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A Dickensian Christmas? – by Marina Fiorato

Posted on: 10/12/2013 with tags: charles dickens, christmas, christmas carol, Christmas Traditions, dickens, history, Marina Fiorato

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If you walk down the London street where I live, it’s quite easy to imagine yourself back in time.

In the winter dusk, if the cars stop for a moment and there’s no C11 bus roaring at your back, you could fancy yourself in Victorian London. The tall redbrick mansions are straight from the period in which the notion of Christmas as we know it today was first born. The dates carved above the architraves whisk me back in time, like the date dial in the Tardis. 1887, reads the number on my mansion block. In 1887 Victoria was on the throne and it was just seventeen short years after the death of the one man who did more than anyone else to popularize Christmas.

Charles John Huffam Dickens was born in Landport, Portsea Island, but has always been associated with London more than any other place.  In fact, in 1822 he moved to my own borough of Camden. We may think of Charles Dickens as an upper class fellow but this is entirely wrong; he understood better than most the grinding misery of poverty. The Dickens family’s move to London from affluent Kent was necessitated by their reduced circumstances, and when Dickens’s father was imprisoned in a debtor’s jail – the Marshalsea prison – young Charles was forced to work in a blacking factory, though still a child. Here his fellow workers teased him for his origins, calling him a ‘young gent’, but on his way to and from work, Dickens passed through the poorest boroughs in London, and saw at first hand scenes of crushing poverty. Such scenes were the diametric opposite of the Utopia portrayed on the new Victorian ‘Christmas Card’.

Though he may not have known it at the time, all of these experiences were food for the writer that Dickens was destined to be. The episode of the Marshalsea was later used in Little Dorrit, while poor little David Copperfield was forced to work in a blacking factory. But it is in his seasonal fable A Christmas Carol that Dickens makes his most searing indictment of the yawning chasm between rich and poor.  At the beginning of the book Scrooge, a rich city trader, exploits and underpays his faithful clerk Bob Cratchit and scoffs at those who come to beg for charity.

And charity was sorely needed in this pre-welfare state, for Fate had laid another cruel burden on the citizens of Victorian London. A mini ice-age struck the capital in the 1800s, and winters were unusually snowy. It is ironic that the very images that grace our Christmas cards – a fairytale, snowbound city – meant unimaginable misery for many poor families. Fuel poverty is not a new phenomenon, and Bob Cratchit was not the only man in London in need of one more lump of coal for the fire. The recently introduced Poor Laws had forced many into the ‘prisons and workhouses’ of which Scrooge approves in the book. Money – or the lack of it – is a theme which runs through the novel and colours the visits of all three spirits. The Ghost of Christmas Past reminds Scrooge how he gave up love for money, the Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge how the poorest family he knows – the Cratchits – somehow make the merriest at Christmas. And the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come shows Scrooge scavengers squabbling over the sale of his personal effects – there was even profit in death.  Scrooge famously repents, and spends his Christmas day doling out charity to those in need. In Scrooge’s change of heart, Dickens is encouraging all of us to think of those worse off than us.

But sometimes it’s hard to be charitable, even in this Year of our Lord 2013. Everything turns in a circle, and some are now re-entering Victorian levels of poverty. We now hear the dreadful phrase ‘heating or eating’ and for some families this agonizing choice has become a reality. Foodbanks like the Trussell Trust have seen a rocketing uptake this year, more than any year since this lengthy recession began. But it is heartening that, even in these straitened times, the people of Britain have not forgotten how to be charitable. Children in Need and Comic Relief saw an increase, not a decrease, in donations this year. Recent appeals by the DEC on behalf of the Typhoon victims in the Philippines, have been overwhelmed with donations.

The term ‘Merry Christmas’ itself became popularized after the publication of A Christmas Carol. As Dickens showed us in his 1840 tale, which has never been out of print since, there is always hope. And with that heartening thought, I wish you, from my Victorian corner of London, a very ‘Merry Christmas!’

Marina Fiorato is half-Venetian. She was born in Manchester and raised in the Yorkshire Dales. She is a history graduate of Oxford University and the University of Venice, where she specialized in the study of Shakespeare’s plays as an historical source. After university she studied art and since worked as an illustrator, actress and film reviewer. Marina was married on the Grand Canal and lives in north London with her husband, son and daughter. She is the author of five novels: The Glassblower of MuranoThe Madonna of the Almonds, The Botticelli Secret, Daughter of Siena and The Venetian Contract. You can follow Marina on Twitter at @MarinaFiorato and find out more about her and her writing at www.marinafiorato.com.

Amy Dolman

Post author: Amy Dolman

Amy is responsible for the smooth running of the H for History website, and enjoys reading history-based fantasy. She also like to photograph sites of historical interest in her spare time with a cup of bovril and a pork pie for company. Favourite period of history: Ancient; Favourite historical read: Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave; Upcoming book i'm most looking forward to: Mister Memory by Marcus Sedgwick

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