Thursday, December 04, 2014

“If Quite Convenient, Sir" | Dickens



Illustration by Fred Barnard.

Borrowing from Siskoid's format on his Hamlet blog, as we look at Dickens' text, I'm going to copy the entire text of the section in italics and insert commentary. That'll help identify elements that we want to pay attention to in the adaptations.

Meanwhile the fog and darkness thickened so, that people ran about with flaring links, proffering their services to go before horses in carriages, and conduct them on their way. The ancient tower of a church, whose gruff old bell was always peeping slily down at Scrooge out of a gothic window in the wall, became invisible, and struck the hours and quarters in the clouds, with tremulous vibrations afterwards, as if its teeth were chattering in its frozen head up there. The cold became intense. In the main street, at the corner of the court, some labourers were repairing the gas-pipes, and had lighted a great fire in a brazier, round which a party of ragged men and boys were gathered: warming their hands and winking their eyes before the blaze in rapture. The water-plug being left in solitude, its overflowings sullenly congealed, and turned to misanthropic ice. The brightness of the shops where holly sprigs and berries crackled in the lamp-heat of the windows, made pale faces ruddy as they passed. Poulterers' and grocer' trades became a splendid joke: a glorious pageant, with which it was next to impossible to believe that such dull principles as bargain and sale had anything to do. 

This is Dickens' first description of the City at Christmastime. He's mentioned the time of year already of course, but he only now gets around to describing the action on the street. Most of the adaptations have already given some looks at this by now, but let's keep an eye out for how they depict the celebrations. In Dickens, the bright and decorated shops share a paragraph with the bitterness of the cold. It's a festive time, but it's also a dangerous time. Which adaptations take note of that?

The Lord Mayor, in the stronghold of the mighty Mansion House, gave orders to his fifty cooks and butlers to keep Christmas as a Lord Mayor's household should; and even the little tailor, whom he had fined five shillings on the previous Monday for being drunk and blood-thirsty in the streets, stirred up to-morrow's pudding in his garret, while his lean wife and the baby sallied out to buy the beef.

I know at least one adaptation that includes this scene and contrasts it with the poor celebrations of the less fortunate. Oddly, Dickens isn't making an overtly political point here, though it would be totally in character for him to do so. I've divided the Lord Mayor from the shops with my commentary, but this is a single paragraph in Dickens and he seems simply to be pointing out that everyone - from shoppers and merchants to the Lord Mayor and his prisoners - are in the holiday spirit. Everyone, of course, except Scrooge. My recollection is that most adaptations keep this focus, but I'll look out for any that take a political or sociological angle.

Foggier yet, and colder! Piercing, searching, biting cold. If the good Saint Dunstan had but nipped the Evil Spirit's nose with a touch of such weather as that, instead of using his familiar weapons, then indeed he would have roared to lusty purpose. 

According to my annotated edition, Dunstan was a medieval monk/blacksmith who claimed to have driven off a demon with a pair of red-hot pincers. That's not going to come up in any adaptations, but I figure it's worth explaining.

The owner of one scant young nose, gnawed and mumbled by the hungry cold as bones are gnawed by gods, stooped down at Scrooge's keyhole to regale him with a Christmas carol: but at the first sound of --
"God bless you merry gentleman!
May nothing you dismay!"
Scrooge seized the ruler with such energy of action, that the singer fled in terror, leaving the keyhole to the fog and even more congenial frost.

Almost every adaptation has a scene of Scrooge menacing some Christmas carolers and they're usually singing "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen." Some of the versions have already put that earlier as a way of introducing Scrooge, but this is something else I'll pay attention to.

At length the hour of shutting up the counting-house arrived. With an ill-will Scrooge dismounted from his stool, and tacitly admitted the fact to the expectant clerk in the Tank, who instantly snuffed his candle out, and put on his hat.

"You'll want all day to-morrow, I suppose?" said Scrooge.

Though Scrooge hates Christmas and would prefer that it not exist, he's aware of it and he's the one who brings up the time off to Cratchit. That's surprising, since he seems like the kind of man who would force Cratchit to ask for time off. Instead, he's essentially volunteering it. We assume that this isn't the first time that Scrooge and Cratchit have had this conversation, but it still takes some bite out of Scrooge to have him be the first to bring it up. Earlier, I wondered how seriously Cratchit took Scrooge's threats to fire him. This gives him reason not to take them that seriously. His boss is still an unpleasant man, but not entirely unreasonable. This is something that adaptations can play with though.

"If quite convenient, Sir."

"It's not convenient," said Scrooge, "and it's not fair. If I was to stop half-a-crown for it, you'd think yourself ill-used, I'll be bound?"

The clerk smiled faintly.

Cratchit's smiling here may be another indication that he doesn't take Scrooge's threats too seriously, but there are many kinds of smiles and it will say a lot about Scrooge and Cratchit's relationship how each adaptation portrays this.

"And yet," said Scrooge, "you don't think me ill-used, when I pay a day's wages for no work."

The clerk observed that it was only once a year.

"A poor excuse for picking a man's pocket every twenty-fifth of December!" said Scrooge, buttoning his great coat to the chin. "But I suppose you must have the whole day. Be here all the earlier next morning!"

Scrooge is almost sympathetic in this speech. He's still horrible and I wouldn't want to work for him, but I can also see his point. It's an opportunity for adaptations to create empathy with him if they choose to do that.

The clerk promised that he would; and Scrooge walked out with a growl. The office was closed in a twinkling, and the clerk, with the long ends of his white comforter dangling below his waist (for he boasted no great-coat), went down a slide on Cornhill, at the end of a lane of boys, twenty times, in honour of its being Christmas-eve, and then ran home to Camden Town as hard as he could pelt, to play at blindman's-buff.

In Dickens, Scrooge takes off first, leaving his underling to lock up the shop, but then Cratchit gets to go home right behind his boss. This is done in different ways in the adaptations though, which can reinforce whatever the version makes of Scrooge and his management style.

The detail of Cratchit's sliding on ice with a bunch of boys makes it into a surprising number of adaptations. The Reginald Owen movie actually introduces Scrooge's nephew by substituting him for Cratchit and having a couple of the boys be Cratchit's kids. I'll point out other sliding scenes as we go.

My annotated Christmas Carol tells me that Camden Town was a suburb at the time and was characterized by small, cheap houses. Dickens actually lived there himself as a boy.

As for blindman's-buff, I've always heard it referred to as blindman's bluff, but that's probably a corruption of the original name. The "buff" refers to the buffeting that the blindfolded player received at the hands of the others. It was totally in rules for the other contestants to push the "blindman" or put things in his way for him to trip over in order to prevent being caught. I don't remember any adaptations where Cratchit actually plays this, so this is mostly just another point of interest instead of something to keep track of. There will be parlor games later, but we'll cover those when we get to them.

So here's what we'll be keeping track of this year:

  • How Christmas in the City is portrayed. Is it a universally joyous time or is it mixed with the deadliness of the weather or commentary on the rich and poor?
  • Scrooge vs. carollers. And do they always sing "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen"?
  • Who brings up the day off? What does that say about Scrooge?
  • Does Scrooge get any sympathy for his views as an employer?
  • How does Cratchit react to Scrooge's stinginess? What does that say about their working relationship?
  • Who leaves first: Scrooge or Cratchit? What does that say about how Scrooge manages Cratchit?
  • Is there a sliding scene? What's its function in the story?

1 comment:

Caffeinated Joe said...

An interesting piece of the story to focus on this year. Can't wait to see how it plays out in the various adaptations.

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