Like the Reformed Ebenezer Scrooge, the Author of the World’s Most Enduring Christmas Story Kept the Spirit of the Holiday Alive in His Heart Throughout His Life, Says WPI Scholar.
Listen to Professor Joel Brattin discuss Charles Dickens and his immortal A Christmas Carol in two recent radio interviews:
- Morning Edition, WBUR, Boston: Brattin discusses Dickens with host Bob Oakes.
- Where We Live, WNPR, Hartford: Brattin joins actors currently interpreting the role of Scrooge on two Hartford, Conn., stages during this live call-in show.
WORCESTER, Mass. – At the end of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge, having glimpsed the dismal effect of his cold-hearted nature on the world—courtesy of the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future—pledges to change his ways, saying, "I will honor Christmas in my heart and try to keep it all the year.”
Unlike his most famous literary character, Charles Dickens himself didn’t need to be scared straight by specters. According to Joel Brattin, professor of literature at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) and a noted Dickens scholar, the Victorian author lived the message of A Christmas Carol throughout his life, generously supporting charitable causes in London and promoting social awareness and change through his actions and his fiction.
“The novel has had lasting appeal, in part, because of the conversion that Scrooge undergoes,” Brattin says. “He learns that it is not too late to change. But Dickens did not experience a similar conversion. He gained success at a young age; by that time, his social concern was already apparent and it remained strong throughout his career. His work contained social criticism and commentary, and his charitable activities were numerous.”
Brattin says Dickens’s out-of-pocket gifts to charitable causes were not overly generous by the standards of the Victorian Era, but his contributions of time and energy—particularly to two causes dear to his heart—were extraordinary:
Urania Cottage was a home for the rehabilitation of former prostitutes that Dickens helped set up for Angela Burdett-Coutts, one of Britain’s wealthiest women and most generous philanthropists. Dickens was involved in all aspects of running the cottage, from supervising its finances, to hiring staff and teachers, to combing work houses, prisons, and schools for potential residents. His intense interest in this cause was mirrored in his sympathetic portrayals of several “fallen women” in his books, including Little Em'ly in David Copperfield, who, like the women of Urania Cottage, ultimately travels to Australia to start a new life.
Dickens also devoted himself to the cause of struggling artists and writers, along with their families. Early in his career he often raised funds for colleagues in need by giving readings or staging performances of his works. In 1841, he published the collection Pic-Nic Papers for the benefit of the widow and children of John Macrone, his first publisher and a man he disliked intensely.
A decade later, Dickens helped establish the Guild of Literature and Art, an organization that provided welfare payments to struggling artists and writers. Dickens remained involved in the guild throughout his life, serving for a time as an officer and frequently signing (along with several other Victorian luminaries) the organization’s council attendance book. The book is now the jewel of the Robert D. Fellman Dickens Collection, housed in WPI’s George C. Gordon Library.
A Christmas Carol was first published on Dec. 19, 1843, and was an instant popular hit (eight stage adaptations had been mounted by early 1844, Brattin says). Considered Dickens’s best-known novel and one of the world’s most popular Christmas stories, the book is credited with creating the modern idea of Christmas as a family celebration and a time when even those of modest means, such as the Cratchits, can share their generosity and good will with others.
This year, as Dickens’s story once again delights readers and stage, movie, and TV audiences around the world, Brattin says he hopes they might take a moment to remember the generosity and noble spirit of Dickens, himself, when they encounter this line from the book’s final paragraph: “It was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.”
About Joel Brattin
Brattin has been studying the life and fiction of Charles Dickens for 30 years. He has published a range of articles and reviews treating Dickens in such journals as The Dickensian, Dickens Quarterly, and Dickens Studies Annual, and has contributed articles to the Oxford Companion to Dickens. He has served as trustee, secretary/treasurer, vice president, and president of the Dickens Society and is curator for the Robert Fellman Dickens Collection at WPI, considered one of the finest such archives in New England.