Monday, 2 February 2009

C is for Charles

I have a confession to make. I’ve never read a Dickens novel. My stockings were always filled with abridged versions of classics, partly because I loved reading, even then, but mostly because it kept me occupied when I woke up at stupid o’clock on Christmas morning. There were a couple of Dickens in there and I definitely remember getting Great Expectations one year and maybe Oliver Twist too. I read all of them but as the abridged version, all of the tough stuff was taken out.
I tried reading “A Tale of Two Cities” a couple of years ago, but ended up carrying it round in my bag for a couple of months and reading magazines instead. So, as part of the book challenge I decided to read “A Christmas Carol”. I love Christmas like a little kid loves Christmas, and I get more excited every year. That means that I get more disappointed every year when it only lasts one day. Reading this meant that I got to prolong Christmas for a bit longer and, as some sort of omen, I got a Christmas present that week as well!

Everyone knows the story. Reading it, for me, was like coming home and settling into your favourite saggy armchair with a cup of tea. Actually, it was probably more like settling into your favourite armchair only to find that a spring has broken free and poked you on the bottom. Either I didn’t understand it as a child and skimmed over it, or the more gruesome parts were left out of the abridged version. The encounters Scrooge has with the spirits were more vivid, scarier and altogether more tense than I remember. There was a bit with the first spirit where Scrooge jams the candle extinguisher onto his head, putting out the light completely. Another with Marley where he unravels his bandages and his jaw falls off. For me, by far the most stark section was the one where the rag and bone people were discussing how much they’d get for Scrooge’s belongings, and the woman confesses to not only stealing his curtains, but his nightshirt and even the ferryman pennies. I don’t remember reading that as a six year old.

The story is so well known and so entrenched in our Christmas culture that some of the phrases have entered into common parlance. As Bill Bryson says (thank you, book B) Shakespeare donated a staggering amount of words and phrases, which perhaps is indicative of how influential an author is. “God bless us everyone” is obviously Tiny Tim’s mantra, along with Scrooge’s catchphrase of “Bah, humbug”, instantly recognisable. Scrooge himself has transformed from a man to a personality trait, especially around Christmas.
This can be a blessing and a burden. What people expect is not necessarily what the story actually is. When I was reading the Dickens version, I couldn’t get the picture of Michael Caine, Kermit and Gonzo out of my head, which was a bit distracting!

Aside from the well-known story, Dickens’ prose is rich and powerful. It conjures up a Victorian Christmas with ease – the people, the food, the presents and the goodwill to all men (I think we have Dickens to thank for that too, but don’t quote me on that) are all as clear as when you watch The Muppets’ version, but with fewer strings. I loved his approach to conversation too – he avoids massive sections of quotation marks by describing what’s being said sometimes. On other writers, this might not work but with Dickens his characters are painted so brightly that you can still hear their voices in your head, word for word or not.

Everyone should read a proper Dickens – he’s still around a couple of centuries later, because he’s brilliant. I think I’ll read Oliver Twist next – there won’t be that many differences from the abridged, children’s version, will it?

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