“You are fettered,” said Scrooge, trembling. “Tell me why?”
“I wear the chain I forged in life,” replied the Ghost. “I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.”
– Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol
In 1841, Charles Dickens was taking one of his long nighttime walks at the Canongate Churchyard in Edinburgh, Scotland, when a particular tombstone caught his eye. He scribbled down “Ebenezer Lennox Scroggie” in his journal, along with the words “mean man,” which he thought he saw carved on the man’s grave. In reality, Mr. Scroggie (1792-1836) was a “meal man,” or a corn merchant. He was also economist Adam Smith’s great-nephew, and there is some record of his behavior and character. While he wasn’t “mean,” he was quite a partier, who was known for his hedonist pursuits and for getting, at least, one servant woman pregnant. The Ebenezer Scrooge who lives in our culture is quite a different man that Mr. Scroggie; he shunned the warm pleasures of fun to practice the cold hobby of bitterness and self-inflicted deprivation.
Ebenezer Scroggie’s alternative legacy, one born of a misunderstanding, took root in Dickens’ mind. “To be remembered through eternity only for being mean seemed the greatest testament to a life wasted,” he wrote in his notebook about his presumed graveyard find. Although we rarely speak ill of the dead, especially in such public, permanent ways, there have been instances of published obituaries can getting brutally honest. A year later, discouraged by what little effect speeches seem to have on truly making change for some of the issues he felt very close to his heart, Dickens set out to write a persuasive, emotionally-charged fable. Of course, his vision of a life-changing, culture-transforming tale came into full fruition. It was executed precisely and continues to ring through our lives.
Charles Dickens grew up in a rather comfortable circumstances until, at age 12, his father’s debts caught up with him and he was sent to a debtor’s prison. Charles suddenly had to go to work and saw his dreams of a gentleman’s life crumble into dust. Instead, another world was opened up for him, a world of poverty he could not have imagined before. Although his dashed dreams and disrupted life made him bitter, his heart was moved by the plights of the other children working alongside him at the boot blacking factory. Upset not only by his new circumstances, but by the underprivileged lives of others, Dickens became deeply motivated to not only succeed in the literary world but to somehow use his success to help poor children get out of factories and into schools.
He saw writing A Christmas Carol as a more effective way of truly getting through to others. Already armed with a pretty amazing name, Dickens fleshed out his Scrooge character based on the lives of British miser and eccentric John Elwes and political economist Thomas Malthus.
Elwes was a brewmaster’s son who witnessed his mother starve herself to death because she didn’t want to spend her share of the inheritance, but she wasn’t the only miser in his life to model. His rich uncle Sir Harvey Elwes kept himself to a strict budget despite his wealth. Uncle and nephew liked to spend their evenings together sipping on a single glass of wine while complaining about the decadent extravagances of others. When his uncle died, John inherited his money as well, as well as his strict personal practices. He even took it further: while his uncle lived on £100 a year, John found a way to live on only £50.
John Elwes’s miserly ways was a hot topic of gossip: he would go to bed whenever the sun set so he wouldn’t have to buy candles. He’d refuse to buy new clothes, leaving him only with ragged and worn garments that would have people mistake him for a beggar when he went out on the streets. He’d even eat rancid food before buying more. Despite his extreme measures to avoid spending money, he wasn’t very good with it. He was constantly losing money on bad investments and in failures to collect debts and loans. Making, or even keeping money through business was a job he disdained. Instead, being a miser became his full occupation, living out his life in his collection of neglected estates. He feared dying in poverty but lived his life imitating it. His poverty came from within.
In a way, like Dickens, he was driven by a fear of losing everything, but Dickens chose to use his anxieties to fuel creation and reaching out to others, while Mr. Elwes only churned in his anxieties, allowing the to consume his life and cut him off from the world. He even refused to use any of his funds to help educate his two sons, who were born out of wedlock, because “putting things into people’s heads is the sure way to take money out of their pockets.” Scrooge was inspired by people like Elwes, and Thomas Malthus, a popular economist at the time in Britain who argued for population control because he predicted that the population would eventually outgrow the food supply, but Scrooge was essentially Dickens himself: a vessel for him to wrestle with his own past and his own struggles and issues with money.
The result of his vision and anxieties, A Christmas Carol , ended up transforming how we celebrate Christmas. The tale is deeply personal for Dickens, and the result of that is it feels deeply personal for all of us. We get miserly, not only with money, but also with our love, our attention. Money itself isn’t anything besides a number. It gets it’s worth from how we use it, and how we choose to see it. Not having enough of it has very real, physical consequences on the ability to obtain resources and comfort, but having a lot of it doesn’t prevent misery. Scrooge’s major lesson isn’t about money, but what money represents in his life: a disconnect from others, being haunted by the past, and anxiety-fueled habits that only secure a lonely coldness and don’t protect him at all from the unavoidable pain of being human and alive.
Perhaps when Dickens saw Ebenezer Scroggies epitaph as “mean man,” he saw it that way because that’s the way he feared he’d be remembered. At this point in his life, Dickens had achieved a degree of success with books like Oliver Twist, but his latest, and most ambitious novel Martin Chuzzlewit had fallen flat. He had four children with one on a the way, and the ghosts of his childhood struggles and disappointments amplified the precariousness he sensed in his present situation. A Christmas Carol was the result of Dickens trying to work out some of his own stuff, to save himself from being a “mean man,” perhaps. Now, generations on, partially thanks to Dickens’ enduring story, we use Christmas as a time to reflect on how to expand our worldview beyond ourselves, and, also, to forgive ourselves. When we constantly punish ourselves, we end up in a kind of self-made hell that ripples out to others. When we forgive ourselves, it gives us the capacity to forgive others and have compassion for them. And that, too, spreads.