The Straw Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future

Tuesday, January 12th, 2010

I haven’t read much Dickens, and I hadn’t read any in years — decades, really — but I recently finished reading a beautifully annotated version of A Christmas Carol that I received as a gift.

Now, even as a kid in school I understood that Dickens was a social reformer — which was presented as an unalloyed good, by the way — but reading A Christmas Carol as an adult, I can’t help but dwell on the fact that the whole thing is a transparent effort to prop up a conservative straw man and to knock him back down again — and light him on fire, too, I suppose.

Scrooge is a miser and a misanthrope, and Dickens makes every effort to associate miserliness and misanthropy with conservatives like Edmund Burke, with economists like Thomas Malthus, and with anyone else who might dare to suggest that the world does not run on wishful thinking.

It does not take long for him to get down to it. In the second paragraph of the first chapterStave 1, in Dickens’ “carol in prose” — he makes a sarcastic reference to the wisdom of our ancestors. That’s a not-so-subtle jab at Edmund Burke‘s Speech on Conciliation with the American Colonies:

I set out with a perfect distrust of my own abilities, a total renunciation of every speculation of my own, and with a profound reverence for the wisdom of our ancestors, who have left us the inheritance of so happy a Constitution and so flourishing an empire, and, what is a thousand times more valuable, the treasury of the maxims and principles which formed the one and obtained the other.

Apparently Dickens had a series of fake books made up for his own Wisdom of Our Ancestors library shelf: Ignorance, Superstition, The Block, etc.

When Scrooge’s nephew invites him to dinner, Scrooge says that he will indeed come to see him — in Hell. This is censored, of course, but you get the idea:

Scrooge said that he would see him — yes, indeed he did. He went the whole length of the expression, and said that he would see him in that extremity first.

This is all just a set-up though:

But why? cried Scrooge’s nephew. Why?

Why did you get married? said Scrooge.

Because I fell in love.

Because you fell in love! growled Scrooge, as if that were the only one thing in the world more ridiculous than a merry Christmas. Good afternoon!

In an era before modern contraception — and “loose” morals — not getting married was birth-control, and “sensible” people understood that a man should not marry until he could support a family.

But that kind of cold, economical thinking gets ascribed to a man who tells his nephew to go to Hell for inviting him to Christmas dinner.

We’re just getting warmed up though for the visit from the warm-hearted souls collecting charity for the poor:

At this festive season of the year, Mr Scrooge, said the gentleman, taking up a pen, it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.

Are there no prisons? asked Scrooge.

Plenty of prisons, said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.

And the Union workhouses? demanded Scrooge. Are they still in operation?

They are. Still, returned the gentleman, I wish I could say they were not.

The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then? said Scrooge.

Both very busy, sir.

Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course, said Scrooge. I’m very glad to hear it.

Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude, returned the gentleman, a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink, and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?

Nothing! Scrooge replied.

You wish to be anonymous?

I wish to be left alone, said Scrooge. Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned: they cost enough: and those who are badly off must go there.

Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.

If they would rather die, said Scrooge, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population. Besides — excuse me — I don’t know that.

But you might know it, observed the gentleman.

It’s not my business, Scrooge returned. It’s enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people’s. Mine occupies me constantly. Good afternoon, gentlemen!

Dickens seems to feel that the poor are innocent victims and that there’s nothing to be gained by punishing them for being poor — which is interesting in light of his own early life experience:

John Dickens’s tenuous prosperity as a clerk in the Navy Pay Office afforded a few years of private education of the young Charles at William Giles’s School, in Chatham.

This period came to an abrupt end after John Dickens had spent beyond his means in entertaining and otherwise maintaining his social position, and was imprisoned in the Marshalsea debtor’s prison. [...] Dickens later used the prison as a setting in Little Doritt.

Just before his father’s arrest, 12-year-old Dickens had begun working ten-hour days at Warren’s Blacking Warehouse, on Hungerford Stairs, near the present Charing Cross railway station. He earned six shillings a week pasting labels on jars of shoe polish. This money paid for his lodgings with Mrs. Roylance and helped support his family.

Mrs. Roylance, Dickens later wrote, was “a reduced old lady, long known to our family”, and whom he eventually immortalized, “with a few alterations and embellishments”, as “Mrs. Pipchin”, in Dombey & Son. Later, lodgings were found for him in a “back-attic…at the house of an insolvent-court agent, who lived in Lant Street in The Borough…he was a fat, good-natured, kind old gentleman, with a quiet old wife; and he had a very innocent grown-up son; these three were the inspiration for the Garland family in The Old Curiosity Shop.

The mostly unregulated, strenuous — and often cruel — work conditions of the factory employees (especially children) made a deep impression on Dickens. His experiences served to influence later fiction and essays, and were the foundation of his interest in the reform of socio-economic and labour conditions, the rigours of which he believed were unfairly borne by the poor.

More than anything, he seems bitter that he went from studying to be a little gentleman to working as a common labourer — when it wasn’t his fault.

Anyway, the whole “carol” recoils at the conclusions of Malthus, while nonetheless centering on a family without the means to support its many children. Bob Cratchit apparently has no better options than to work for Scrooge — which seems odd, for a finance clerk working in London — and Scrooge does not pay him enough to feed and clothe his family. At his current salary, he cannot afford to keep all six children, including the crippled Tiny Tim, alive and well. Thus, Tiny Tim is destined to die — despite asking God to bless us, every one — until Scrooge has his change of heart and increases Cratchit’s pay.

I guess we’re not supposed to ask, What if the Cratchits had waited a year or two to get married?, as Scrooge must certainly have suggested. Then they would have had five children, not six, all well fed and well clothed, and we wouldn’t have had to wipe away the tears thinking about poor Tiny Tim.

But I guess it’s better to feel bad, gloriously bad, about the Poor, than to avoid the problem in the first place. Avoiding the problem is heartless and cruel.


  1. Harry Jones says:


    I know a thing or two about poverty. The first thing to understand is there’s more than one kind.

    Many people really are their own worst enemies and trying to help them is a mistake. But some people are the victims of circumstance.

    We can subdivide the victims of circumstance into: those who would benefit from a loan, those who need some know-how and those who need some connections. Give each what he needs most.

  2. Graham says:

    Attacking Burke for his ancestor-worshipping side is an attack on conservative tropes by any measure, but it’s worth remembering that Burke was a transitional figure within Whiggism.

    Most of the other stuff Dickens attacks was the best, most progressive, rationalist thinking of his times, even Malthus. The stuff that survived into cinematic retellings seems like an unalloyed shot at the whig/liberal, Economist-sanctioned ideology of Britain of that time. All the cruelty and Social Darwinism avant la lettre that was English classical liberalism. Even some of the stuff Scrooge says reminds me of the Economist taking part in ” a severe contest…” etc.

    Not that these categories necessarily translate to more recent times, but one wouldn’t have to work too hard to see in Dickens both a welfare state social reformer and an anti-globalization populist. He did, in Bleak House, satirize the world-saver Mrs Jellyby, who always focused on missions in Africa and not on her own backyard.

    Back in the 80s a good deal of left discourse in Canada seemed to disparage private charity in favour of the all-important welfare state. The former being considered just a fig leaf and the latter a true recognition of our social responsibility. I always heard Scrooge in that. Why should he privately offer charity when his taxes pay for the workhouses? A question he explicitly asks. He has fulfilled his duty to the state. Dickens’ emphasis on personal good will and charity struck me in that context, and still, as by modern standards a very reactionary sentiment.

    Somewhere in his early 2000s catalogue, John Derbyshire [IIRC] repeated a literary anecdote [original teller I have forgotten] about one of the early 19c romantic poets loathing the Duke of Cumberland for a reactionary monster, and loathing him all the more for being personally charitable and amiable to the poor.

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