The RSC's A Christmas Carol is a good show, finds Griselda Heppel. It's just not Dickens.

Happy New Year all! Right, I’ll kick off 2019 with an admission: until two weeks ago, I had 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.

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.

I’ve banged on about this kind of thing before: the sickly, bogus, supposedly A AMilne 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.

The Fezziwigs' Christmas Party by John Leech
It’s not good enough for Edgar that Dickens allows avarice to enter the soul of the young Scrooge, in spite of the abundant generosity from his employer, Fezziwig. There has to be a reason for this corruption. 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 the rules of character creation as required by the literary world today.

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.

Appalling living conditions - Wentworth Street by Gustav Dore
Yes, he showed the appalling effects of poor housing, 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 with games and conversation, 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.’

The Workhouse at St Marylebone
 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?
Happy family scene as drawn by Arthur Rackham:
no entitled brats here
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?

It was a good show, with great acting from the cast, particularly the over-tragically-written Bob Cratchit (played by Gerard Carey); 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 it isn’t.

Find out more about Griselda Heppel here:

and her children's books:
Ante's Inferno 
The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst


Umberto Tosi said…
Yes. I hate when that happens. Let Dickens be Dickens, I say, and "God bless us, every one!" Enjoyed your critique, and Happy New Year to you as well, Griselda.
Enid Richemont said…
Keep banging on about this stuff, Griselda - I am with you to the syllable, especially re-the sickly A A Milne 'quotes'. I've never read the original Christmas Carol either, so perhaps I should. Love the Blackadder version - a long time ago, but still original and funny, and wasn't pretending to be anything more serious or ambitious. I think Dickens might have enjoyed it.
Griselda Heppel said…
Thank you both! Yes, the Blackadder spoof is hysterical, I love it too. I’m also told the Muppet Christmas Carol is brilliant and possibly closer to the spirit of Dickens than other versions. Well worth watching.

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