“A Christmas Carol”, Stave 1:
“Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it;”.
Since it was first published 177 years ago, “A Christmas Carol” has sold over two million copies. Like me, many of you will have read Charles Dickens at school with more, or possibly less, enthusiasm although later on, I have been re-reading some of his books with much pleasure.
In some ways, I think they are best read out loud, perhaps as an audio book. Dickens was himself an actor and his stories are a performance, written for magazines in serial form. The colour and immediacy of his language brings characters and situations alive like no other author. He was also, by our standards, a campaigner, using words and stories to ask us to think about and change some of our behaviours and prejudices.
“A Christmas Carol” is written in five staves and three parts or should I say in three ghosts. The first spirit to visit the central character, Scrooge, is the “Ghost of Christmas Past”. This ghost is described in great detail and spends a fair amount of time with Scrooge, who to begin with is not at all engaged with this idea. In fact, he does his best to ignore the memories which the ghost insists on showing him and the form the Ghost takes constantly changes as these memories fade and change shape.
The second ghost is the “Ghost of Christmas Present”. Huge, vibrant and generous, this spirit represents our current everyday lives. He brings a feast with him which at least engages Scrooge but his visit is much briefer and at the end he shows Scrooge “Ignorance” and “Want”.
In the final part of Dickens’ story, the menacing “Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come” reveals a Christmas Day in the future. This ghost remains silent and Scrooge sees a vision involving the death of a much-disliked man, whose funeral is only attended by local businessmen if they can be assured that lunch is provided. Scrooge asks the spirit to show him a single person who feels any sentiment over his death and the final scene is of an unloved, neglected tombstone bearing Scrooge’s name. Utterly terrified, Scrooge pledges to change his ways.
Dickens was a complex man. A husband and father, he was passionate about education for all and a steadfast campaigner for public libraries. Many visitors to Highclere think their favourite room in the Castle is the Library. Charles Dickens would probably be horrified to see how little we seem to value libraries today, at least in this country. In the old days, when I travelled to New York, I loved to visit the central Public Library and earlier this year I spent some days in the British Library in London: they promise such treasure. Researching the legacy of Bishop William of Wykeham who lived at Highclere between 1380 and 1402, what does he mention? His books -and what was his legacy? Schools and learning for the most disadvantaged. A legacy shared with Dickens and the philanthropists who helped fund Libraries such as the one in New York.
The plot of the Christmas Carol encouraged Dicken’s audience to become more aware of the struggle for survival that was the daily life of so many families at that time and therefore to become more charitable and less ignorant. We have all had a challenging year and past experiences help us to observe and analyse events and plan our way forward. In particular, it has perhaps magnified the gap between what we should value as opposed to the price we pay in any number of arenas and given us much food for thought.
Last week, Gerald Dickens, the great great Grandson of Charles Dickens, kindly performed some excerpts from a Christmas Carol in the Castle which we filmed for our Instagram account @highclere_castle as we were sadly not permitted to have a live audience. However, there is an even better version on his website at https://www.geralddickens.com/films.html.
In addition, in what I hope is our own “Dickensian” spirit, our competition to help so many others is still running on the front of our website, along with the links to the relevant “just giving pages” and the chance of some truly wonderful prizes. We will be picking the winners on December 19th, on the date when the “A Christmas Carol” was first published. Please do share this with as many people as possible.
The final Stave of “A Christmas Carol” ends with “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all three shall strove within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach”