Published 21 December 2017 Category: Compass Leisure, Marketing

The Real Reason Behind Charles Dicken’s ‘A Christmas Carol’

Published 174 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 materialise.

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 labour 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 labours.

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 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 labour 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 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.

If Dickens found these solutions cruel, what did he offer? He 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 labour 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.

Dickens' ‘A Christmas Carol’ reminded his 19th-century readers - and today’s - not to mistake their good fortune of landing in a high place for their worth.