Did Scrooge dodge a bullet?

a christmas carol 2Happy New Year all!

Right, I’ll kick off 2019 with an admission: until a month ago, I’d never read A Christmas Carol.

Yup, you read that right. Charles Dickens’s much-loved (and pleasingly short) fable about mean old Scrooge being ‘woke’ (right up there with modern idioms, that’s me) and swapping his miserliness for kindness and generosity… to be honest, I knew the story so well I really thought I had read it. But in preparation for a family visit to David Edgar’s adaptation of the book for the Royal Shakespeare Company, I thought I’d take up the original – and boy, am I glad I did.

The Real McScrooge

Because if I hadn’t, I might really have thought that what we saw in Stratford was the Real McScrooge. Or rather, I’d have suspected some of the odder scenes as being fashionably updated, but not known exactly where Dickens ended and his adaptor began. The more skilled the adaptor – and Edgar is very skilled – the more the original writer’s essence is blurred, twisted and, frankly, betrayed.

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Fezziwig (John Leech) – ruined by his own generosity. NOT.

I’ve banged on about this kind of thing before: the sickly, bogus, supposedly A A Milne quotes littering the internet, David Hare’s pride at writing ‘genuine’ Virginia Woolfisms. But increasingly I feel I’m holding up an umbrella against a tsunami of ‘improvements’ meted out to just about every great literary figure no longer alive and therefore unable to protest, by contemporary writers who feel with astonishing arrogance that They Can Do It Better. It’s not good enough for Edgar that Dickens allows avarice to enter the soul of the young Scrooge, in spite of the generosity of his employer, Fezziwig. There has to be a reason. So Edgar makes Fezziwig profligate and unwise, leading to bankruptcy and death; from which harsh lesson, ah, of course, Scrooge derives his obsession with money. Cause and Effect, satisfying present day rules of character creation.

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Appalling poverty: the workhouse at St Marylebone

Dickens: a fomenter of class warfare?

Except that Dickens didn’t give a fig for these rules. He saw no need to explain why Scrooge becomes a miser in the first place; it was just in his character. Nor, in Dickens’s world, are kind and generous people punished for being so: his whole point is that people have a choice in the way they behave towards others. Nor is he an overtly radical writer, though from Edgar’s adaptation you could be forgiven for thinking so. Yes, he showed the appalling effects of poverty, hunger, sickness and lack of education on the poor but his aim was to arouse the consciences of the wealthy to relieve that want, not to foment class warfare. When Scrooge in the book visits (invisibly) his nephew’s Christmas party, he finds a happy group of people enjoying each other’s company, making him regret his refusal to take part; what he doesn’t find is a heartless political discussion, blaming poor parents for sending their 4 year-old children down the mine so that they can spend their earnings on gin, and (highly suspect in days before contraception) a particularly unpleasant woman congratulating herself and her husband for ‘only going for our fifth child when we knew we could afford it.’

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Wentworth Street by Gustav Dore

A Trio of Entitled Brats

I have no problem with Dickens himself appearing as a character in this adaptation, discussing with his friend Forster the scoliosis and other deformities suffered by seamstresses and milliners, as well as child labour in factories and mines. This is a clever device that teaches us much about the terrible conditions around him that Scrooge (and others like him) refuse to see. I do mind when Edgar alters A Christmas Carol itself because, well, how dare he? How dare he write a scene in which Mrs Cratchit humiliates her husband for not standing up to Scrooge, when poor Bob has no chance of doing that and keeping his job, as his wife (in the REAL Christmas Carol) knows?  Or have Bob Cratchit, thinking himself dismissed, give his employer a hefty piece of his mind, purely for an easy laugh from the audience who knows better? Or, most puzzling of all, distort the charmingly rumbustious scene of the family that Scrooge might have had (if he’d married his childhood sweetheart, Belle) by making the children a trio of entitled brats complaining at the presents brought home by their loving father? If that was really what Dickens wrote, wouldn’t Scrooge feel he’d dodged a bullet there, rather than yearn for the love and joy he could have had?

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The happy family scene (Arthur Rackham) Scrooge might have had. Where are David Edgar’s entitled brats?

Dickens it ain’t

It was a good show, with some outstanding acting (eg Gerard Carey playing the over-tragically-written Bob Cratchit) but it wasn’t Dickens.  By all means, David Edgar, write your Victorian Christmas morality tale, you can even borrow heavily from the great man himself. Just don’t call it A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, OK?  Because Dickens it ain’t.

 

 

(Adapted from an article on Authors Electric)

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Pantomime Blossoms in Cardiff Castle

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Dick Whittington at the Oxford Playhouse

Right then, hands up: who’s been to a pantomime this year?

For those who’ve never had to sit in a British theatre among a deafening audience of 6 year-olds, dodging penny sweets being hurled from the stage, while gamely shouting ‘He’s behind you!’ to Snow-White, or Aladdin, or Little Red Riding Hood, some explanation is needed.  And my goodness, have I tried to explain this particular loud, brash, clunkily scripted, outrageously overacted, joyfully strewn with terrible puns and altogether much-loved piece of our Christmas tradition to bemused visitors from other countries down the years… never with the slightest success, unfortunately. You just have to be there, really.

Or not.

Robinson Crusoe 2

… and none more surprising than appearing in a pantomime.

But it only struck me recently (slow, that’s me) what an odd collection of stories makes up the pantomime repertoire. Fairy tales such as Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, national legends like Robin Hood and Dick Whittington, all well and good… but – Robinson Crusoe? How did Daniel Defoe’s novel about shipwreck, isolation and the survival of the human spirit transmute into a raucous children’s entertainment, complete with slapstick, word play and (presumably – I haven’t seen it) pantomime dame and villain?

 

CARDIFF CASTLE

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Cardiff Castle: transformed into a Gothic fairy tale by the 3rd Marquess of Bute

Now, I have a hunch that the answer lies in Cardiff Castle. (Oh, no it doesn’t, I hear you say. Oh yes it does, say I. Oh no it – hey, that’s quite enough.) In the mid 19th Century, the fabulously rich 3rd Marquess of Bute restored a section of this Norman ruin into a glorious expression of the Gothic Revival movement. Every wall, ceiling, door, window, fireplace and stairwell is beautifully painted, carved, moulded, decorated with marble, stone and plaster sculptures, furnished with fine wrought iron handles, knobs and railings, giving an overall impression of warmth and delight in craftsmanship. IMG_1508Above all it feels a very happy place, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the day nursery designed for the marquess’s four children. Half-way up the walls, an enormous frieze of hand-painted tiles shows dozens of storybook characters in one continuous, colourful narrative. And yes, you’ve guessed, the stories chosen are all (with the puzzling exception of Lady Godiva) ones that form classic pantomimes: Jack and the Beanstalk, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, St George and the Dragon, Robinson Crusoe.

THE BLOSSOMING OF PANTOMIME

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Robinson Crusoe on the trail of the Good Fairy. Er…

I doubt that this was an intentional homage to the genre on the part of the marquess: rather, the (7-league) boot is on the other foot. This mixture of tales from the Brothers Grimm, Charles Perrault, the Arabian Nights, folk legend and early novelist Daniel Defoe, is what constituted English mid-19th century children’s literature, just at the time when pantomime – around since Roman times – blossomed into the form we know today. (The Victorian playwrights and theatre managers probably balked at including Lady Godiva in their repertoire.)

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Zzzz… A peripatetic Sleeping Beauty

So pantomimes are all drawn from 19th century children’s stories – well, duh. There needs no Puss-in-Boots, come from the grave, my lord, to tell us this. But seeing the evidence so beautifully painted here made me grasp the point in a way I hadn’t before. What lucky children – as our slightly sardonic guide never ceased reminding us – to be brought up in such delightful surroundings.

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No pantomime – as yet – about Lady Godiva

Lucky or not (and the Bute family had its fair share of tragedy but that’s another story), we are all the richer for this stunning artistic heritage. Go and see Cardiff Castle if you can – the nursery is just one of a feast of glorious rooms open to the public.

 

 

 

(From an article originally published on Authors Electric Blog)

Leading your characters into temptation

On the subject of food (can you tell it’s a favourite with me?), there’s another role it can play in books, very different from the nurturing, life-enhancing way I looked at last month. Just the opposite, in fact. And while this works as a literary and moral device, it can be pretty cruel to your characters.

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And so it begins…

To begin at the beginning… How does the serpent corrupt Eve in the Garden of Eden? With a crisp, juicy apple, thus setting in motion 2,000 years of imagery in which the poor apple takes the brunt of all the evil in the world. Interestingly the idea of fruit being a catalyst for trouble isn’t just a Judeo-Christian one: think of the six pomegranate seeds swallowed by Persephone when kidnapped by Hades, which bind her to the Underworld for half the year. Or the golden apple thrown by Eris, Greek goddess of discord, into the wedding of Thetis and Peleus, which reappears at the judgement of Paris, only for him to assign it to the wrong goddess and kickstart the Trojan War.

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Golden Apple of Discord

With such powerful religious and classical antecedents, no wonder the idea of Forbidden Fruit took such hold on the western imagination, a vein of wicked temptation running from the Garden of Earthly Delights of mediaeval literature to the yearning for apricots that betrays the Duchess of Malfi to the clandestine plum pudding Edmund Gosse nibbles, in Father and Son.

Garden of Earthly Delights

The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch

This last example is especially poignant, since it comes from a memoir, not fiction. A member of the puritan Plymouth Brethren, Gosse’s father believed the pleasures associated with celebrating Christmas – singing, dancing, fine clothes and feasting – to be the work of the devil. Aghast that his little son should be so deprived, the maids feed him a slice of the plum pudding they’ve secretly made for themselves; his father, discovering the crime, ‘flung the idolatrous confectionery on to the middle of the [dust heap], and then raked it deep down into the mass.’

plum pudding

Idolatrous Confectionary

I find this scene heartbreaking to read. As Gosse himself writes, ‘The suddenness, the violence, the velocity of this extraordinary act made an impression on my memory which nothing will ever efface’ – all arising from a fear that what is enjoyable to the senses must by definition be sinful. Here is the exact opposite of the ‘speckled cannon ball…blazing in half of half-a-quartern of ignited brandy,’ that cheers the table of the hard-up Cratchit family in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.

Oliver TwistIndeed, while Dickens makes brilliant metaphorical use of natural phenomena (the fog in Bleak House, for instance, confusing and entrapping as the legal system; or the predatory Carker’s white teeth in Dombey and Son) he is the last writer to endow an apple, a pudding, or anything else with evil characteristics. There’s nothing like a poverty-stricken childhood to teach you the true value of food. It is hunger, not greed, that prompts Oliver to ask for more (Oliver Twist). Pip quakes in terror that his theft of a pie will be discovered; yet he stole not for himself, but to feed a starving runaway convict (Great Expectations).

Great Expectations

Once food is seen for what it is – nourishing, tasty, a source of pleasure and celebration with friends – treating any part of it as somehow inherently wicked becomes both impossible and heartless.

The Lion the Witch and the WardrobeNot for some of the great children’s writers though. It’s hard on Edmund, in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, that while his sister Lucy can safely be treated to tea and toast by a faun, he unwittingly seals his pact with the White Witch by accepting the treats she offers. (‘He had the look of one who had been with the Witch and eaten her food,’ says Mr Beaver.) The drink – ‘very sweet and foamy and creamy’ – is enchanted, of course, so no ordinary food; yet there’s a sense in which Edmund is being punished for enjoying it so much.

The Magician's nephew

And in The Magician’s Nephew, Lewis actually recreates the Garden of Eden, with poor Digory being tempted by the Witch to eat the apple from the Tree of Life (‘A terrible thirst and hunger came over him and a longing to taste that fruit’) rather than bring it, as instructed, to Aslan.

Do modern children’s books put their heroes through this kind of Food As Temptation ordeal? My impression is no, and a good thing too. Far better for the smells and tastes of delicious things to be celebrated, so encouraging a healthy relationship with eating, rather than treated as a test for your characters to fail, as some of the children in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory do, or the ever-hungry Dick in The Faraway Tree. Surely in our more secular age we can dispense with this biblical sense of guilt surrounding food. 

Not as simple as that. The popular culture young readers are growing into lays a heavy burden of blame on delectable goodies, from Salman Rushdie’s famous Naughty But Nice advertising slogan for cream cakes to Slimming World’s use of the term ‘syns’ for treats (short for ‘synergy’, I know, but that fools nobody).

Naughty but Nice

Naughty… but nice

We may no longer believe literally in the idea of Forbidden Fruit; but we are a long way from being free of its power. Cake, anyone?

 

(Adapted from an article originally published on Authors Electric Blogspot.)

 

Santa in Scarlet – or Green – or Blue?

Father Christmas in Holborn

A scarlet Father Christmas in Holborn

Three days left of the Christmas season: plenty of time to squeeze in a few thoughts about a well-known, well-nourished figure with a jolly laugh who chooses the narrowest and most uncomfortable route into our houses to stuff a bunch of outsize stockings with toy engines, teddy bears and easy peelers.  Now, I don’t know about you, but while I’ve had to accept, for some time, a certain existential ambivalence about the dear old fellow, of one thing I was certain: what Father Christmas wears.

Until, that is, a few years ago, when my teenage children shattered my illusions. That traditional suit – you know, the scarlet one with white cuffs that match Santa’s snowy beard, huge belt buckle across his tremendous tum – is apparently not traditional at all, but the result of a cynical advertising campaign by Coca Cola in the 1930s, forever associating the plump, jolly, big-hearted Santa Claus with the fizzy drink. Until then, Santa had boasted a lean, trim figure, clothed in a long, green robe.

Well, there was only one answer to that. Utter nonsense. Teenagers think they know everything. Father Christmas/Santa Claus is depicted wearing red because he’s always worn red. Look at Christmas cards, films, book illustrations, department stores (all post 1930s, I admit). My mind flew back to my German childhood in the 1960s … and uncovered a memory till then suppressed.

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St Nick in Winter Blue

On 6th December every year, Nikolaus, accompanied by his servant, Knecht Ruprecht, visited my primary school. While Ruprecht, lugging a sack bursting with goodies, wore brown or black, I forget which, his tall, thin master had on a long robe of dark – green. At the time I was far too excited by his distribution of sweets and Lebkuchen to wonder at the colour. Perhaps also, the (sadly, rather poorly printed) illustration of Nikolaus (right) in my reading book, Mein erstes Buch, had prepared me for just about any other colour than the one expected.

Mein erstes Buch

My first reading book; scarlet, incidentally

My children, it seemed, were right. Germany in the 1960s would have been relatively unaffected by Coca Cola advertising; here was Santa Claus (or St Nikolaus) as he had probably been portrayed for hundreds of years. Green may have pagan connotations, linking the 4th century St Nicholas with the ancient midwinter Yule festival, celebrated throughout Europe. 

In Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1843), the ghost of Christmas Present has much in common with the figure of Father Christmas: a jovial, generous spirit, surrounded by delicious food and drink.

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The Green Ghost of Christmas Present

Yet John Leech’s famous illustration shows him not in scarlet and white, but in a green robe, crowned with a holly wreath. And as for the blue-clad Nikolaus in my reading book…  in 19th century Germany, a tradition of the Weihnachtsmann grew up, with the ‘Christmas man’ wearing the colour most associated with the coldness of winter. Santa’s coat could be many colours, it seemed. Just not red.

And yet…

Ha,  I didn’t give up that easily. A trawl of the internet revealed the following:

1. In 1821, William B Gilley published The Children’s Friend: A New-Year’s Present to the Little Ones from Five to Twelve. Containing an anonymous poem, Old Santeclaus with Much Delightthis small paperback was illustrated with eight coloured lithographs, in which one can almost see Santa evolving into today’s familiar figure, since while one illustration shows him dressed in green, two others have him in bright red, trimmed with white fur (below).

  1.  In 1823, the far more famous Twas the Night Before Christmas by Clement Clarke Moore portrays Santa Claus as the cheery, red-cheeked, well-rounded figure instantly recognisable today: ‘He had a broad face and a little round belly, That shook, when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly. He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf…’
  1. In 1843, the Cornish Quaker and diarist Barclay Fox described a family party which included the ‘venerable effigy of Father Christmas, with scarlet coat & cocked hat, stuck all over with presents for the guests.’

So while Coca Cola may have done much to spread this particular image of Santa, we should cut the multinational company some slack (not a sentiment one sees often these days). Father Christmas had been steadily reddening on both sides of the Atlantic for nearly a century before their advertising campaign began.

The tubby, rosy-cheeked gentleman in scarlet and white robe and black boots, driving a sleigh pulled by reindeer, is the Real Thing after all.

Phew. I’m glad that’s sorted. Happy New Year!

 

(Adapted from a post first published on Authors Electric Blogspot.)