'Tis the Season 

Dickens' Christmas Carol: a sentimental education.

A kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely."

Thus wrote Charles Dickens on his favorite time of year, the season of Christmas, the same season he all but defined for Victorians in the 19th century and defines for us still in A Christmas Carol.

But all hasn't been kind, forgiving, charitable, or pleasant when it comes to A Christmas Carol's critical reception, then or now. True, Scrooge "so worked on [Thomas] Carlyle's nervous organization" that he was "seized with a perfect convulsion of hospitality," according to the wife of that terminally dour British historian and essayist. In reaction: novelist and poet Arthur Quiller-Couch, who in 1925 called Dickens' Carol and Dickens' other holiday tales "grossly sentimental and as grossly overcharged with violent conversions to the 'Christmas Spirit.'"

American novelist William Dean Howells in 1891 had thought so too: "The pathos appears false and strained; the humor largely horse-play; the characters theatrical; the joviality pumped; the psychology commonplace; the sociology alone funny."

Or not so funny according to Vladimir Ilich Lenin, who walked out of a 1922 Moscow Art Theatre production of the Carol's partner-in-schmaltz, The Cricket on the Hearth, because, in the words of Lenin's widow, "Dickens' middle-class sentimentality began to get on his nerves."

As did Tiny Tim according to Henry James, who in The Nation in 1865 counted that cripple among the "troop of hunchbacks, imbeciles, and precocious children who have carried on the sentimental business in all Mr. Dickens's novels." James must have been in an expansive mood. He went on to call the boy a "little monster ... deformed, unhealthy, unnatural."

This, though, is nothing compared to the fictional future predicted by one James Manus McCaffrey, writing in something called the Mensa Bulletin in 1981, according to which Scrooge's "frenzied orgy of spending" at the close of A Christmas Carol causes him and his whipping boy, Bob Cratchit, to end up in debtor's prison, Tiny Tim to end up a chimney sweep, and Mrs. Cratchit and her daughters to end up "diseased streetwalkers of the London slums." What's more, the collapse of the firm known as Scrooge and Marley throws additional "hundreds out of work and into penury and possible starvation."

All this opening of shut-up hearts and bah humbug comes courtesy of Michael Patrick Hearn, editor of The Annotated Christmas Carol (W.W. Norton), and a splendid book it is despite the kill-joys just quoted. In its pages (very handsomely laid out by designer Jo Ann Metsch), you'll find the full text of Dickens' 1843 original; fascinating notes by Hearn that explain the customs, the locations, and the archaic wording found throughout the Carol; black-and-white and full-color reproductions of the etchings executed by John Leech (in addition to later illustrations of the story by George Cruikshank, Gustave DorÇ, John Tenniel, Fred Barnard, and H.K. Browne [known as "Phiz"]); Dickens' Public Reading text (with notes by contemporaries on the author's delivery of individual lines); a history by Hearn of Dickens' grueling touring schedule; and, to start things off, a valuable introduction to Victorian England and to Dickens himself, wordsmith and man. Interpretations of and variations on the Carol enter here too: from unauthorized stage versions in the mid-19th century to radio, film, and cartoon versions (one starring Mr. Magoo) in the 20th.

This reader's reaction to A Christmas Carol, read for once in his life and, believe me, this once? Sorry, I'm siding with Quiller-Couch, Howells, Lenin, and James, except in the case of that great, dark scene Dickens sets inside a "rag-and-bottle shop," a worthy precursor to the imaginings of Samuel Beckett and not a heartstring, plucked or unplucked, in sight.

But kudos to Hearn for pulling all this together. Who knew (unless you were a reader of the December 24, 2002, Washington Post) that it was Colonel Charles Callahan, chief of the Department of Pediatrics and Pediatric Pulmonology at Tripler Army Medical Center in Honolulu, who identified Tiny Tim's malady as possibly Pott's disease (spinal tuberculosis)?

Or that Scrooge's nephew's "God save you!" (not to mention Tiny Tim's "God Bless Us, Every One!") could not be uttered on a mid-19th-century English stage? (The Lord Chamberlain's examiner of plays would have ruled it blasphemous. "Heaven save you!" had to do.)

Or that ticket scalping is nothing new? (Some Americans paid a whopping 25 bucks a seat to hear Dickens read in 1867.)

Or that Dickens recited A Christmas Carol a total of 127 times before adoring fans and a handful of disappointed ones (Mark Twain among them)?

Total income from those readings: ú45,000. (Nearly half the author's estate.) But touring for nearly two decades took its toll: In 1870, three months after a tearful "farewell reading" in London, Dickens died of a paralytic stroke. He was 58. His "carol," to hell with the critics, survives.

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