After a particularly bleak year, millions in the English-speaking world and beyond will seek some comfort by watching a converted miser in a nightshirt, skipping about as light as a feather. “Whoop! Hallo! …What's to-day my fine fellow?”
Published 173 years ago this month, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was an instant bestseller, followed by countless print, stage and screen productions. Victorians called it “a new gospel,” and reading or watching it became a sacred ritual for many, without which the Christmas season cannot materialize.
But A Christmas Carol’s seemingly timeless transcendence hides the fact that it was very much the product of a particular moment in history, its author meaning to weigh in on specific issues of the day. Dickens first conceived of his project as a pamphlet, which he planned on calling, “An Appeal to the People of England on behalf of the Poor Man’s Child.” But in less than a week of thinking about it, he decided instead to embody his arguments in a story, with a main character of pitiable depth. So what might have been a polemic to harangue, instead became a story for which audiences hungered.
Dickens set out to write his pamphlet-turned-book in spring 1843, having just read government report on child labor in the United Kingdom. The report took the form of a compilation of interviews with children—compiled by a journalist friend of Dickens—that detailed their crushing labors.
Dickens read the testimony of girls who sewed dresses for the expanding market of middle class consumers; they regularly worked 16 hours a day, six days a week, rooming—like Martha Cratchit—above the factory floor. He read of 8-year-old children who dragged coal carts through tiny subterranean passages over a standard 11-hour workday. These were not exceptional stories, but ordinary. Dickens wrote to one of the government investigators that the descriptions left him “stricken.”
This new, brutal reality of child labor was the result of revolutionary changes in British society. The population of England had grown 64% between Dickens’ birth in 1812 and the year of the child labor report. Workers were leaving the countryside to crowd into new manufacturing centers and cities. Meanwhile, there was a revolution in the way goods were manufactured: cottage industry was upended by a trend towards workers serving as unskilled cogs laboring in the pre-cursor of the assembly line, hammering the same nail or gluing the same piece—as an 11-year-old Dickens had to do—hour after hour, day after day.
More and more, employers thought of their workers as tools as interchangeable as any nail or gluepot. Workers were becoming like commodities: not individual humans, but mere resources, their value measured to the ha-penny by how many nails they could hammer in an hour. But in a time of dearth—the 1840s earned the nickname “The Hungry ‘40s”—the poor took what work they could arrange. And who worked for the lowest wages? Children.
Popular theories about how—or whether—to help the poor often made things worse. The first was the widespread sense that poor people tended to be so because they were lazy and immoral, and that helping them would only encourage their malingering. If they were to be helped, it should be under conditions so awful as to discouraged people from seeking that help. The new workhouses were seen as the perfect solution—where families were split up, food was minimal and work painful. "Those who are badly off,” says the unreformed Scrooge, “must go there.”
Associated with this concept were the ideas of Rev. Thomas Malthus, who cautioned against intervening when people were hungry because it would only lead to an untenable population size. Better that the poor should starve and thus “decrease the surplus population.”
If Dickens found these solutions cruel, what did he offer? Friedrich Engels read the same report on child labor that Dickens did and, with his collaborator Karl Marx, envisioned an eventual revolution. Dickens was very much an anti-revolutionary. In fact, he implied that revolutionary was the fearsome consequence of not solving the problem some other way.
“This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.”
Thomas Paine, in the foregoing generation, had argued in Rights of Man for a kind of system of welfare, including tax credits for help raising children, old age pensions and national disability insurance. But Dickens wasn’t a “systems” thinker, nor was he proto-socialist.
Yet what Dickens did propose in A Christmas Carol, which he scribbled out in less than two months in the fall of 1843—intending it, in his words, as a “sledge hammer” blow—was still radical, in that it rejected the “modern” ideas about work and the economy.
What he wrote was that employers are responsible for the well-being of their employees. Their workers are not of value only to the extent to which they contribute to a product for the cheapest possible labor cost. They are of value as “fellow-passengers to the grave,” in the words of Scrooge’s nephew, “and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.” Employers owe their employees as human beings—no better, but no worse, than themselves.
And, yes, that might mean “a prize Turkey” at Christmas. (Dickens could not resist a description of food in sensuous detail.) But the real salvation that Scrooge gives to the Cratchit family is a raise.
As Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Past watch Tim, his father holding his lame hand, the miser pleads, “say he will be spared.” The ghost reminds readers of Scrooge’s Malthusian quote. “If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”
“Oh God!” the ghost growls, “to hear the Insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust!” In other words, Dickens reminded his 19th-century readers—and today’s—not to mistake their good fortune of landing in a high place for their worth.
John Broich is an associate professor at Case Western Reserve University where he teaches British Empire history.