Ever since I first read the book as a teenager, I have tried to make Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol an Advent tradition. As I get older and busier, the tradition has grown harder and harder to keep, but I still make an effort every year. (Last year, I think I sadly only made it about as far as the appearance of Marley’s ghost.) If you have not read the book, and are only familiar with it through its many (usually sentimental) film adaptations, then I highly recommend that you join me this year and give the book a read. (Though if you *do* watch a movie version, I’m a big fan of the Muppet version, as you may have guessed by now.)
This year, the read-through has felt almost painfully apropos. Though I haven’t gotten to this passage in my read-through yet, my mind keeps going to the following exchange between Scrooge and Marley’s Ghost:
“But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,” faultered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself.
“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again, “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”
If the Ghost’s reply has not ended up on a placard at some Occupy demonstration somewhere, then I will be very, very sad.
Interestingly, my tradition of reading A Christmas Carol has also been a tradition of reading a certain edition of the book: A Harcourt and Brace Creative Edition illustrated by Roberto Innocenti. When I first checked the book out of the library as a teenager, that was the only edition that was on the shelf, and I ended up so taken with it, that I sought out that copy every year following. Finally, my parents, recognizing a trend, bought me a copy from a second-hand bookstore one year for Christmas. It can still be got for a very reasonable price from Abe Books.
The illustrations are simply stunning. I’m trying to only show partial or distant pictures in this blog entry, since it’s so easy for an illustrator’s work to get spread around, unattributed, on the internet. But even the small detail (right) from one of my favorite illos (Scrooge following the ghost hearse up the stairs) gives you some idea of the level of detail in these paintings. Look at the chipped plaster under his hand. See how the shape of his pocket flap is distorted by the torque of his body. If the image were a bit sharper, you’d be able to see imperfections on the worn stone stairs. Further down this page, there is a detail from another of my favorites, Christmas morning as experienced by Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Present. At least three micro-stories are demonstrated even in that tiny section of the picture: the passers-by who have had snow shoveled onto their heads, the invalid looking out the attic window, and the elderly woman who appears to be selling old shoes. These are illustrations of incredible detail and beauty. It’s not surprising to me that Innocenti is a children’s illustrator: these images are the sort that can entrance a child for hours. As a twenty-six-year-old, I wouldn’t exactly call myself immune, either. And with one two-page spread per chapter, plus a generous helping of full-page illustrations, there are plenty of them to be had.
Speaking of detail, it is difficult for me to express just how beautiful this edition is. Measuring about 12″x 9″, it certainly counts as a large book, but since the story itself is quite short, it’s not overly heavy, and the interior is just marvelously laid out. Each chapter (or “stave,” it’s a “carol,” remember) has its own small initial illustration, as well as a different small, seasonal image that appears at the top of every page. (You can see, above, that the first stave’s initial image is Marley’s face in the doorknocker, and the page-top illustration is a sprig of holly.) The typesetting is distinctive without being distracting; in fact, I find the font adds a small extra element to my enjoyment. The peachy gradient at the top of every page does make me smile indulgently now–the illustrations are copywritten 1990–but it’s certainly not unattractive.
It’s worth noting that these details are not all cheerful. One thing I love about these paintings is that they don’t overly whitewash the painful economic realities of the Victorian era. Many of the popular images associated with the Victorian age (particularly in America) come from the English upper class: tea parties and corsets and top hats and the fabulous onslaught of contraptions that heralded the Industrial Revolution. It’s easy to get caught up in the idea of Victorian England as a place of ease and plenty. By contrast, the Carol deals extensively with austerity. Cratchit and his family are barely getting by. Scrooge’s childhood poverty has made him into a greedy old man, who is so worried about money that he can’t even bring himself to enjoy the pleasures of wealth, let alone share them with others. And through the background rides a cavalcade of characters, many of them far from wealthy. Innocenti’s illustrations don’t whitewash these circumstances. There are ugly people in his images, and poor people, and people dressed in rags. The ice and snow are not always picturesque. But, like Dickens’ text, the illustrations do reflect light and joy even (sometimes especially) in the midst of poverty and hardship.
I certainly wouldn’t suggest that this edition is the only way to read Dickens’ classic. (In fact, if you want to read it for free, here‘s the Project Gutenberg link!) And I am aware of a certain amount of inherent irony in using a book about generosity to suggest that you get something for yourself. Maybe get your copy from Indiebound (see link below) and support a local business! Or get it as a gift! However, if you are blessed with the resources to make a copy of this book your own, I highly recommend this edition for Innocenti’s gorgeous illustrations and Harcourt’s meticulous design.