Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol: A Radio Interview
Philip V. Allingham, Faculty of Education, Lakehead University, Thunder Bay, Ontario
Published with the kind permission of The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Thunder Bay (ON) Regional Station.
Lisa Laco, Host: Well we're going to talk about Charles Dickens right now because Charles Dickens is ever foremost in our minds this week as we get ready to read Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol this weekend here in Thunder Bay. When he was about ten years old poverty forced him to take a job in a factory to provide for his family. Now he was so ashamed of his time there that he never told anyone about it, but he couldn't hide the secret totally. According to Philip the experience surfaces in the actions and the attitudes of many of Charles Dickens, especially in Ebenezer Scrooge from A Christmas Carol . Philip Allingham is a professor in the Faculty of Education at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay; he's also a Dickens scholar. CBC reporter Cathy Alex asked him what inspired Charles Dickens to write A Christmas Carol .
Philip V. Allingham, Faculty of Education, Lakehead University, Dickens Scholar: He was fascinated by German ghost stories; in fact, he had written himself one in the middle of Pickwick Papers in 1836. In the fall of 1843 he was invited to go to Manchester, where he saw a good deal of urban poor, prostitution, other social ills. He and a number of other Victorian reformers including Cobden and Disraeli were to speak and so he heard all the tales of horror in industrial society. He saw a great deal of it; he stayed with his sister whom he loved very much--remember Scrooge's relationship with his sister. And his sister had a little boy who was lame; he probably had what we call now Pot's disease, tuberculosis of the bone, if you can imagine. So there is Tiny Tim, who was originally by the way called "Tiny Fred" after Dickens' younger brother, but "Tiny Fred" doesn't really make it does it. So in proof he corrected that to "Tiny Tim." He also put in the famous "God bless us, everyone!"--it wasn't in the original manuscript. And I think he was also interested in trying to help the ragged schools that were trying to educate poor children at night. These children worked in factories during the daytime. And so all of these things were fermenting in his mind and, like a great Coleridgian dream, A Christmas Carol was born.
Alex: How successful was A Christmas Carol when it first came out, with respect to the public? How did they take to this novel?
Allingham: Everybody loved it, but everybody couldn't afford it. It was five shillings: Bob Cratchit earns only about three times that each week. So this is a huge chunk of lower middle class income; the working poor would have been locked out of it entirely. But it was very popular by word of mouth. People I think borrowed it off one another. The poor people could see it in the theatres; after half-time, they could pay a very small amount and get into the theatres and at least get the essence of the dialogue and the characters.
Alex: Tell me about that connection between Dickens and drama, and especially A Christmas Carol and drama, because it is a very dramatic story as well.
Allingham: The first play that he wrote was called Misnar Sultan of India , probably the first thing he wrote that was coherent, and that was when he was eight years old, and I think he had determined at that point he was going to be a dramatist. When he came to London and was working in a law office after leaving school, he was about fifteen. He was trying to publish the so-called Sketches of London Life , and these things actually started to take off, but he always had this fascination with being an actor and a playwright. He was quite determined to do something about it once he had the chance and A Christmas Carol did eventually afford him the chance. It was the first of the books for which he did the internationally known public readings. He made two North American reading tours, one prior to A Christmas Carol ; he read great deal of Pickwick, Oliver Twist --and then came the second reading tour which was his triumph and his downfall because it killed him; he exhausted himself. That was in 1867 to the United States, and there he read Carol . He also when he started these public readings in England for charity started with A Christmas Carol .
Alex: Tell me what one of those readings would have been like.
Allingham: We'd have seen a relatively small man, about 5'4", slight boned, and a special reading table that he had constructed so that his right arm was always propped up and he could keep the copy at his face. We'd have seen him doing all kinds of extravagant gestures, hunching over when he did Bill Sykes, changing his voice, changing his face even perhaps his facial colouring might come and go. So it was a monodrama; it wasn't really a reading in a sense that, you know, you go to an academic lecture across campus here and somebody reads you a lecture. No, this was pretty lively stuff. It was one man taking all these parts.
Alex: How important do you think those kinds of readings, those kinds of incredibly dramatic one person presentations would have been for spurring on the popularity of A Christmas Carol ?
Allingham: They spread on popularity of the Christmas books. I think some people who hadn't got a copy or hadn't had access to a copy might have gone out and bought one. But it was principally that it was good for the sales of the next things that he was working on. That's what the reading tours were about--to help sell the latest thing that was coming out. And, if you think about rock stars doing tours today to sell their records, it's very much the same thing.
Alex: What would Charles Dickens have been like in that period? I mean, how popular would he have been in the 1840's in England and around the world?
Allingham: His popularity grew as his ability to take on larger issues, write larger books, extend his range of grew. I think his readings had a great deal to do with his popularity, so that he became a physical presence to people outside the metropolis. He was the Victorian stage; he was the Victorian sage; he was the great entertainer. He was you know Ringo Starr and Leonardo DiCaprio and Margaret Atwood all wrapped up in one. When he died, a fellow was down in Covent Garden Market buying oranges and the newspaper boy was crying out that Dickens was dead and the fellow buying the oranges said to the barrow girl, "Well, what do you think of that my girl? Charles Dickens is dead. And she said, "What will Father Christmas die, too?" She was just incredulous this man could die--he was a spirit--he was larger than life.
Alex: What do you think makes A Christmas Carol such a classic, that it could live on for 160 years and still resonate today the same way it would have when Dickens first wrote it?
Allingham: Well, first of all from a literary perspective it's a masterpiece of controlled tone. We have this absolute sense, this conviction of the narrator in his relationship to us, all the are just right, in that they are very Dickensian and fully realised in a short amount of space, partly because he gets, he has this wonderful ear for dialoguefor the way different people sound. And there is, of course, the timeless fairy tale quality to it that everybody has remarked on. It is, it's a remarkable change of heart for the curmudgeon miser affected by a recognition of the importance of his past and instead of trying to bury it he has to come to terms with it, even if some of it was unpleasant, which is very much a Dickens autobiographical slant on things, working in the blacking factory, hiding the secret from his family. You know, they never knew about that and he was called "The Little Gentlem'n" by the boys who worked there because they initially didn't like him at all. They realised he came from a different social class. And that sensitive little boy, that little boy died during that experience really and was reborn as a man who was determined to be terribly tough and make it. And, you see, that's the other side of Ebenezer Scrooge. All these are really just extensions of Dickens himself. So it has all kinds of critical interest for scholars, but it's also just this wonderful, heart-warming story with people that we feel we know extremely well.
Laco: Dr. Philip Allingham teaches in the Faculty of Education at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay. Speaking there with our reporter, Cathy Alex.
Words: 1502 Transcript Order: 55691 Id: B968B-7 Sent: 05 Dec 00 01:50PM
PROGRAM: GREAT NORTHWEST (AM)
DATE: 04 Dec 2000
Last modified January 12 2004