonder a little whether Dickens suppressed the blacking factory origin story not just because he associated the time with pain and humiliation, but because he had some suspicion of what it might do to the idea of him? Biographers wheel out this period as a major incident in the standard hagiography, and it’s used to turn him into a narrow Personal Interest Crusader. He’s Explained by this. His interest in social justice is somehow excused by this.
Morgentaler suggests the blacking factory period was only a few months. (17:12) Callow (pgs. 19-28) suggests it was something over two years. I trust him much more.
“…he worked with other boys whom he considered his social inferiors.”
That’s… something you could possibly pull out in a reading of that letter, but it’s doesn’t seem that fair, and it’s such an ungenerous reading of him, his general thought and a period of trauma. Why do people who claim to like Dickens so often hate Dickens, or at least engage in some massive performative disavowal? What is going on with that?
“…mention of Warren’s Blacking Factory occurs in almost every one of his novels.” (18:30-18:35)
What? In what sense is that true? How does she mean that? Her explanation doesn’t really clear it up.
Scrooge’s “increasing avariciousness as he grows older can therefore be seen as a psychological defence against the fear of loss: an impulse to horde money because unlike humans, money can never abandon or harm him emotionally. By having the ghost of christmas past take Scrooge back to revisit his childhood, Dickens is anticipating Freud’s perception that one way to lay to rest the ghosts of the past (and I use the word ‘ghosts’ advisedly) is to revisit them, and so try to come to terms with them.” (19:30-20:20)
That’s a good point, though I’d clarify that Freud strongly draws from Dickens, and pretty much tells us that. It’s interesting in light of the weird period where Dickens tries to develop the talking cure early, but Catherine gets annoyed and puts a damper on it.
“the celebration of joyous, unlimited human reproduction” (circa 23:00)
This is a nice argument about reproduction, class, Malthus and an aesthetic of fecundity. Also a good reminder that sex-segregated workhouses imposed abstinence on the indigent, even those who were married.
On this note: “Dickens was writing against the grain of contemporary ideology that blamed the poor for their poverty and defined them as profligate in their sexual indulgence.” (25:50-26:00)
There’s a degree of radicalism in that we don’t fully appreciate as contemporary lay-readers.
At about 24:20 she mentions that Fred’s wife is supposed to be pregnant! I NEVER SAW THIS!
Looking around though, MAN is that oblique:
“Abbey strategically places Fred in front of his wife so that the viewer cannot see that she is pregnant, a fact which Dickens only obliquely conveys by Scrooge’s embarrassment at having “started her” and about her having to keep her feet up (“Scrooge had forgotten, for the moment, about her sitting in the corner with the footstool,” 39). Indeed, Abbey has omitted the footstool, and thereby one of the strongest connections to Scrooge’s visit in company with the Spirit of Christmas Present in Stave Three, when she “was made comfortable with a large chair and a footstool, in a snug corner, where the Ghost and Scrooge were close behind her” (31). Fred in welcome holds out both hands, his arms fully extended as he leans forward on his left leg. Mrs. Fred (no Christian name supplied: she is simply “Scrooge’s niece, by marriage,” 29-30) seems dubious as to how best to receive her curmudgeonly uncle, rather than startled or surprised, although she does momentarily support herself by holding onto the dining chair (left). This interior, like the Cratchits’ in the previous illustration, is decorated with Christmas greenery, particularly around paintings and mirrors; as befits their better economic condition, however, Fred and his wife have decanters and deserts laid out on their table. While Mrs. Fred’s dress is a nondescript white, Abbey has carefully attired Scrooge’s nephew in the fashions of the 1840s, with tailcoat, fob, stirrup-trousers, and high collar. Significantly, Abbey has made Fred resemble Scrooge in height, figure, and facial features.”
Victorians really were euphemistic about pregnancy, hell.
“when he was younger and his children were few, fatherhood seemed to him a rather pleasant state. But as time went on, and his wife was continually pregnant […] Dickens found himself forced to provide for an ever-increasing brood, and his appreciation of the supposed joys of limitless fatherhood underwent a sea change.”
No it didn’t? He was always a good dad? Like you could have a complicated opinion of he and Catherine’s marriage and of his fiscal relationships with the children as (often profligate and dependent) adults, but this is such a reductive, catty framing, and again, god, those descriptions of how much work he put into fatherhood, of how good he made the kids’ holidays, are difficult to imagine bettering. Why invent flaws to dispute with, when the material is complicated enough? I’m sure you could string a few quotes into some kind of support for this, but that wouldn’t make it better than a sad Alternative Facts kinda reading.
She then smugly comments on his having ‘sent the kids off to the corners of the globe’, but to be honest I have some news for you about the British Empire. You know how in Holmes stories literally every other case someone’s going off to make their fortune in the colonies? Yeah. I mean this is seen at the time as securing a post for one’s adult children, and providing for them, especially if they’re struggling to find work and keep themselves out of trouble domestically? It’s like being shocked at the cruelty of people fostering out their children under feudalism. The logistics and ethics of child-rearing change with the period.
At 29:00ish she mentions Dickens’ great description of an onion. It’s so good I’m going to pop it in:
“There were ruddy, brown-faced, broad-girthed Spanish Onions, shining in the fatness of their growth like Spanish Friars, and winking from their shelves in wanton slyness at the girls as they went by, and glanced demurely at the hung-up mistletoe.”
Good spot on her part.
At about 30:00 she starts talking about the Christmas pudding “the pudding, like a speckled cannon-ball, so hard and firm” and saying she’s not sure she wants to eat something firm and shaped like a cannon-ball. It becomes clear that this woman does not know much about how one makes a pudding, especially in the 1840s. This becomes inescapable when she says puddings were good food for poor people because they required very little fat. What? What? Suet. Come on.
I don’t think you have to be a great cook or an expert in historical cuisine to write about this, but if you’re going to make analytic points about food in a text, I do think you probably need to understand that food to say something particularly valuable, yes. I remember being 20 and American and thinking a ‘cream tea’ was tea with whole cream poured in instead of milk. (Oy.) This was very, very stupid, but to still make that kind of mistake as a professional specialist is perhaps less excusable.
To really round it off, she comments that in Victorian England even the food you wat for holidays was a matter of class distinction. This is when my notes become a series of furious underlined scrawls. It still is. In modern England. And everywhere. That is how food works. That is how class works.
I wonder to what extent the ‘extraordinary inventiveness’ of Dickens, praised by Dr. Morgentaler and others, is a function of temporal and geographic distance between them and the text?
At 35:30 she makes a fun, good argument about dance as a social equaliser, but it is too late. At 36:55 I lose it completely. This is what alllllll the little sniping de-politicisations have been working towards and building up to. I cannot believe this woman, with her weaksauce liberal Donald Trump quotes and her failure to reckon with class as an active force in the world today, is offering up such a childish, wilful misreading of this text and Dickens’ activist projects, all the while exuding a strong sense of ‘of course we know better now’ that is synonymous with ‘of course I know better’. Y’ain’t a better socialist than Dickens, and I am so done.
At some point I start to ask myself how many flat mistakes are normal and excusable in a prepared lecture by a specialist. I’m not trying to be pedantic and nasty here: the problem’s not just Morgentaler. I could make a case at length, and may yet do, though it’s hardly liable to win friends and influence people. Dickens scholarship is often casual with plots, with readings, with period details. Some of this shit comes in from non-specialist academics using Dickens (though they also ought to know better), but some of it is specialists. Catch Shakespearians being so lazy, they’d be buried and left for dead like Aaron in Titus. It’s a parable of the heap (insert DC pun here) situation: how wrong do we have to be before what we’re doing is unreliable, and without worth? Perhaps more importantly, why is this happening? What about the canon and the biographical personage and the development of academia and this subset thereof creates these conditions?
Armando’s Tale of Charles Dickens (BBC documentary)
While this documentary comes from a good place and has some fun elements, I can’t in good conscience recommend it because it’s really not to be trusted. It’d take someone who already knows and likes the subject, who essentially doesn’t need this documentary, to identify what’s ‘misleading to outright untrue’ and what isn’t.
Paul Kincaid suggests that now the BBC is liable to buy an out of house, pre-made documentary that’s literally never seen a fact-checker. Forgive me, but the fuck? You’re going to let something go out with your official stamp, as a sort of matter of record, and you have no real idea the goods you paid for are genuine? I don’t really know why this happens: grad students aren’t expensive? All you have to do is let them watch a cut/read your material/vet it on the BBC end? If they did have someone doing this, m’colleague was asleep at the wheel. Too many awkwardnesses to lay before you. Gchat squawked to a friend the way through, making irate goose noises.
There’s pretty good commentary on Mr Dick, and some of the comedians Iannucci speaks to are fun. But ‘core unreliability’ is my bette noir right now.
Also, popular history lays a ghoulish emphasis on Ellen Ternan’s being 18 when she and Dickens met. Not the period between their meeting and their romantic entanglement, and then the period between that and the consummation. Not the professional, artistic and class similarities between Ternan and Dickens (greater than those of he and Catherine), not his relationship with her family as a whole (he knows her sister and mother very well, and in a professional capacity–the sister especially, as she’s a writer married into another famous writer’s family who occasionally does pieces for Dickens’ magazine), not how he’s with ‘the young actress’ for years, so of course after a while she isn’t so 18 anymore. Even Katey Dickens, who hated Ellen and stanned hard for her mom (though that rather ill-conceived early marriage (she was nice but basic, a bit Victorian pumpkin spice latte, and for better and worse he was Dickens) had been breaking down for years due to incompatibility, sexual issues, then-unmerited jealous and the stressful death of a baby), admitted Ellen was really clever.
In all these depictions Ellen becomes a fixed figure of scandal. She’s so young!! Well… she’s been out working as an adult for years by the time they meet, she’s not young for a Victorian woman entering a relationship (age isn’t fully a fixed thing, it’s socially constructed, and to be 18 in the 1850s is in many ways different than being 18 today)–Dickens himself had been out in the workforce for several years by that age, and she doesn’t stay the same age for the 12 years (from 1858) they’re actually together in any form? There’s also thing where we’re at once more Victorian than the Victorians about Dickens, sneering at his marital breakdown (imagine freaking out like this about a modern divorce, it’s laughable), and simultaneously a smug sort of modern, expecting sex and gender norms to work like they do right now in 1857. Why do we fudge Austen’s age differences in adaptations and give them a cheerful pass in books but then turn around and find this significant age difference especially remarkable? You’re either okay with that aspect of Colonel Brandon/Marianne or you aren’t.
Male biographers and fans seem to want Their Dickens to be a sort of conquering Lothario, and are content to make him one out of very little evidence. The guy’s married once, separates from his wife with a big fat settlement, has another LTR that lasts until his death and very probably sleeps with these two people ever. I don’t know what to tell you. So why do they want or need that? What’s it doing? Like… how absolutely pathetic, on the face of it.
Charles Dickens has been ruined by the BBC
Howard Jacobson does a wonderful reading of this documentary, an awful-sounding Sue Perkins Dickens special, some of the issues mentioned above and Great Expectations. A solid premise well-argued. Very very worth reading.
“I and my fellows are ministers of Fate”: Dickens and his beloved Ariel, Priscilla Horton
by Katie Bell
“Ariel is referred to in the play as a mostly gender-neutral character (the pronoun “he” is used only a handful of times) and, up until the twentieth century, Ariel was typically played by female actresses. Perhaps this gender relationship can be best understood with comparison to J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. Although Peter is born a human boy, he does possess fairy-like qualities including his ability to be non-gender specific. Thus, Peter has always been played onstage and in film by females, most famously by Mary Martin. As we see, gender constraints do not apply to those in the fairy world, like Peter and Ariel, who are free to change gender forms, or even be gender neutral.”
I think this would work better for me if Bell specified when Ariel started being played by a woman rather than saying ‘up until the twentieth century’. Obviously initially this was not the case (as you almost certainly know, actresses weren’t allowed to perform on stage in Shakespeare’s day). Plus I’m just interested in the answer to this.
“On 26 October 1838, Dickens penned a poem “To Ariel” in honour of Horton’s depiction of Ariel. One can conjecture that Dickens must have been very taken with Horton’s performance to have penned such an impromptu poem for her.”
Hm. Not to nitpick, but is that necessarily true? I’d want to know the context. Is this a done thing? “This work appears in Horton’s autograph book”. Is, for example, her autograph book teeming with such tributes? Is one obliged to do it, really? We know Dickens wrote a similarly-contextualised poem for his first fiancé, in a commonplace book. I’d want to know more about the social etiquette surrounding the visit and the autograph or commonplace book.
Embarrassing bodies: what did the Victorians have to hide?
by Kathryn Hughes
This is a lively, well-written article, but I’m not sure it’s terribly trustworthy.
Take, for example:
“Dickens, meanwhile, was so self-conscious about his weak chin, especially now that he was besieged by requests to sit for photographic portraits, that he grew his trademark door knocker as a kind of prosthesis (a full beard was beyond him).”
Again, to what extent can I trust this when Callow, who I trust more (who has accumulated his authority with my by extensively showing his work and demonstrating his enthusiasm for the subject), describes the beard-growing as more of a boys’ adventure?
“The walking trip, which started in Switzerland, was on an epic scale; neither Collins nor Egg were ever in the best of health, and the pace must have been severely daunting to them. Dickens, needless to say, was renewed and exhilarated by the challenge. At the beginning of the tour, they all grew beards, or tried to, as if to indicate that they were rugged men of nature; but the outcrop of hair was disappointingly exiguous, so Dickens shaved his off, pour encourager les autres.” p. 225, Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World
This was in 1853. In 1856, while both were acting in The Frozen Deep, Dickens and Collins again grew beards for their characters. Dickens then kept his.
“He and Collins (who was to play Aldersley, the man whose life Wardour refrains from taking) both grew beards: Dickens finally began to look like Dickens.” p. 253, ibid.
Besides, fashion was changing to favour beards anyway. Surely the choice was bound-up in that? Dickens used to be something of a dandy (he once punched a guy in the street for an insult along these lines): he did like flash clothes and keeping himself neat. He can’t have been immune to the great beard craze.
Was Dickens self-conscious? He was always very insistent on his own worth, though self-confidence and a lack thereof can of course co-exist, and one’s valuation of oneself isn’t terribly stable or universal. He was, however, always thought very pretty. Callow cites contemporaries’ enthusiastic praise of him in this regard, and this Frank Stone painting of him when young (the brunette, the blonde’s Tennyson), which is pretty consistent with other depictions, doesn’t really suggest much cause for self-consciousness about his chin (or indeed about portraiture). (Incidentally, the ridiculous dog is also his.)
If anything, he might share his semi-autobiographical character David’s slight concern about appearing adult and masculine. Dickens was always slight, short, and preserved his almost oddly youthful appearance until suddenly, in late middle age, due to stress and illness, starting to look like the bank-note version of himself. I could see him getting older and being self-conscious about this change (which startled friends), or earlier about still looking somewhat effeminate or boyish, but that’s not quite the same as ‘oh horrors, my weak chin!!’ If she’s working off a specific quote, even (which she doesn’t nod to), there’s a lot of evidence to suggest it was a bit more complex than that (also we shouldn’t necessarily take sources at face value as to why they did things).
This seems a small thing, and the article is but an abridgement of the book, but it is the author’s own document. If I cannot trust her to be sufficiently precise about her subject matter here, on the aspect of her topic I happen to be aware of, how should I trust her where I am less informed?
And a small point from the article: ‘Or, to put it another way, what we are looking at is the first sighting of artistic modernism.’
oh god, don’t let me interrupt the majestic progress to that illustrious end-point, which seems to have its Clear Origin in every action undertaken by man previous to 1920.