Friday, 7 December 2007

THE MEAN-ING OF CHRISTMAS

Last night was press night for Flat Pack Productions' presentation of my dramatisation of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol at the Greenwich Playhouse.


There was mulled wine, mince pies (and humbugs!) for all; and - hopefully not just because of these substantial bribes - the audience was ecstatic! As a contemporary report of one of Mr Dickens' readings put it: "At the close there was an outburst, not so much of applause as of downright HURRAHING!"

And, after that bit of gratuitous self-congratulation, I will attempt to justify my shameless promotion of the show -- "Seats in all parts!" -- with a piece of curious trivia...

Charles Dickens' Ebenezer Scrooge ruthlessly declared:

"Every idiot who goes about with 'Merry Christmas' on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!"

As I mentioned the other day, the philosophy that the poor were an expendable part of the "surplus population", was a teaching which Scrooge had learned from Thomas Malthus, but there was another direct (if erroneous) inspiration for the character of Dickens' infamous miser who was known as being "a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone".

In 1841, Charles Dickens went to Edinburgh to deliver a lecture. Taking a stroll through the city, he happened to visit the Canongate Kirk graveyard. There he saw a memorial slab which read:

EBENEZER LENNOX SCROGGIE
meal man

The inscription referred to Mr Scroggie's trade as a corn merchant; however, in recording this discovery in his diary, Dickens mistakenly reported the man's epitaph as "mean man", a description which he found so shocking that, two years later, it prompted him to give a similar sounding name to the the central protagonist in his A Christmas Carol.

Dickens resolutely believed that his creation was rooted in truth to the extent of writing that that while Scots had a reputation for frugality, they were not mean and that it must have "shrivelled" Scroggie’s soul to carry "such a terrible thing to eternity".

The undeservedly maligned Scroggie was, it seems, not at all known for his meanness. Born in Kirkcaldy, Fife, Scroggie's mother was the niece of Adam Smith, the 18th century political economist and philosopher. A vintner as well as a corn merchant, he won the catering contract for the visit of George IV to Edinburgh in 1822 (the first British monarch to visit since Culloden), and also secured the first contract to supply whisky to the Royal Navy.

However, Scroggie didn't live an entirely blameless life, having once 'goosed' the Countess of Mansfield during a debate at the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland; and, worse still, in 1830, fathered a child out of wedlock with a servant girl whom he allegedly ravished on a gravestone. It's probably just as well that Dickens didn't know about all that!

Maybe old Scroggie wouldn't have minded too much about having his memory maligned seeing as it inspired the creation of a character who undergoes such a wonderful transformation...


Images: Brian Sibley & David Weeks, © 2007

7 comments:

Boll Weavil said...

I wonder if this is why George C Scott's Scrooge in the 1984 version is a corn dealer. An interesting bit of info Mr B. The production looks good (apart from Tiny Tim who is very scary)

Brian Sibley said...

You're right! George C Scott's Scrooge is a corn merchant - chance or research, I wonder which?

As for TT, he is NOT scary!! He is adorable! Last night's audience loved him with a passion - especially some of his best little moments: wiping his cheek after his mother has planted a kiss on him, and giving the gin bottle a helpful tip as his father is mixing the punch ("a little gin and a lot of lemon")... It's no exaggeration to say that Master Timothy Cratchit pretty much stole the show! Bless him!

Bentos said...

Hey! The missus mentioned there was a production of A Christmas Carol on in Greenwich.

Will definitely be along soon.

Brian Sibley said...

BENTOS - Let me know when you're going and I'll try to be there to stand you a drink in the bar! I'm away after 21 December, but more or less any date before then (except 15th)...

Qenny said...

I think I'd be happier being remembered as the Dickens character than having my entire life summed up as "meal man", even if corn had been my bread and butter, so to speak.

Brian Sibley said...

QENNY - I wonder if anyone ever puts 'flours' on his grave...

Brian Sibley said...

DOUG PRATT comments...

Congratulations on your stage adaptation of "A Christmas Carol". Dickens made some famous appearances in Boston, which is where I happen to live. We're not called New England for nothing!