What do you want with me?

"What do you want with me?" by E. A. Abbey. Illustration for A Christmas Carol, "Stave One: Marley's Ghost." in the American Household Edition (1876) of Dickens's Christmas Stories, facing the title-page. 12.9 x 18.7 cm framed. [Click on the image to enlarge it.]

With models afforded him by John Leech (1843) and Sol Eytinge, Jr. (1869), Edwin Austin Abbey nevertheless chose to focus on the fortunes of the Cratchit family (members of whom appear in three of six scenes) and the spiritual reclamation of the inveterate miser and canny capitalist Ebenezer Scrooge (reduced to just two appearances in the American Household Edition).

Realising the most famous scene from among the whole run of Dickens's "somethings" for Christmas from the 1840s through the 1860s, Abbey reimagines the fateful confrontation of Jacob Marley's ghost and his quondam business partner in the latter's bed-sittingroom as a dark plate, in the manner of Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz). The dimly lit room, the terrified Scrooge, and his ghostly visitor combine to create a mood far different from John Leech's charming caricature "Marley's Ghost" (1843). With a larger space to fill but without recourse to colour, Abbey has assimilated his predecessor's work and transformed the scene into something entirely different, as the spectre presages what Scrooge himself must inevitably become, a spirit chained and doomed to walk the earth, witnessing but powerless to intervene in the suffering of the living. Although Fred Barnard has realised the same scene in his British Household Edition illustration "Marley's Ghost", there little character comedy but much of the gothic melodrama in Abbey's weird treatment of the celebrated scene.

Passage Illustrated

The cellar-door flew open with a booming sound, and then he heard the noise much louder, on the floors below; then coming up the stairs; then coming straight towards his door.

"It's humbug still!" said Scrooge. "I won't believe it."

His color changed though, when, without a pause, it came on through the heavy door, and passed into the room before his eyes. Upon its coming in, the dying flame leaped up, as though it cried, "I know him; Marley's Ghost!" and fell again.

The same face: the very same. 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. His body was transparent; so that Scrooge, observing him, and looking through his waistcoat, could see the two buttons on his coat behind.

Scrooge had often heard it said that Marley had no bowels, but he had never believed it until now.

No, nor did he believe it even now. Though he looked the phantom through and through, and saw it standing before him; though he felt the chilling influence of its death-cold eyes; and marked the very texture of the folded kerchief bound about its head and chin, which wrapper he had not observed before; he was still incredulous, and fought against his senses.

"How now!" said Scrooge, caustic and cold as ever. "What do you want with me?"

"Much!" — Marley's voice, no doubt about it. [15]

For alternate versions of the same dramatic moment, see the subtly coloured illustration by John Leech, the much starker wood-engraving by Sol Eytinge, Jr., for the 1869 Ticknor and Fields edition, and Fred Barnard's wood-engraving for the British Household Edition, the force of Marley's supernatural presence signalled by the swirling draperies of Scrooge's four-poster bed (a detail entirely omitted by the other illustrators):

Abbey's treatment is more fluid and natural than Eytinge's, and his figures more realistically modelled than Leech's. The horizontal orientation of the plate affords Abbey greater opportunity to develop the background, whose details are less cluttered than those in Barnard's contemporary wood-engraving. But the most significant departure is Abbey's treating the scene seriously rather than whimsically as his Scrooge's horrified reaction is understated, the expression on Marley's face obscured (thereby rendering him more mysterious), and the whole scene imbued with an eerie atmosphere as a consequence of the chiaroscuro into which the momentarily roaring coal-fire has cast the darkened room, suggestive not merely of Scrooge's parsimony (his reluctance to consume coal, even to heat his own bedroom) but of his bleak spiritual state. Whereas the other artists have illuminated the scene by a flaring candle — in Leech's original, for example, one may readily apprehend the wainscotting, and the tiles inside the fireplace — Abbey has elected the make this a "dark" plate, contrasting the blazing hearth and the deep shadows on either side. Moreover, only his version accords prominence to the biblically-themed Dutch tiles fronting the fire-place, although the nature of the scenes and figures from the "Scriptures" Abbey has not particularized. His bare floor-boards, creating aerial perspective, are drawn directly from the Leech original, as are the fire-guard, hob, and bowl of gruel. But Abbey has replaced the rigidity and two-dimensionalism of Leech's Marley with a more naturalistic pose and a more modelled figure, while eliminating the whimsy of the blazing candle's face.

The story's steeply contrasting strains — the terror of the supernatural and the sentimental, domestic humour of the Cratchits — are represented by the large-scale frontispiece and the title-page vignette respectively, the latter conveying the Christmastide wish of the cheerful Tiny Tim.

Details

Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham. Formatting, color correction, and linking by George P. Landow. [You may use these images without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the photographer and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one.]

References

Davis, Paul. Charles Dickens A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Work. New York: Facts On File, 1998.

Davis, Paul. The Lives and Times of Ebenezer Scrooge. New Haven and London: Yale U. P., 1990.

Dickens, Charles. Christmas Books. Il. Fred Barnard. The Household Edition. London: Chapman and Hall, 1878.

Dickens, Charles. Christmas Stories. Il. E. A. Abbey. The Household Edition. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1876.

Guida, Fred. "A Christmas Carol" and Its Adaptations. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2000.

Hammerton, J. A. The Dickens Picture-Book: A Record of the Dickens Illustrators. The Charles Dickens Library. London: Educational Book, 1912.

Kitton, Frederic G. Dickens and His Illustrators. 1899. Rpt. Honolulu: U. Press of the Pacific, 2004.

Parker, David. Christmas and Charles Dickens. New York: AMS Press, 2005.

Thomas, Deborah A. Dickens and The Short Story. Philadelphia: U. Pennsylvania Press, 1982.


Victorian Web Overview Victorian Book Illustration Charles Dickens Abbey Next

Last modified 12 November 2012