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: Great Expectations (Book Review)

‘I never had one hour’s happiness in her society, and yet my mind all-round the four-and-twenty hours was harping on the happiness of having her with me unto death.’ – Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

I was meant to read Great Expectations at university. I know that because I have a distinctive memory of one of my professors, who was also my undergraduate dissertation supervisor, Phillip Mallet, discussing and dissecting the ending of this book in front of our Victorian novel class. I nodded along like I knew what he was talking about (It was not the first time I had sat through a lecture on a book I hadn’t read!). And while Phillip Mallet was an excellent lecturer, I’m glad I remember very little of what he said because this book was so full of twists and turns, it would have been a shame to learn about them all secondhand.

Which is why I will try – for today’s Madeira Mondays – to discuss this book without spoiling it. What I can spoil is that: I thought it was amazing. I enjoyed it even more than A Tale of Two Cities, which I reviewed last summer. What makes it so great, you ask? Well I shall endeavor to tell you (spoiler free!!), so you can decide if it sounds like a book you’d enjoy too!

What’s the book about?

Great Expectations (1860) is a coming-of-age story. It’s probably one of the most famous coming-of-age stories in the English language, I’d say? It tells the story of a young orphan called Phillip, nickname ‘Pip’, who, in the famous first scene, encounters a terrifying escaped convict in a graveyard, demanding Pip’s help. ‘Keep still, you little devil,’ the convict cries, ‘or I’ll cut your throat!’ The convict is described as vividly as you would expect from Dickens, who is a MASTER at character descriptions, and zooming in on little details of people’s clothing or physicality to give you an amazing picture of who they are. The convict, who we later learn is called Magwitch, is described as:

A fearful man, all in course grey (…) A man who had been soaked in water, and smothered in mud, and lamed by stones, and cut by flints, and stung by nettles, and torn by briars; who limped, and shivered, and glared and growled; and whose teeth chattered in his head as he seized me by the chin.

Can’t you see the convict? I can. And, again without giving anything away, this book is populated throughout with many similarly vivid characters – from the terrifying and tragic Miss Havisham, jilted at the altar and who still, many years later, wears her wedding dress and haunts her own dilapidated manor house, to her beautiful, serene, cold-hearted protegee Estella.

Pip meets Magwitch in the graveyard. A publicity still from a 1917 adaptation of the book from Paramount Pictures, accessed via Wikimedia Commons

Pip must navigate complicated and, at times, heart breaking interactions with all these people as he grows up and tries to ‘better’ himself and improve his social class in Victorian England. Along the way, he makes mistakes (so many), which leads me on to why I think this is probably the best Dickens book I’ve read so far. Pip is probably the most believably human character I’ve encountered in a Dickens novel (keep in mind, I’ve only read A Christmas Carol, A Tale of Two Cities and this one). I love Dickens, as you know, but usually he’s one for larger than life characters, who sort of STAND for something (greed, corruption, etc.) rather than having characters who just feel like people. Great Expectations certainly has a lot of those larger than life figures, but because it’s a first-person narrative (this is Pip telling his story), and Pip just feels so human and fallible, I thought it was the most complex and involving of his books I’ve read.

What does Pip do that is so human and realistic? Well, he makes a lot of bad choices. Namely, and this doesn’t give too much away, he immediately falls in love with Estella who is, to put it bluntly, an asshole. We (the readers) know it. Pip knows it too. Dickens knows it. Everyone knows it. She’s so mean to him, for years, and yet…he’s infatuated with her, dreams of marrying her etc. I totally believed this. It’s such a poor choice to pursue her, and yet. People do this kind of thing in real life all the time. They become enamored with people who aren’t nice to them, they idealize their beloved and they let people become symbols, in a sense, making them more than what they are. For example, Pip loves Estella because in many ways she represents the refined, upper class life he so craves. If he can have her, he can have that, etc.

Again, I don’t want to reveal too much, but Pip makes so many selfish and short-sighted decisions, while, overall, being a fairly decent person. He’s never so awful or so cruel that you strongly dislike him, he’s mostly just a bit careless and self-centered (as people often are!). By the end, I totally believed in his humanity and I very much wanted him to be happy. But what is happiness? Is he going to have to learn to redefine what it means to him over the course of the book…who knows?? (hehe)

Also, as a bit of an aside, Dickens gets a lot of flak for his portrayal of women. I can understand that. In the three books of his I’ve read, none of the women reach near the complexity of a character like Pip, or A Tale of Two Cities‘ wonderfully compelling Sydney Carton. His women are interesting – no-one can say that Miss Havisham isn’t interesting!! – but they’re extremes. They’re extremely eccentric, or extremely angelic, or extremely violent, etc. I’m not sure we can entirely blame Dickens for this. Did his society encourage him to consider the internal complexities of the women around him? Probably not. Did he speak openly and candidly with women (his wife, friends, sisters) about their lives? Probably not. I’m just saying that Dickens in many ways was an author who wrote what he knew, and I don’t think that he knew, or could possibly even imagine, what sort of fears, hopes, desires, dreams would be in the heart of a little girl like Estella, versus a little boy like Pip. It’s a limitation of his writing, but not one that ruins it for me, by any means. I loved this book.

‘I entreated her to rise’, an illustration of a scene between Pip and Miss Havisham towards the end of the book, from an 1877 edition of Great Expectations. Image via Wikimedia Commons

One final other ‘flaw’, in my opinion, is that the middle of the book drags a bit, but the first section and the final section were incredibly paced and made up for a bit of a lull in the middle.

I’d recommend Great Expectations if you’re into character-led stories, whereas I’d recommend A Tale of Two Cities if you’re into more action-led stories. That book was a lot about justice, redemption, protests, mercy, whereas this one is a lot about inheritance, class, and how, as we grow up, our values and our priorities change. Even though Cities was set in the 18th century (my time period!), I think I preferred this one. I’m a sucker for a good first-person story and this is probably one of the best I’ve ever read.

‘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: 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: Is A Tale of Two Cities worth reading?

Charles Dickens was very much a man of his time.  Much of his fiction (almost all) was inspired by the world around him: specifically, the plight of the London poor. One of his most famous works (which happens to be a favorite of mine!), A Christmas Carol, was partly inspired by a visit to the Field Lane Ragged School, one of several homes for London’s destitute children. He famously used to take long walks alone, all around London, and observe the world around him, getting inspiration for his books. Dickens and his characters – Oliver Twist, Ebenezer Scrooge, David Copperfield etc. – are basically synonymous with 19th century London. Which is why I think it’s so interesting that one of his most famous novels – A Tale of Two Cities – isn’t set in Dickens’ familiar stomping ground, but rather in the late 18th century, during the French Revolution and The Terror.

A Tale of Two Cities is a work of historical fiction, and it takes place between London and Paris (those are the titular ‘two cities’) in the 1780’s and 90’s. I was drawn to it because I love A Christmas Carol (the book) and also because I was curious to see what Dickens, a man writing in the 1850’s, had to say about the late 18th century. The equivalent would be someone now writing about the 1960’s. There’s still a removal of time, but a much smaller one than if it were me or you writing about the 18th century.

A Tale of Two Cities is also considered a ‘classic’ and while I think that one shouldn’t feel any pressure to read any book simply because it’s well-known and famous – that goes for ‘classic’ as well as contemporary lit – I do think Dickens (like Shakespeare) is an author whose work has endured for a reason. Or several. One reason, I think, is that Dickens (again, like Shakespeare) can be read on two levels – for entertainment value (if you purely want a rollicking good read!) and also on a more analytical, thematic level. His books are amusing but also rich and thought-provoking. He’s a bit over-the-top sometimes, but he also writes with so much empathy and with close observation of humor behavior. And his outage at societal inequalities is sadly still quite relevant, just as it was in the 19th century.

So now you know what I think of Dickens generally, but how was A Tale of Two Cities specificially? A ‘classic’ worth checking out, or one to skip?

Overall, I really liked this novel. No surprise, because I like Dickens’ writing and I like the 18th century (as you know!). But there’s a lot to like here even if you aren’t crazy about either of those things.

It tells the story of one family that is caught up in the events of the French Revolution, and it asks a lot of questions about justice and guilt. One man is basically asked to pay for the crimes committed by his cruel, aristocratic family on the Parisian poor. He has rejected his family long ago and deplores their actions, but the revolution is imminent and the oppressed want blood. How do we make amends, when our ancestors and sometimes even our close relatives, have committed atrocities or acts of oppression? And how far is ‘too far’ when it comes to gaining justice and retribution for the crimes of the past?

My copy had brilliant black and white illustrations – like this one.

These questions are always interesting and I think they’re especially interesting in Dickens’ hands because this is a man who really fought for the rights of the London poor and has a clear empathy for the oppressed French poor and makes it clear why they revolted. We see that, to certain aristocratic nobles, these poor people’s lives are meaningless and expendable  A boy is crushed to death under a nobleman’s cart wheel and the noble doesn’t bat an eye. A noble looks down at one of his tenant farmers, on the verge of death, ‘as if he were a wounded bird, or hare, or rabbit; not at all as if he were a fellow creature.’

Yet Dickens also condemns the violence of the Revolution fairly explicitly. The primary antagonist of the story, the sinister Madame Defarge, is an embodiment of the Revolutionaries’ desire for revenge and for heads to roll (quite literally). She is a ‘ruthless woman’ with an ‘inveterate hated of a class’ which has turned her into a ‘tigeress.’ She’s violent, excessive and without mercy, but we do see why she’s this way and how she personally has been abused by members of the upper class. So her behavior is, at least, understandable. It’s this keen sense of specifically class-based oppression throughout that makes Dickens a good writer for this subject, because he’s quite ambivalent – the violence is reprehensible, but he gets why it happened. And he’s aware that it could happen again.

Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms.

One of my favorite things about the book was Dickens’ descriptions of people. No surprise, the characters were super vivid and easy to visualize, down to the smallest player. A random jailer is described as: ‘so unwholesomely bloated, both in face and person, as to look like a man who had been drowned and filled with water.’ And all of the main characters are vivid, and relatively complex, except one: Lucie Manette. She’s worse than Mina in Dracula. She has no personality or life outside of her self-sacrificing devotion to her husband and father. Dickens seems to have no interest in either her bodily or intellectual reality – she has a child and it grows to the age of a toddler in the space of about a paragraph or two. (How do these events change her?!) She’s gorgeous, everyone loves her and would do anything for her – in short, she’s a very silly and unexamined character. With another author I’d let it slide but there’s no excuse for it when Dickens can create a character like Sydney Carton – the sarcastic, drunken, intelligent, self-loathing, spiteful yet surprisingly tender character who plays a central role in the novel’s climax.

Sydney Carton is great and, quite frankly, the whole book is pretty great too. It asks if a man, a family, even a society, can be redeemed. It isn’t spoiling much to say that, for Dickens, the answer is yes. I’m a bit more cynical, but even so, it’s nice to hope.

It would be perfect reading if you enjoy things like Poldark, or other dramas set in this period revolving around one family. I cried a lot at the end of the book, actually. Dickens can be a bit melodramatic, but his earnestness gets me every time.

Let me know what you think of A Tale of Two Cities: have you read it before? Did you read it in school? Do you plan on reading it in the future? I’d love to have any reading recommendations from you as well, particularly any spookier books as autumn approaches!

PS Today’s Featured Image is ‘Bonaparte aux Tuileries – 10 August 1792’, a painting depicting Napoleon (who would later become Emperor of France) witnessing a mob attack on the Tuileries Palace.

‘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!