A Christmas Carol & The Man Who Invented Christmas

I recently read A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. It was elected as a ‘short read’ by the bookclub I belong to and fitted well with the time of year. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Its arresting beginning – ‘Marley was dead: to begin with’ is a great start.

Scrooge, who is completely bad and miserable is at first ‘a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner’ who hates Christmas. But he ends up in the last lines of the book knowing ‘how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.’

What exactly does ‘keeping’ Christmas mean? In A Christmas Carol it seems to be about caring for others, especially for the poor. Giving, receiving, enjoying.

The film The Man Who Invented Christmas backs this up. During the film’s telling of how Dickens came to write A Christmas Carol, the housemaid protests when Dickens initially kills off Tiny Tim at the end of the story. ‘But you can’t let Tiny Tim die’ she wails. And so Tiny Tim lives to see another day and in fact to speak the last words of the book, ‘God bless us everyone’.

Ensuring a happy ending gives A Christmas Carol a Disney feel. In today’s context ‘giving and receiving at Christmas time’ are gushy, feel-good sentiments. Both can be viewed as rather superficial. However, Dickens makes strong comment in many of his other books about the unfair treatment of the poor. Equally, A Christmas Carol may be making a more serious point about poverty and inequality. The rich Scrooge, with all his self-made money, can help to raise the unfortunate circumstances of poor, sick Tiny Tim.

Again, what exactly does ‘keeping’ Christmas mean? If we take the Christian origins of Christmas into account, keeping Christmas would be to remember and rejoice in the birth of Christ who was born to die for the sins of mankind. Although A Christmas Carol does make Christian references, I think Dickens does not explicitly endorse the Christian message. In some of his other works he is in fact quite disparaging of the hypocrisy of the church. In this sense, then, A Christmas Carol may in fact be Dickens showing the church to ‘put its mouth where its money is’ and help to lighten the load of others.

 

Leaving a Literary Legacy

A Japanese Maple in the garden of Chartwell House. With Robyn Turton

As I walked to the post office on a sunny autumn day in London to send off some magazine competition entries, I was reminded of the film The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio. This 2005 release starred Julianne Moore and Woody Harrelson and was a lovely based-on-truth story about a mother of 10 who entered competitions and with her winnings saved her family from ruin. The difference between the luck-of-the-draw competitions I had entered and the ones Evelyn Ryan (Moore) went for in the 1950s was the skill required. Ryan needed to write clever, succinct jingles that were better than all the other entrants’ attempts. Judging by the number of times she won she was indeed very skillful.

My daughter and I watched the film on a mobile phone in an AirBnB in Canterbury, Kent. We had taken

The Wife of Bath & Robyn Turton. Which is which?

off a few days to visit this county and were pleased with the number of other skilled writers we had come across on our journey. The first, on our way to Canterbury, was Winston Churchill. We had visited Chartwell House, the WWII home of this gifted man. Apart from being prime minister of Britain and a decorated military man, Churchill also wrote almost 50 books and was an amateur painter. A tour guide at the house pointed out an interesting comparison. Adolf Hitler, too, was an artist and had applied to study at art school but had been refused. What if, posited the guide, Hitler had been accepted at art school?

In Canterbury itself we of course saw some reminders of the author of the famous The Canterbury Tales – Geoffrey Chaucer. Chaucer is credited with being one of the first people to write in English (albeit in Ye Olde English) and his stories are full of ribald humour and so are appealing today. Somebody who wrote in more ‘modern’ English several centuries later was Charles Dickens whose home was Rochester, another city in Kent. My daughter and I did a walking tour of this delightful old city where we saw landmarks that Dickens himself refers to in many of his works. These included ‘Satis House’ from Great Expectations (properly named Restoration House) and Rochester Cathedral which takes centre stage in Dickens’s unfished work The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

‘Satis House’ in Rochester, Kent

It was lovely to have walked in the footsteps of these real historic literary greats – from Chaucer to Dickens to Churchill. And as I strolled back from posting my luck-of-the-draw competition entries I pondered on The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio, who herself – however different – left a literary legacy  of her own.

 

 

 

Feast on Universally Themed Stories

Are stories universal? Literature studies will tell you they are. They will tell you there are a finite number of plots that most stories fit into. In fact, Douglas McPherson in Writers’  Forum #190, says that estimates of plot types range from 36 to seven, to as few as two. ZP Dala, a South African writer from KwaZulu-Natal, explains further that the universal nature of stories is what connects people ‘across oceans or across a kitchen table in a commonality that fosters a sense of belonging.’ (The Mercury, 12 September 2017, p. 5).

A fellow movie lover and I watched a foreign language film together a few years ago. It was in Serbian or Croatian or Czechoslovakian, I can’t remember which. The story followed the lives of a poor couple who eked out an existence in a run-down, snowbound village. They lived hand to mouth, so much so that when the wife became sick the husband simply sold his car to pay for her medical expenses. Without this intervention the woman may not have survived. Universal themes here included poverty and love – storylines also found in, for example, Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, and many others.

Footloose by The Young Performers. Source: Publicity Matters

What really underscored the universal nature of this film was that the disc sent to the cinema house arrived without subtitles. That’s right, my friend and I watched the whole thing without understanding a single word of the dialogue. I’ve never forgotten that film. Even though my friend unhelpfully told me she couldn’t remember the title because there were no subtitles, the story itself, regardless of language, made such an impression on me. A story of commitment regardless of struggle.

Another story which I have long enjoyed is that of Footloose – the tale of a boy who can’t stop dancing and inspires a town of miserable people to enjoy themselves again. I saw the original in 1984, the remake in 2011, and just last week the stage play by The Young Performers. It was lovely. A story with a similar theme is the 2015 Swedish film Heaven on Earth. In this tale (which I watched with subtitles) against all odds a woman revitalises a town and its church minister and tiny congregation by forming a choir to sing Handel’s Messiah.

Although my limited experience is hardly evidence of the universal nature of stories, this small sample certainly seems to support the notion. A feast of tales indeed.

Dickens’ complicated relationship in The Invisible Woman

The Invisible Woman stars Ralph Fiennes as Charles Dickens and Felicity Jones as his young lover Ellen (Nelly) Ternan. Despite being married with several children, Dickens is attracted to Nelly when she takes up a role in one of his plays.

For her part, Nelly is an avid fan of Dickens, absorbing his books with an emotional intensity that dictates the action of the film. The two develop an uneasy relationship. It flaunts the societal conventions of the time by their choice to live together. But at the same time, their relationship bows to societal dictates in their choice of living, hiding away in a quiet home in the countryside.

Years after Dickens has died, Nelly, now married and with a child of her own, reflects on her past. Unable to come to terms with what transpired, Nelly remains a tortured soul until she chooses to live differently. This she does right at the end of the film. This choice is mirrored in the ending of Dickens’ well-known work Great Expectations, an ending Nelly ultimately rejects.

Bereft of any humour, The Invisible Woman is a serious film that relentlessly shows how difficult it is to truly know and connect with another person. It opens at Ster Kinekor theatres in South Africa on 4 July.

Felicity Jones plays Charles Dickens' lover in The Invisible Woman

Felicity Jones plays Charles Dickens’ lover in The Invisible Woman. Photo: Creative Commons

Ralph Fiennes plays Charles Dickens in The Invisible Woman. Photo: Creative Commons

Ralph Fiennes plays Charles Dickens in The Invisible Woman. Photo: Creative Commons