December 22, 2014

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What of Dickens?

Dec. 16, 2010

By Katherine Bielawa Stamper

Charles Dickens (1812-70) published “A Christmas Carol,” the first of his five annual Christmas books, in 1843. He penned the piece, a ghost story, in a few short weeks. England was recovering from the Great Depression of 1841-42 and his wife, Catherine, was pregnant with their fifth child. Frankly, they needed cash.

The enchanting Victorian novella introduces readers to the character of Ebenezer Scrooge, a greedy, grumpy, pathetically lonely man transformed by the visitation of three spirits on Christmas Eve.

The author was born in England in 1812 to John and Elizabeth Dickens during the reign of King George III. His father earned moderate wages as a clerk in the Naval Pay Office. British society was highly stratified, lacking significant class mobility. John and Elizabeth, appreciating the finer things, aspired to a lifestyle beyond their means.

Dickens’ education at the private William Giles School ended abruptly at age 12 — due to his father’s banishment to debtors’ prison. The elder Dickens owed the modern day equivalent of 2,939 British Pounds, or about $4,656. Dickens’ parents and his three youngest siblings moved to Marshalsea Prison, a shabby and corrupt establishment along the south bank of the Thames, near London.

England’s vast system of debtors’ prisons ran as for-profit institutions.

Inmates accrued “Jailors’ Fees” for room and board, hampering their ability to work off debt. Whole families often moved in, exacerbating accumulation of monies owed. Children and wives sought day wages, earning precious few shillings in a system that provided few escapes from poverty.

Dickens was sent to work at Warren’s Blackening Co., a factory owned by a distant relative. Abandoning books and writing implements, he worked 10-hour days, affixing labels to bottles of boot polish while earning 5 shillings a week. He rented a room in Camden Yards, the less affluent London district in which the character Bob Cratchit, Scrooge’s ill-treated clerk, resides. Dickens became intimately familiar with the area, walking to and from work each day.

The Dickens family’s tenure at Marshalsea was mercifully short. Within months, John Dickens’ paternal grandmother died, bequeathing a moderate inheritance. The younger Dickens resumed his education, in public school, over the protestations of his mother, who wanted him to remain at the factory. His parents never grasped the concept of solvency. Financial security eluded them throughout their lives.

At age 15, Dickens assumed a position as a junior clerk in the Ellis and Blackmore Law Office. Working by candlelight, he prepared documents and obliged requests from superiors. He studied shorthand at night, eventually leaving the position to become a freelance reporter.

By 1835, Dickens was writing short journalistic pieces for the Morning Chronicle and Evening Chronicle newspapers. His “Sketches by Boz” and “Street Sketches” offered stories of everyday Londoners, often highlighting the day-to-day realities of the poor and working classes. He spent much time roaming the streets and in courtrooms, reporting on proceedings. His keen memory, gift for description and quick study of personalities would provide a rich trove of literary material for his eventual fiction pieces.

Dickens published his first novel, “The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club,” in monthly serial from April 1836 to November 1837. Novels published in this manner — chapters appearing in magazines — made them more affordable to the masses.

The writer perfected his craft, offering readers realistic glimpses into prisons, workplaces and dwellings of the less affluent. Dickens, honoring his humble roots, engaged in considerable philanthropy. He established and actively funded Urania Cottage, a refuge for former prostitutes providing training for careers in domestic service. He delivered a series of public readings to help fund the expansion of the Great Ormond Street Hospital. He offered his pen anonymously, writing about social ills such as the plight of abused and neglected children.

My family reads “A Christmas Carol” each year at this time. I am most moved by the characterizations of two employers in the text — Ebenezer Scrooge and Mr. Fezziwig. Scrooge is depicted as cold-hearted and greedy prior to his spectrally-influenced transformation. Mr. Fezziwig is warm-hearted and generous, encouraging his employees to stop working on Christmas Eve to celebrate.

I sometimes wonder who served as the real inspiration for the characters of Scrooge and Fezziwig. Clearly, Dickens encountered both of them in some capacity. Was it in the first floor counting house of the boot blackening factory? Was it in the personality of a lawyer or senior clerk at the law firm? Was it an editor to whom he reported?

We all have roles to play. Let’s aim to be Fezziwigs now and throughout the year. Happy Holidays!

Katherine Bielawa Stamper lives in Williston. Reader comments are welcome at [email protected] or [email protected]

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