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Just in time for the holidays, Walt Disney has released what looks to be another memorable adaptation of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol. The cold and harsh, penny-pinching Ebenezer Scrooge returns to the big screen, this time in animated form, to have his conscience reawakened by the apparition of his former partner, Jacob Marley, and the ghosts of Christmases past, present, and future.

It's a much-loved holiday story. Part of its charm is that it immerses us in a Victorian-era Christmas, replete with frosted windows, mistletoe, plum pudding, and jolly good cheer. But Dickens's classic also continues to capture our imagination because of its portrayal of a social and economic world of great inequity and deep suffering. It's a world more brutal than we sometimes imagine, and one that in many ways is not too different from our own.

The Hungry Forties

Published in 1843 as a statement against harsh child labor practices, A Christmas Carol carried poignancy in its original context that is difficult to fully grasp today. The severity of living conditions in 19th-century London, combined with the ambivalence of its "paternalistic" legal courts—illustrated so well in Dickens's Bleak House (1853)—is hard to exaggerate. The disparity in standard of living between the top quarter of London's population and the bulk of its citizens was stark. Few members of the aristocracy resided permanently in the capital, but came to London when the stench and heat of the city had subsided in the autumn, and when the courts and Parliament held their sessions. However, the merchants whose wealth rivaled that of the aristocrats were permanent fixtures on the metropolitan landscape.

London also hosted a growing middle or "professional class," ...

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