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Dickens, and how the spectre of poverty still haunts us

Gerald Isaaman reports on a seasonal – and timely – exhibition at the Dickens Museum

21 December, 2017 — By Gerald Isaaman

John Leech: The Second of the Three Spirits from the first edition of A Christmas Carol, 1843

IF history repeats itself, then don’t blame Charles Dickens. His ongoing fame as a campaigner against a wicked world in which child labour thrived amid dire poverty inspired his urgent demands for social reform and justice.

He exposed the cruel, unequal society with its deep divide between rich and poor that dominated life in Victorian England, the more so in A Christmas Carol, written in just six weeks in the winter of 1843, deliberately to ensure publication before celebrating the Christian festival.

It sold some 6,000 copies in the six days between its release and Christmas Eve that same year and has never been out of print since. One contemporary critic described its story of one tortuous night in the life of Ebenezer Scrooge as “a national benefit to every man and woman who reads it”.

And, virtually as an echo of today’s govern­ment-imposed austerity that has reproduced those worrying conditions, the Dickens Museum in the heart of Holborn is staging its own exhibition entitled Ghost of an Idea: Unwrapping A Christmas Carol.

“The themes of A Christmas Carol are more relevant today than they have been at other times in history,” points out Louise Price, co-curator of the exhibition with Frankie Kubicki.

“But it is an enduring story really of humanity’s response to social ills, about the way we respond as individuals and as a society to child labour, poverty and austerity. Those issues never become irrelevant and they don’t belong to a particular point in time, though they are very much the issues that surround the world today.”

Christmas is in fact the busiest time of the year for the museum in Doughty Street, where Dickens lived for two years from 1837, which is why it always responds with a special exhibition.

As for this one, Louisa adds: “What I find fascinating is that the word Dickensian is often the adjective used to describe different things, never used solely to describe social conditions.

“But if you look on Twitter for the term Dickensian you are brought up with stories about families going homeless at Christmas and Dickens’ name used in close connection with all those issues of today’s poverty.”

The exhibition owes its existence to a tip-off more than a year ago of the making of the new Christmas Carol movie, The Man Who Invented Christmas, from two of the museum’s trustees appearing in the film.

They are Miriam Margolyes, who plays the housekeeper, and Simon Callow, himself a Camden Town resident, as was Dickens himself living in Bayham Street digs as a teenager. He takes on the role of the illustrator John Leech. It was Leech’s coloured plates in the gold-edged original copy of A Christmas Carol – each page was outlined in red – that helped to sell it.

Dickens was unusually angry in the summer of 1843. He was 31 and already married with four children, then the most famed writer in the world thanks to Oliver Twist, Pickwick Papers, The Old Curiosity Shop and Nicholas Nickleby and his frequent outbursts on the hot topics of the day.

One reason was that his delinquent parents had forced him to bail out his youngest brother, Fred, and Dickens protested: “He and all of them look upon me as something to be plucked and torn to pieces for their advantage… My soul sickens at the thought of them.”

Yet, for Dickens, Christmas was always a special occasion – one of his early published writings opens with the cry: “Christmas time! That man must be a misanthrope indeed, in whose breast something like a jovial feeling is not roused – in whose mind some pleasant associations are not awakened – by the recurrence of Christmas.”

To which Scrooge, based on a banker from Edinburgh named Ebenezer Scroggie, would no doubt shout “Bah, humbug”, adding, as he does in the saga: “If I could work my will, every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!”

So who battles the sick Scrooge mentality of today?

“We often draw comparisons between JK Rowling and Dickens because she is an author whose readers have enthusiastically responded to the characters in her Harry Potter novels in a way readers still respond to Dickens,” says Louisa.

“Her charity Lumos works to support some eight million children in orphanages around the world. It is so similar to the work that Dickens did in focusing on a very disadvantaged group in society and trying to do all he could to help.”

Austerity too has its complex impact on the Dickens Museum. While it may enjoy more visitors thanks to a surge in tourism brought about by the weakened pound, it faces different challenges to those of national or public authority-funded museums.

“We very much rely on patrons coming through the door,” says Louisa. “So it is essential that we raise our profile as much as we can and ensure that we are sustainable.”

So you can help by visiting 48 Doughty Street to see the exhibition, which runs until February 25. Opening times Tuesday to Sunday, 10am to 5pm, general admission free, exhibition tickets £9 adults, £7 concession for seniors and students, £4 for children six to 16. More details at dickensmuseum.com or call 020 7405 2127.

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