Friday Finds: The best adaptation of A Christmas Carol?

My favorite book is A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. I wrote about how much I love this book in a post last year. Those of you who have been reading the blog for that long (thanks!) might recall it! This year, I was chatting with my friend Cameo about Dickens and all of the many film adaptations of A Christmas Carol. She suggested I watch a few film versions and give a verdict on which one was the ‘best’. I thought it was a great idea. So for this, the last ‘Friday Finds’ of the year, that’s exactly what I’ve done.

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Madeira Mondays: Revisiting ‘A Christmas Carol’

As an author, I’m often asked: ‘What are your favorite books?’ Interviewers ask this, school children ask this, my undergraduate students ask this. People even ask it if you’re not an author, as a sort of get-to-know-you question at parties or on dates. For us book lovers, this is an impossible question, which is why it’s best to memorize a few authors/books you can rattle off whenever you’re asked, a sampling of your tastes. If you’re an author, it’s also a chance, I think, to give people a sense of what your writing will be like, by citing people who have inspired you. I often preface it with something like, ‘Oh, I love so many books. I couldn’t pick a favorite!’

But this is a lie, my dear Madeira Mondays friends. I do have a favorite book, but I’m usually shy to mention it. Because mentioning it makes people think of awkward school plays and also the muppets. But my favorite book – the one that brings me the most joy and satisfaction and warmth when I read it – is definitely A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.

You’re probably familiar with the story of A Christmas Carol, because there have been SO many adaptations of it – from modernizations (see: Scrooged) to classic ‘straightforward’ adaptations (see the aforementioned: The Muppet Christmas Carol). But in case you’re not, this was a novella published by Charles Dickens in 1843 (so we’re deviating from our 18th century remit a bit today, dipping into the mid 19th century!). It follows the story of a greedy, isolated old man called Ebenezer Scrooge who is visited by three ghosts (the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future) who show him the error of his ways. Over the course of the story, Scrooge learns about the values of charity and compassion and emerges from the experience transformed into a kinder, more giving, person.

One of the things that makes this book so brilliant is that it is hilarious. Yes, the themes in it are serious and Dickens takes them seriously. His concerns about poverty in London and social injustice motivated him to write the book at all. He considered writing a political pamphlet about the plight of London’s poor, but instead settled on exploring his concerns in a Christmas narrative because he thought this would reach more people. (Dickens also needed the money. When he started writing A Christmas Carol, sales of his previous book Martin Chuzzlewit were falling off.)

Yet he takes these very serious themes and crafts the most lighthearted, lovely, engaging and, as I mentioned, funny story. We see that humor from the very beginning of this story. The first paragraph ends with ‘Old Marley (Scrooge’s former business partner) was dead as a doornail’. Then the entire second paragraph is just a funny musing about why exactly we say, ‘dead as a doornail’, when we really should probably say ‘coffin-nail’:

Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

We know right away that we’re in good hands and this is going to be a bit of a silly romp, rather than a polemic. And it’s not just that the narrative voice is splendid. This is Dickens we’re talking about so the characters’ dialogue is also brilliant – vivid and fun. Take this exchange between the ghost of Jacob Marley, the first apparition to appear, and Scrooge.

“You don’t believe in me,” observed the Ghost.

“I don’t,” said Scrooge.

“What evidence would you have of my reality beyond that of your senses?”

“I don’t know,” said Scrooge.

“Why do you doubt your senses?”

“Because,” said Scrooge, “a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”

I love that line: ‘There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!’ You hopefully get my point by now – the book is a lot of fun.

Jacob Marley visits Scrooge in one of the original illustrations from the book’s first publication in the 1840s (The image is public domain, from the British Library)

But it’s also got such striking and vivid descriptions, which I promise will surprise you, even if you’ve already seen a version of it on film or at the theatre. Take Dickens’ surreal and strange descriptions of the Ghost of Christmas Past:

For as its belt sparkled and glittered now in one part and now in another, and what was light one instant, at another time was dark, so the figure itself fluctuated in its distinctness: being now a thing with one arm, now with one leg, now with twenty legs, now a pair of legs without a head, now a head without a body: of which dissolving parts, no outline would be visible in the dense gloom wherein they melted away.

Is it too much to say that the murky, morphing figure of the ghost represents our dim and ever-fluctuating understanding of the past? No. No it’s not. I’m saying it.

Not only is A Christmas Carol full of humor and genuine surprises, but it’s also full of compassion. There is never a time, since it’s publication, when its themes haven’t been relevant to us: the importance of caring for those around us (our family, our work colleagues), but also those we might never meet. It’s also quite revolutionary, in a sense, because Scrooge actually does give money away, at the end of the book. He merrily tells his employee Bob Crachit, at the end of the book: ‘I’ll raise your salary, and endeavour to assist your struggling family (…)’. It’s not just a book about being generally nice to people, but rather about someone who puts their money where their mouth is, as it were, and endeavors to better the lives of those around him through financial assistance.

Charles Dickens in 1842, the year before he wrote A Christmas Carol, painted by Francis Alexander and accessed via Wikipedia. (He looks so different from the bearded, older version we’re most familiar with now, right?)

I called this post ‘Revisiting A Christmas Carol’ because it’s something I do every winter. I’m serious. I reread the book pretty much every year. (It’s short! You could easily read it in a day!) I also liked the reference to the ghosts ‘visiting’ Scrooge, but ALSO I called it that because most people are already familiar with the book, or think they’re familiar with it, but it’s well-worth a revisit. Or a read for the first time. There’s a reason it has stayed around for this long.

And yes, it’s a bit over-the-top. Yes, it can be cheesy! But I love it, and like all types of love, it can’t always be explained. But, if you read it, I hope you love it too.

Have you ever read A Christmas Carol? Or what’s your favorite version of it that you’ve seen in film/TV/live theatre?

And do you have a favorite Christmas tale in any genre (Love Actually? A Christmas Story? How the Grinch Stole Christmas? Die Hard? etc.)?

Recommended Further Reading:

PS Today’s featured image is of the title page of the first edition of the book

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring 18th century history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

Madeira Mondays: Christmas in a Georgian Townhouse

For the last few months, I have been volunteering at The Georgian House. Situated in the heart of Edinburgh’s New Town, The Georgian House is a restored late 18th century townhouse, once owned by John Lamont (the 18th chief of the Clan Lamont). Today it is a show house, designed to show what life was like for those above and below stairs in 18th century Edinburgh. Each room is full of Georgian furniture, rugs, knickknacks and art, giving you the genuine feeling of stepping back in time.

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Step on into the drawing room at The Georgian House!

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The Dining Room

I have loved volunteering there and will do a longer post next year on what to expect from a visit to The Georgian House (and why you should definitely pop in to say hello if you’re ever in Edinburgh!), but I wanted to tell you about this month in particular because we’ve been doing some pretty cool stuff this Christmas! For one thing, I have been dressing up, along with some of the other volunteers, as members of the Lamont family for our event ‘Meet the Lamonts’. Visitors could interact with us (we’re in character the entire time!) and learn about life for the Lamont family and their servants. I was dressed as Georgina, the 2nd daughter of John Lamont, but we also had people portraying the butler, our housekeeper, the cook, and more.

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Me (as Georgina Lamont) looking out our window at Charlotte Square, which would have been under construction during the Georgian period

The house was also decorated for Christmas and part of our job was to discuss with the visitors how a family like the Lamonts would have celebrated Christmas in Georgian Edinburgh.

So how would the Georgians celebrate Christmas?

For the rest of this post, I’ll talk a bit about Christmas festivities in 18th century Edinburgh and then next week, we’ll look at how it was celebrated over in the American colonies. Let’s explore!

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The staircase at The Georgian House, decorated for Christmas

Firstly, when is Christmas?

For the Georgians, Christmas was not two days (Christmas eve and day) but in fact an entire season. Christmas was a month long celebration that involved parties, dances, meals etc. It ran from December 6th (St Nicholas Day) until January 6th (Twelfth Night). Our modern shortened Christmas came into being when employers needed their workers to work throughout the festive period (remember how angry Scrooge gets when his employee, Bob Cratchit, wants the day off for Christmas?) So it was a festive, party-filled period for socializing and family get-togethers, which readers of Jane Austen novels might be familiar with, as the characters are always visiting friends and family (and celebrating!) during this time of year.

How was it different from modern Christmas celebrations?

A lot of the Christmas traditions that we associate with the holiday today did not come into practice until the Victorian period. The Christmas tree, for example, was not widely practiced outside of Germany until Victorian times, when Prince Albert famously introduced the tradition into English society. Christmas cards as well did not really come in until the Victorian period. We didn’t have Santa Claus as we know him yet either (more on that next week).

They did however sing Christmas carols. Elite young ladies and gentlemen would often be taught to play an instrument, and the family could gather round and sing. ‘Joy to the World’ was already around, as was ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’. (I wonder if people got as sick of hearing these same tunes as I do of modern Christmas songs…)

People of all social classes could decorate their homes for Christmas because decorations were often natural elements brought in from the outside. People brought in evergreens (holly, mistletoe, ivy etc.) and festooned the house with them. Greenery was a symbol of the promise that life would return in spring (if that sounds vaguely pagan, then you’re right! The idea comes from pagan traditions.).

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The mantle in the parlor decorated for Christmas

One tradition practiced by many in this period was the Yule Candle. It was a big white candle lit by the head of the household at sunset on Christmas Eve and then allowed to burn throughout the night. It was believed to be bad luck if it burned out before Christmas morning. In Scotland, the Yule candle was not to be purchased, but given as a gift to the family and typically sat on the dining table where Christmas Eve dinner was eaten. And speaking of which…

What did they eat?

Obviously this would vary widely depending on region and social class. For a wealthy family like the Lamonts, vension might have been the meat of choice. Other typical Christmas foods were cheeses, soups, and minced pies (which were made with real mince in them! And similar spices to our modern mince pies: cloves, mace etc.). A popular drink was a Wassail bowl, similar to a mulled wine: cooked with spices and sweetened wine or brandy, served in a large bowl garnished with apples. I’ll talk a bit more about Christmas food next week, in my post about Christmas in the American colonies.

So that is a bit about Christmas festivities in Georgian times! I hope that it was informative and if you want to pay a visit to The Georgian House, I believe it will be decorated until January 5th. Be sure to check opening times on The National Trust’s Website before you go! Alas, I will not be there dressed up (our ‘Meet the Lamonts’ reenactment events are finished for the year), but there will be helpful volunteer guides in each room and it would be fun and Christmas-y nonetheless. A lot of the information from this blog post I learned from a very informative little booklet The Georgian House has made this year about Georgian Christmas traditions, including recipes, which you can pick up there for a small donation if you’re curious! I have also included some further reading below if you want to learn more about Christmas in Georgian Britain. Next week, we’re sailing across the Atlantic to British America!

Thanks very much for reading. I hope you’re having a great holiday season. Cheers!

PS

If you’re still looking for Christmas gifts, might I suggest giving the gift of poetry? I have a new poetry pamphlet coming out next year (!) and my publisher, the wonderful Edinburgh-based Stewed Rhubarb, is offering a subscription service called marvelously The Fellowship of the Stewed Rhubarb. Members of the ‘fellowship’ get each of Stewed Rhubarb’s new poetry pamphlets mailed out to them as they are published next year. That’s four, new Scottish poetry books (mine included!) which will arrive in the mail to you throughout 2020. It’s the gift that keeps on giving!

This subscription service is a new initiative to support Scottish poetry and writers like me, and if we don’t get enough subscribers, we won’t be able to go forward with the project. So if you have a literature lover in your life, or if you are one yourself, it would be lovely if you joined us! Support the arts in Scotland and get four great books out of the deal. You can find all the details here. Thanks!

Further Christmas reading:

Blogs:

‘Christmas 1819’ from All Things Georgian blog

‘Christmas in Jane Austen’s Time’ from Regina Jeffers’ blog

18th century podcast Episode 25: Christmas

Books:

Christmas: A Biography by Judith Flanders

The Keeping of Christmas: 1760-1840, published by Fairfax House in York, England, text and design by Peter Brown (I got this little book as part of Fairfax’s house exhibition ‘The Keeping of Christmas’ and it’s very useful. Can’t seem to find it online, but here’s the link to Fairfax House)

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (Okay so it’s not Georgian, but I believe that everyone should read this. It’s entertaining, compassionate and timely. I re-read it every year)

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!