Monday, 1 December 2014

Classic Children's/YA: Chris Priestley on A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

I'm incredibly pleased that my classic children's and YA feature, which stumbled a bit earlier this year, is back on track now, and given it's December, it seems like A Christmas Carol would be an appropriate book to have a guest post on. Especially since that post is written by Chris Priestley, author of the brilliant The Last of the Spirits, inspired by Dickens's wonderful novel. (Check out my review here, by the way!)

My father was in the army when I was a boy and we were stationed in Gibraltar. Some time around 1966 when I was eight or so, my teacher read us A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.

Why does a book - a story - take hold in your imagination? It has a lot to do with the quality or qualities of the book in question of course, but it is also about the context - the age you were, where you were, your sensibility at the time and so on.

Gibraltar was, of course, a very unlikely place to be read such a story - 1960s Gibraltar was as far removed from Victorian London in winter as I was likely to get. Perhaps that’s why it grabbed my attention so.

I was happy in Gibraltar - it was a wonderful, carefree time for me. I would spend ages in the sunshine watching ants or staring into a rock pool. The only Gothic imagery I can think of was the old Trafalgar Cemetery where many of the dead from the Battle of Trafalgar were buried.

I was certainly aware of poverty and poor children - there were plenty of those on show when we went across the border into Spain or took the ferry to Morocco.

But A Christmas Carol was the probably the first time - outside of a Bible story - I can remember being made to think about the poor and downtrodden and ask why they were poor in the first place and whether anything could or should be done about it. It was my first taste of politics.

Like all children I was immediately drawn to portrayals of other children in literature or films. Tiny Tim caught my attention, obviously, but I was far more fascinated by two children who make only a fleeting appearance in Dickens’ story.

When Scrooge meets the Ghost of Christmas Present - a giant in green robes and a holly crown - Scrooge notices something hiding under the giant’s robes. Out tumble two feral children, ragged and snarling.

Scrooge asks who they are and the giant tells him the boy is called Ignorance and the girl Want.

‘Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy…’
I was captivated by those children. They scared me - not as much as the terrifying, faceless Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come - but they scared me all the same.

Scrooge asks, ‘Have they no refuge or resource’ and, brilliantly, Dickens has the giant throw his own words back at him - the words he had used when charity men came to his office asking for donations.

‘Are there no prisons?  Are there no workhouses?’

My mind kept going back to those children. Who were they? What became of them? My mind has been going back to them ever since.

I have re-read Christmas Carol many times since that first encounter, but the thing kept the story alive for me - and for many others were the film adaptations, which are of varying quality to say the least.

For me the most successful one is hardly seen today. It was an 1971 animated version by Richard Williams, with Alistair Sim voicing Scrooge, Michael Horden voicing Marley and Michael Redgrave narrating. It rightly won an Oscar, seemed to be on every Christmas morning through my teens and was a highlight of every Christmas.

Because Dickens is still right. A Christmas Carol is still relevant - perhaps as much now as at any time since. Ignorance and Want remain the prime movers behind so many of the worlds ills. Want is perhaps an obvious one, but Dickens rightly points to Ignorance as being the most dangerous.

Ignorance goes both ways of course. Dickens was a huge advocate of education for the poor and needy and a vigorous campaigner for public libraries (he would be appalled to see them under threat in this supposedly enlightened age), but he was also talking to his middle class readers about their ignorance - their selfish ignorance of the plight of the many for whom London was a living hell.

In The Last of the Spirits I have tried to give some flesh to those two children. They are supernatural in A Christmas Carol, but I imagine them being real. I have given them names - Sam and Lizzie - and a backstory that involves, like Dickens own life story, the loss of their father to the debtors prison. I have them get caught up in the same magic that takes Scrooge on his life-changing journey through time.

The book does not retell A Christmas Carol - it needs no retelling. Rather it steps to one side and tells a parallel story that I hope is true to the spirit of the original and does justice to the spell it cast over me when I was young.

Thank you for a wonderful guest post, Chris! I would strongly advise people should go out and buy The Last of the Spirits because; as mentioned earlier in my #IndieAdvent post, it is a brilliant Christmas gift. You can read Chris's blog and catch him on Twitter.

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