Although I have a degree in Literature (with a focus on the Victorian period), and have read numerous novels by Charles Dickens, I have never read A Christmas Carol. So this year, after seeing about the 12th reference to the classic story in a cartoon or sit-com on television, I decided to go to the primary source and read the original version (albeit as an iBook).
The first thing I noticed, besides Dickens’ cracking wit, is that, thankfully, the language is not very different from today’s. (It’s certainly not like reading Shakespeare, which always takes me a few scenes to get into.) No, I was able to jump right into A Christmas Carol and immediately enjoy and picture the dialogue between Scrooge and his nephew.
Being a bit of a nerd when it comes to literature and historical context, I did, however, decide to look a few things up, as their 1843 meaning was very different from today’s (and so was very happy I was reading an iBook which allows me to Google words or phrases I am not sure of).
For example, in the first chapter, I decided to look up the following:
Humbug! What does this mean, really? Today we only know it as something Scrooge says. But actually, I discovered that it has much more specific meaning and point! ‘Humbug’ implies fraud and deceit; something designed to deceive and mislead; an element of unjustified publicity and spectacle; an attitude or spirit of pretence and deception.
So Scrooge repeatedly referring to Christmas as a ‘humbug’ is not just a silly, throw-away word – rather, it shows just how badly he viewed it – as a day of deception, fraud, and unjustified spectacle and publicity. Talk about a bad attitude!
When speaking to two gentlemen who are seeking donations for the poor, Scrooge refuses, and argues:
“The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?” said Scrooge.
“Both very busy, sir.”
“Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course, “ said Scrooge. “I am very glad to hear it.”
Now, being of the 21st century, the only treadmill I know of is at the gym and people queue and pay good money to get 30 minutes on one. But it turns out that in 1843, treadmills were used in prisons as torturous penal labour. The treadmill was like a very long wheel of a paddle boat, but with 24 steps instead of paddles. Prisoners stood, hanging onto a bar or strap, in individual compartments over these steps. The wheel turned under their weight. Prisoners had to keep climbing or fall off. It was exhausting and utterly unproductive work. In the time of the story, treadmills could be found in over a hundred prisons across the country.
Right. I shall never refer 30 minutes on a modern, electric treadmill or Stairmaster – with music, tv, and wifi – as ’torture’ again.
Lumber Room. Scrooge’s home was three rooms, “Sitting-room, bedroom, lumber-room.”
To me, lumber means to move in a slow, awkward way. They had a room for that? Was it like a lounge? No. In Victorian Britain, the well-to-do had lots of old, well-built furniture – usually more than was actually needed. But while today we might put Great-Gran’s desk on eBay, back then they kept every piece in an out of the way or unused room: the lumber room. Today we might refer to it as ‘the box room’. (And amazingly, stingy old Scrooge had a few things in his – not much, but this is Scrooge we’re talking about.)
I’m still reading A Christmas Carol (no spoilers! lol), and really enjoying stopping to find out what different phrases and words meant as Dickens intended in 1843. It is definitely adding, not taking away from, the enjoyment and full meaning of his work and words!
A Christmas Carol can be found, for free, in electronic version, for many e-reader platforms.