Went down a slide on Cornhill twenty times

Went down a slide on Cornhill twenty times, in honor of its being Christmas-eve. — third illustration for the American Household Edition (1876) of Dickens's Christmas Stories, p. 14. [Click on the image to enlarge it.]

See commentary below.

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Cornhill. The location of Scrooge's office is not specified, but it was obviously in the City of London, the main thoroughfare of which is Cornhill, running into Cheapside to the west and Leadenhall Street to the east. [Guiliano and Collins, 840]

According to Tony Lynch in Dickens's England, the only two specific locales forming the backdrop for the action of A Christmas Carol are the neighbourhood of Camden Town, where the home of the Cratchits is located, on Bayham Street, and Cornhill, where Bob (in spirit something of a child himself) goes sliding with the street boys on the icy pavement as he makes his way home after closing the office, which one presumes is nearby. Here we see Bob Cratchit in his muffler and checkered trousers, without a great-coat and with his hands in his pockets to keep them warm, confidently sliding on the city street. The passage that Abbey has chosen to illustrate Bob's youthful, carefree spirit is this:

The office was closed in a twinkling, and the clerk, with the long ends of his white comforter dangling below his waist (for he boasted no great-coat), went down a slide on Cornhill, at the end of a lane of boys, twenty times, in honor of its being Christmas-eve, and then ran home to Camden Town as hard as he could pelt, to play at blindman's-buff. [Stave One, Marley's Ghost," p. 15]

Dickens does not describe in any detail the area of London that Bob passes through on his way home, so that the illustrator must supply out of his own imagination lighted shop-windows at dusk, passers-by, eight street boys engaged in sliding, a single street-light (centre), and a church tower in the background, probably either Sir Christopher Wren's St. Michael's or the church of St. Peter upon Cornhill, both in the area originally occupied by the Roman forum of old Londinium. Thus, one must assume that the American illustrator, who moved to London in 1878, was already familiar with the physical setting of the novella when preparing this illustration in 1875 if one wishes to make such specific identifications.

Since the Royal Exchange and the Bank of England are in this same ward, it is reasonable to conjecture that Scrooge's counting-house was somewhere in the vicinity. As Camden Town is just over two miles north-west of Cornhill, one of London's three hills, one may safely assume that Bob undertakes his sliding adventure shortly after leaving the office of Scrooge and Marley. In the summer of 1822, when Charles was just ten, the Naval Pay Office posted clerk John Dickens back to London, and Dickens's father moved the family to the shabby-genteel suburb to the immediate north of the City, renting a modest terraced four-roomed house at No. 16 Bayham Street. Camden Town, a residential area since 1791, had become in the intervening thirty years something of a mixed residential/industrial area, with the canal system intersecting the neighbourhood.

As a construct rather than a purely realistic realisation, despite the generalized street scene, Abbey's third Christmas Carol illustration is highly effective in demonstrating Bob's thorough integration with London society versus his employer's utter alienation. Whereas Ebenezer Scrooge rejects the notion of playing any sort of social role when he denies the petitions of nephew Fred and the charity collectors in the opening stave, Bob exuberantly throws himself into the life of the streets, rejecting staid adult self-consciousness for the liberation of sport or play. Given the size of the Cratchit family, Bob's occupation as clerk in a counting house, and where the Cratchits live, it would seem reasonable to conclude that Dickens modelled Bob, seen in Abbey's illustration playing with the boys in the street and enjoying youthful recreation, on his own father in the 1820s, before the shades of the debtors' prison supervened, bringing John Dickens's participation in his children's games and sports such as those which Dickens describes in this passage to an abrupt conclusion.

In terms of the early editions of A Christmas Carol, including those by John Leech, Sol Eytinge, Jr. (1868), and Fred Barnard (1878), there is no comparable scene involving Bob Cratchit, like "Mr. Pickwick Slides", cavorting on the ice at Dingley Dell (chapter 30; February 1837).

References

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

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.

Guiliano, Edward, and Philip Collins, eds. A Christmas Carol. The Annotated Dickens. Vol. 1. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1986.

Lynch, Tony. Dickens's England: An A-Z Tour of the Real and Imagined Locations. A Traveller's Companion. London: Batsford, 2012.


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Last modified 21 November 2012

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