PLATTSBURGH — Charles Dickens made an indelible mark on the world when “A Christmas Carol” was published on Dec. 17, 1843.
The story of the redemption of miserly Ebenezer Scrooge after he is visited by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmas Yet-to-Come became an instant sensation in staid Victorian England.
But, more importantly, Dickens and “A Christmas Carol’ sparked social change that is still felt 170 years later.
“He wasn’t a revolutionary. He believed in capitalism. But with it, you have to have a heart to alleviate suffering,” said Dr. Elaine Ostry, a Dickens expert and English professor at SUNY Plattsburgh.
When the author was 12, his father was sent to debtors’ prison, along with the rest of his family.
Dickens had to work under dismal and harsh conditions in a boot-blacking factory, which stirred his passion to help the poor and influenced his later works.
He became a parliamentary reporter when he was 17, gaining life experience and infusing his later writing with the observations he made and lessons he learned from those situations.
His first book, “The Pickwick Papers,” was released in 1836, when he was just 24.
“He became a superstar from the time he was first published,” Ostry said. “The interesting thing is he had a character in there that was very Scrooge-like, a prototype for ‘A Christmas Carol,’ so this idea had been percolating for a long time.”
She said the story of Scrooge was instantly and wildly popular with readers because it so accurately reflected England’s economic and social struggles of the time.
“In fact, they called it ‘The Hungry ‘40s,’ when people were flocking to cities to work in factories where they were not treated so well,” she said.
“These were the negative effects of early capitalism, and there was no social safety net, not like we have now for security. People were pretty much on their own.
“Dickens got really fired up over that in 1842 and 1843 after learning about the treatment of children in the mines, and he funneled that into his fiction.”
The author reflected the disparity of social classes in his characters and the hardheartedness that can permeate a business world that goes unchecked.
“Scrooge was an absolute capitalist who believed if something doesn’t profit him, he doesn’t care about it,” Ostry said.
“He didn’t want to give Bob Cratchit the day off, but in England at that time, no one had Christmas Day off. So actually, he’s generous for the time. But you couldn’t really call Scrooge a generous person.”
Collecting gifts and food for the needy at Christmastime is as important today at it was during the time of “A Christmas Carol.”
“In the story, when Scrooge is told Christmas is the time of year when people feel want the most, charity had really depleted because, remember, this was ‘The Hungry ‘40s.’ A lot of people were desperate.
“Today, there are a lot of people who aren’t doing well. The ‘One-Percenters’ are doing OK, but a lot of people have not recovered from the Great Recession.
“It’s not as desperate as it was in England, because the change Dickens and others brought softened our system,” she said.
“People don’t realize that our Christmas is a modern invention,” Ostry continued. “A lot of things we associate with Christmas today came about in the 19th century, things that were traditions first in Germany, like the Christmas tree.”
She said Queen Victoria’s marriage to her German cousin in the 1840s influenced the celebration of Christmas in England, where other traditions began to take hold.
Interestingly, exchanging presents was not the central part of the holiday back then.
“Giving gifts was not a big deal,” Ostry said. “But ‘A Christmas Carol’ was the first Christmas-gift book. And it started a huge trend where everybody had to write a Christmas book.”
‘NEVER FORGOT PAST’
She said the author gained great wealth before he died at 58 in 1870, but he never forgot his past.
“Dickens remained very middle class.”
That brought an authenticity to his storytelling that “was something other authors tried but couldn’t imitate.
“And Dickens believed Christmas was just the start, that charity is a kind of feeling to have every day,” Ostry said.
“There is still poverty, and there are people who care more about profit than people, that’s for sure.
“But the feeling of charity still resonates with us.”
Email Denise A. Raymo:email@example.com