Over the last few days I have spent quite a bit of time sitting in front of my laptop in a Christmas sweater (red with snowmen, to be precise) chatting via Zoom about my new film of A Christmas Carol. Yesterday I spent a very entertaining hour in the company of audience members from The Mid Continent Public Library Service in Kansas City who posed some fascinating questions, and I thought it may be fun to air some of them here so that the debate can move onto a larger platform. The answers to these questions are open to interpretation and derive not so much from fact but from a few clues buried deep within the text that was written so quickly in December 1843. I hope you have fun coming to your own conclusions:
Friendship: was Jacob Marley Scrooge’s only true friend?
We know that Scrooge and Marley were close in that they formed a business and ran it together for ‘I don’t know how many years’. The two men presumably shared the same opinions, morals and aspirations and the firm had the name of Scrooge and Marley. Ebenezer, we are told, never painted out Jacob’s name after his death, although that was probably less to do with friendship and more to do with the cost of paint! Scrooge was, as Dickens points out, his sole friend and his sole mourner. So, yes a friendship was certainly there, but does it go deeper?
The opening chapter of the book bears Marley’s name and it is also in the first sentence of the novel, in fact it is the very first word, so we know from the outset that Jacob Marley is important to what will unfold, but just how strong is his influence over old Ebenezer will be confirmed in the following pages. For the rest of the first chapter not a single other character is referred to by their name, even though there is plenty of traffic passing through Ebenezer’s office on Christmas Eve: apart from his faithful clerk who sits in a ‘sort of a tank’, Scrooge’s ever cheerful and faithful nephew comes to call, as do two gentlemen collecting for charity. A carol singer stoops to the keyhole in the hope of making a penny. Not only does Scrooge dismiss all of these individuals but neither he or the narrator refers to any of them by name, they are simply ‘the clerk’, ‘the nephew’ and ‘the gentlemen’. The next time a name is mentioned is when Scrooge is standing in front of his door: ‘Let it also be borne in mind that Scrooge had not bestowed one thought on Marley since his last mention of his seven years dead partner that afternoon.’ Marley again.
When the ghost eventually appears, the two men, after a bit of ill-tempered banter (‘Can you sit down?’ ‘I can!’ ‘Do it then’, ‘You don’t believe in me’, ‘I don’t!’), fall into a conversation as Marley warns his friend what lies in store and, more to the point, Scrooge listens Ebenezer doesn’t simply call him Marley, but actually uses his first name, ‘Jacob, tell me more, speak comfort to me Jacob.’ Indeed, Scrooge goes so far as to say that ”you were always a good friend to me. Thank ‘ee’.
The chains that Jacob bears belong also to Ebenezer and Dickens uses this imagery to shackle them together in genuine friendship. Unless Scrooge can change, unless he learns from the three spirits, only then will those chains be broken.
Of course Scrooge has little choice but to spend time with the ghosts and indeed he does repent and change his ways and at the end of the book he refers to Jacob just once before he rushes into the streets and visits his nephew whom he addresses as ‘Fred’ upon arrival. The next morning he surprises his clerk and wishes him ‘A Merry Christmas Bob!’ And of his old long deceased friend? ‘Scrooge had no further intercourse with the spirits….’, there is no name, Marley has now become a function, as the mortal characters were in the opening chapter, and is consigned to the skies to continue his long and weary journey – unless by helping his only true friend Jacob is also released from the shackles that bound him to Ebenezer and is allowed to leave purgatory to spend eternity at peace.
A final observation about friendship was pointed out by the questioner in Kansas City: when Fred, the nephew, is pleading with Scrooge he says ‘I want nothing from you; I ask nothing of you; why cannot we be friends?’ At that point friendship seems to be out of the question but it is obviously an important target for Fred to aim for.
Was Scrooge’s father visited by spirits too, thereby softening his attitude and bringing his son home at Christmas?
When Ebenezer is taken to see his old school by the Ghost of Christmas Past he is saddened to see ‘his poor forgotten self as he used to be’ and can only mutter ‘poor boy’ as he remembers the solitude and despondency of the Christmas holidays when he alone was left in the long bare room. Every other child had been taken home but Scrooge’s father seems not to have cared for his son. When the spirit shows Scrooge another Christmas we can assume that a number of years have passed, for the description of decay is more than might be expected in a single year: ‘Scrooge’s former self grew larger at the words and the room became a little darker and more dirty. The panels shrunk, the windows cracked; fragments of plaster fell from the ceiling and the naked laths were shown instead.’ We are certainly led to believe that every Christmas that past was the same and young Scrooge was simply abandoned. But suddenly a ray of light bursts into the scene, in the person of Scrooge’s younger sister Fan, who skips and squeals and jumps and hugs before telling Ebenezer that ‘I have come to bring you home dear brother, to bring you home, home, home! Home for good and all, home for ever and ever. Father is so much kinder than he used to be, that home’s like Heaven. He spoke so gently to me one dear night when I was going to bed, that I was not afraid to ask him again if you might come home; and he said Yes you should; and sent me in a coach to bring you. And you’re to be a man! And are never to come back here; but first we are to be together all the Christmas time long and have the merriest time in all the world!’
I have always assumed in the past that Scrooge’s father only recalled him from school because he is of an age at which he can work and earn his keep, and this is undoubtedly true, but there is more, there is a tenderness in the gesture and little Fan’s words tell a deeper story: ‘Father is so much kinder than he used to be….’, we have to ask ‘how was he before?’ Fan intimates that she used to be scared of him at her bed time, so was he violent and abusive to his children? It is plain that he is looking after the family alone for there is no mention of a mother, so perhaps he was depressed or possibly alcoholic, but now the little girl tells us that ‘home is like Heaven’: a huge change has come about somehow. If Scrooge was simply to be sent to work by a dominant, abusive patriarch it is unlikely that he and Fan would be allowed to be together all the Christmas time long having the merriest time in all the world. Something has definitely altered in the Scrooge household, and it is entirely possible that in this world of ghosts, the spirits have already been at work (later in the book, the Ghost of Christmas Present tells Ebenezer that ‘my time on this globe is very brief….’ – the word THIS suggests that he has plenty of other Christmas days to visit.
A lovely little touch is that little Fan explains to Ebenezer that father sent her in a coach to bring him home and this is mirrored at the very end of the book when he sees the prize turkey and exclaims ‘Why, it is impossible to carry that to Camden Town. You must have a cab!’
The reconciliation of Scrooge and his father is repeated in the reconciliation of Scrooge and his nephew, his only living relation and the only link to his little sister Fan.
Charles Dickens also had a sister named Fan, short for Frances, although she was two years older than he and not younger as in the book, but the difference in their childhood lifestyles was just as profound. Whilst young Charles was sent to work at Warren’s blacking factory and his education was paid scant attention to, his sister was sent to the Royal Academy of Music where she won two prizes. The gulf between the siblings never led to any open jealousy between them although Dickens would confide later in life how much it secretly hurt him. Frances had two sons, one being very sickly and weak – a certain model for Tiny Tim. But unlike the fictional child, Harry would die in 1848, shortly after his mother. They were buried together at Highgate Cemetery.
The Charity Collectors
This section is based purely on my invention and I cite little evidence from the text for my conclusions, but there is a question to be asked: who are the charity collectors?
We know that Scrooge is well known in the City of London and that his office is in a most prestigious area close to the Bank of England and the Stock Exchange During the vision of the future Ebenezer is shown other affluent merchants discussing his death as they fiddle with gold seals on their watch chains (an important detail to establish wealth and success), and we are told that Scrooge recognises them. One of the gentlemen says ‘When I come to think of it, I’m not at all sure that I wasn’t his most particular friend; for we used to stop and speak whenever we met.’ The reason for pointing all of this out is to ask why on earth the charity collectors didn’t know if Scrooge was Scrooge or if he was Marley? If they had any background in the City they would have known that soliciting Scrooge for a donation would have been futile and it would have been much better use of their time to pass by the door and head towards a more benevolent gent.
So, we must come to the conclusion that these particular collectors are new to town and I have invented a scenario in which their other more experienced and hardened colleagues have sent them into the lion’s den as a kind of prank, or possibly an initiation test. Of course they feel the full force of Scrooge’s ire even though they try to convince him with their carefully prepared statements, but leave with nothing seeing that it would be ‘useless to pursue their point’ No doubt they slouch back to the office where they are greeted with huge guffaws of laughter.
Imagine then, only a few hours later, next morning indeed, when old Ebenezer bounds up to them, wishes them a Merry Christmas and whispers that he wants to make a huge pledge to the charity, ‘a good many back payments are included in it, I assure you!’. I imagine they rush back to the office with the news and calmly tell their astounded friends ‘oh, that old Scrooge, he just needed the right approach, that’s all! Simple really, I don’t know what all of the fuss was about!’
I am sure that there are plenty of other scenes in the book which can be disassembled and explored, and I would be fascinated to know of anything that you may have spotted or questioned. The film has given me the opportunity to look at my script, and the original material, from a different perspective and it may well be that come Christmas 2021 the show might have changed a little…..
To view the film go to my website: http://www.geralddickens.com