The Darker Side of 'A Christmas Carol'
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," comprising court officials and lawyers; Ebenezer Scrooge would be placed in this class as a usurer, banker, or property owner. Finally, the working classes composed about three-quarters of the population. These included shopkeepers, prostitutes, and children who labored in factories; a financial contribution from each family member was necessary for survival. Dickens learned this firsthand as a young boy who worked to support his family while his parents languished in debtors' prison.
Children growing up in London during the Hungry Forties—a depression coupled with poor harvests—were steeped in these disparities. The skyline was a sea of profitable smokestacks puffing clouds of sooty grit that covered rooftops and the cheeks of young chimney sweeps. Coal was the energy source du jour, and the resulting London fog often hid the real picture. The streets were covered in rainwater, the contents of chamber pots, and animal waste. Rats abounded. Small, often emaciated children sold flowers and matches, while the wealthy class's horse-drawn carriages swept past, throwing grime and muck on those too poor to afford transportation. Despite the horrid conditions, the birth rate rose as mortality rates fell: more children now lived than died. And as the population grew, so did the price of food.