It’s a couple of days after the Fourth of July, so what better time for a post I wrote last and saved for later? Last year, during the holiday break, I watched A Christmas Carol starring Patrick Stewart and then, within a couple of days, listened to Neil Gaiman’s reading of the original text.
The Gaiman reading, by the way, really is the original text. He read from a copy of the book that Dickens himself used when he did performances here in New York City. The New York Public Library has the book in their collection. The reading is worth a listen. I’ve embedded it below. Gaiman starts about 10 minutes in.
In both performances a scene that I hadn’t paid much attention to before caught my ear:
The Spirit signed to him to listen to the two apprentices, who were pouring out their hearts in praise of Fezziwig: and when he had done so, said,
“Why! Is it not! He has spent but a few pounds of your mortal money: three or four perhaps. Is that so much that he deserves this praise?”
“It isn’t that,” said Scrooge, heated by the remark, and speaking unconsciously like his former, not his latter, self. “It isn’t that, Spirit. He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count them up: what then? The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.”
Obviously I noticed the scene before; it’s the moment where Scrooge finally “gets” what Fezziwig did for his apprentices and starts to understand what Christmas means. The Spirit gives him a little dig about how little the Fezziwig’s famous celebrations cost and Scrooge, the man whose very name has become synonymous with penny-pinchers, snaps back that it’s not about money.
But the phrase Scrooge uses stuck with me this time:
He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil.
The Patrick Stewart version is very faithful to the text, and it was Stewart’s delivery that hit me. Gaiman’s brought it back to mind the next day.
I love Dickens. I love his use of the language. This is not a universal opinion: it’s pretty fashionable to point out that he was paid by the word (even though that’s not the case) and that he tends to be verbose.
I love the verbosity. I wish I had the guts to use ten words when seven or eight would do.
Fezziwig is a happy guy. Ian McNeice does a great job conveying that in the Patrick Stewart movie by the way. (And Joel Grey rocks the Spirit in this scene.) Part of Scrooge’s point is that Fezziwig’s attitude is what made working for him a pleasure.
What struck me here was the lesson about happiness, though. Fezziwig had the power to make them happy or unhappy, but they had that ability too.
Happiness is up here. (Points to head.)
At the end of A Christmas Carol, Scrooge wakes up. He discovers that only one night has passed and not the three that Marley’s ghost had predicted. Scrooge is happy and proceeds to have a wonderful Christmas.
Who made Scrooge happy?
He had a choice. He could have decided that he was screwed since he had led a miserable life. He could have decided he was being punished for being a good businessman. But he decided to be happy. He decided to be Fezziwig.
I saw the movie and heard the podcast deep in the throes of “OMG Trump!” and a spate of celebrity deaths. I wasn’t happy. As a matter of fact, watching the movie was part of an attempt to make the holiday feel more like, well, a holiday.
Of course, it’s easy for me to “decide” to be happy in the face of our country being run by a bigoted blowhard. I’m white, I live in a large metropolitan area, and I work in an industry that has already reacted to his election by celebrating.