It's I. Your Uncle Scrooge! I have come to dinner. Will
you let me in, Fred?

"It's I. Your Uncle Scrooge! I have come to dinner. Will you let me in, Fred?" by E. A. Abbey. American Household Edition (1876), sixth illustration for A Christmas Carol, "Stave Five: The End of It," in Dickens's Christmas Stories, 10 x 13.5 cm framed, p. 38. [Click on the image to enlarge it.]

Details

Illustrating Dickens's story for an early-Victorian audience, John Leech had not been interested in the less sensational aspects of Scrooge's dream-vision, electing to realise in the final stave only in miniature Scrooge's reconciliation with his clerk, Bob Cratchit, "Scrooge and Bob Cratchit", a tailpiece in which master and man share a bowl of smoking bishop. Surprisingly, even with a program of twenty-five regular illustrations to complete for his Christmas 1868 edition of the novella, Sol Eytinge, Jr., only once depicted Scrooge's nephew, Fred, in the after-dinner game of "Blind Man's Buff". Fred Barnard, the other Household Edition illustrator of the novella, ends his narrative-pictorial sequence on one of the story's bleakest notes, with a depiction of the charwoman, undertaker's man, and Mrs. Dilber, Scrooge's housekeeper, arriving to divide their spoils at the Darwinian rag and bone shop of old Joe in "What do you call this?". . . " Bed-curtains?" (Stave Four). Certainly, in the minds of many readers, the most significant event in the fifth stave is Scrooge's ordering the prize turkey through the offices of a plucky Cockney street boy, so effectively depicted in Eytinge's "The Prize Turkey". The scene that Abbey has realised, although perhaps not so delightful in its comedy, is the culmination of Scrooge's growing realisation of the importance of family as with trepidation at being rejected (as he has repeatedly rejected Fred's many invitations to dinner) Scrooge finally summons up enough courage to knock for admittance. His tentativeness in Abbey's illustration palpably reflects, as much as his pacing back and forth before Fred's door, his fear of rejection. Here is how Dickens describes his protagonist's deciding to ask to be included in Fred's celebration:

In the afternoon he turned his steps towards his nephew's house.

He passed the door a dozen times, before he had the courage to go up and knock. But he made a dash, and did it:

"Is your master at home, my dear?" said Scrooge to the girl. Nice girl. Very.

"Yes, sir."

"Where is he, my love?" said Scrooge.

"He's in the dining-room, sir, along with mistress. I'll show you up-stairs, if you please."

"Thank you. He knows me," said Scrooge, with his hand already on the dining-room lock. "I'll go in here, my dear."

He turned it gently, and sidled his face in, round the door. They were looking at the table (which was spread out in great array); for these young housekeepers are always nervous on such points, and like to see that everything is right.

"Fred!" said Scrooge.

Dear heart alive, how his niece by marriage started. Scrooge had forgotten, for the moment, about her sitting in the corner with the footstool, or he wouldn't have done it, on any account.

"Why bless my soul!" cried Fred," who's that?"

"It's I. Your uncle Scrooge. I have come to dinner. Will you let me in, Fred?"

Let him in! It is a mercy he didn't shake his arm off. He was at home in five minutes. Nothing could be heartier. His niece looked just the same. So did Topper when he came. So did the plump sister when she came. So did every one when they came. Wonderful party, wonderful games, wonderful unanimity, won-der-ful happiness! [Stave Five, "The End of It," 39]

What is significant in the text is Scrooge's identifying himself by name as Fred's uncle, undoing the negativity of the previous afternoon's interview with Fred as he takes up the dinner invitation he had so flatly rejected, apparently as an extension of rejecting Fred's marriage, which David Parker astutely describes as grounds for a "contingent grudge" (188). In Abbey's deft realisation Scrooge approaches his nephew diffidently, his contrition evident in his almost hiding behind the door and barely setting foot in the room. Now proclaiming himself "Uncle Scrooge," the reformed misanthrope "is acknowledging bonds he has hither to sought to repudiate" (Parker, 205). Although in the text Scrooge "sidled his face in, round the door" (39), he does not do so in Abbey's final illustration for the novella with anything of the dramatic flair with which he has ordered the Cratchits' turkey or made a sizable donation to the charity collectors.

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.

In comparison with the sequences of both Eytinge and Barnard, Abbey's half-dozen illustrations do not contextualise Scrooge's redemption against the backdrop of the Hungry Forties. Indeed, if one studies Abbey's six illustrations for A Christmas Carol, one finds little indication of the widespread suffering and social unrest that are the context for such original illustrations as John Leech's indictment of the industrial economy's Malthusian creed of "Surplus Population" in "Ignorance and Want". Indeed, one who read Abbey's plates ahistorically (without the benefit of historical knowledge of the dire year 1843), one would conclude that the only kind of discord of any importance was familial.

Henry James, writing two decades after Abbey's work on the Household Edition, contends that Edward Austin Abbey as a young illustrator had a particular affinity for the furnishings and fashions not of his own century or country, but those of eighteenth-century England, as demonstrated by his illustrations for Oliver Goldsmith's 1776 comedy She Stoops to Conquer in the 1887 numbers of Harper's Weekly, for which he had been a staff artist from 1871 through 1874.

His drawing is the drawing of direct, immediate, solicitous study of the particular case, without tricks or affectations or any sort of cheap subterfuge, and nothing can exceed the charm of its delicacy, accuracy and elegance, its variety and freedom, its clear, frank solution of difficulties. [James, Picture and Text]

The management of Harper and Brothers knew of the high quality of Abbey's work in illustrating serial novels, so that he was a logical choice in 1875 for their Household Edition of Christmas Stories. Owing to the somewhat exclusive copyright regulations of the United States at the time, an American illustrator was necessary if Harper's were to preserve their copyright.

Perhaps Abbey's preference for character comedy and costume pieces conditioned all of his illustrations for Christmas Stories, and in particular for the Carol, for which he focused on realistic rather supernatural scenes, the exception being the frontispiece, in which Scrooge in nightcap and dressing gown is visited by a Jacob Marley whose sartorial predilections run more to the eighteenth century than to the Regency (we note the top-boots, wig, and long suit coat). The quality that James so deplored in modern illustration, the elaborate modern stage settings (often evident in Du Maurier's book illustrations) does not intrude into Abbey's economical illustrations, which keep the figures well forward.

Abbey's intention, as the last of his series makes clear, is to gladden the reader with scenes of family camaraderie and reified family values as nephew Fred welcomes the former curmudgeon into his home on Christmas Day. He focuses on the figures and the values they represent, selecting moments in the letterpress that exemplify their relationships and attitudes. In this respect, then, this scene realising Scrooge's redemption though mutual forgiveness is an outstanding example of Abbey's art.

References

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

---. 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.

---. A Christmas Carol — A Ghost Story of Christmas. Il. Sol Eytinge, Jr. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1868.

---. 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.

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

Hearn, Michael Patrick. The Annotated Christmas Carol, il. John Leech. New York: Avenel, 1976.

James, Henry. Picture and Text. New York: Harper and Bros, 1893. Pp. 44-60.

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


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Last modified 3 December 2012