Dickens, the Mills Girls, and the Making of the Christmas Carol

Natalie McKnight, Boston University
 Diana Archibald, U. Mass, Lowell, for conceiving of
and coordinating the Dickens in America conference
in 2002 and the Dickens in Massachusetts exhibit at
the Lowell National Historic Park in 2012 and for
organizing the lecture series that ran in conjunction
with the exhibit.
 Chelsea Bray, BU 2013, currently M.A. student at B.C.,
for the undergraduate research she did on this project.
 “These girls . . . were all well dressed: and that phrase
necessarily includes extreme cleanliness. . . . They were
healthy in appearance, many of the remarkably so, and
had the manners and deportment of young women:
not of degraded brutes of burden. If I had seen in one
of those mills (but I did not, though I looked for
something of this kind with a sharp eye), the most
lisping, mincing, affected and ridiculous young
creature that my imagination could suggest, I should
have thought of the careless, moping, slatternly,
degraded, dull reverse (I have seen that), and should
have been still well pleased to look upon her.”
 “I went, some weeks ago, to Manchester, and saw the
worst cotton mill. And then I saw the best. . . .There
was no great difference between them. . . . [what I saw]
has disgusted and astonished me beyond all measure.
I mean to strike the heaviest blow in my power for
these unfortunate creatures, but whether I shall do so
in the “Nickleby,” or wait some other opportunity, I
have not yet determined” (Letter to E. M. Fitzgerald,
29 December 1838).
 He ended up striking “the blow” in A Christmas Carol
5 years later in 1843; the year before, 1842, he visited
 Matthew Crabtree—started in factory at age 8 working
14 hour days, 16 hours when business was brisk
 Lived 2 miles from mill, adding over an hour in
commuting to his work day
 When late for work, “I was most commonly beaten”
 Or Elizabeth Bentley, started in flax mill at 6 years old,
worked 13 hour days, 16 when busy
 Lived too far to go home for mid-day meal so ate in the
mill, with her food covered in dust and was “strapped”
when she didn’t work quickly enough
(from Sadler Committee Report, Parliamentary Papers)
 12 hour days
 Children got 3
months off per
 Workers lived in
pleasant boarding
houses right by
the mill
 Lowell mill house dining
 “Of the merits of the Lowell Offering as a literary
production, I will only observe, putting entirely out of sight
the fact of the articles having been written by these girls
after the arduous labours of the day, that it will compare
advantageously with a great many English Annuals. It is
pleasant to find that many of its Tales are of the Mills and
of those who work in them; that they inculcate habits of
self-denial and contentment, and teach good doctrines of
enlarged benevolence. A strong feeling for the beauties of
nature . . . breathes through its pages like wholesome
village air . . .”
 “I brought away four hundred good solid pages, which I
have read from beginning to end” (American Notes, chapter
 Theme: We need to appreciate the benefits
of memory since it sustains us even more
than hope
 Phrasings: “we allow ourselves so little time
for sober retrospection. Unreal phantoms
too often supplant the joys of memory. The
Hero of yesterday is forgotten, while the
Idol of to-day engrosses our attention! Tomorrow is destined to become the
sepulcher of To-day.”
 The importance of keeping memory alive is a key theme in
the Carol and other Christmas books and in many L.O
pieces. Scrooge’s conversion begins when the Ghost of
Christmas Past makes him relive memories and reconnect
to past joys and sorrows so he can feel again.
 Imagery: phantoms, the spirit-world, sepulcher
 Structure: Yesterday-Today-Tomorrow
 Language: similar to the phrasing used by Scrooge’s fiancé
when breaking their engagement:
“Another idol has displaced me. . . . The masterpassion, Gain, engrosses you” (2.65)
 “the Idol of to-day
engrosses our attention!
To-morrow is destined to
become the sepulcher of
 Yesterday-TodayTomorrow structure
 Memory vs death
 phantoms
 “Another idol has
displaced me. . . . The
master-passion Gain,
engrosses you.”
 Past-Present-Future
 Memory vs. death
 phantoms
 Happiness is not to be found in riches or other
material gains:
 “Who would ask for the wealth of a Croesus, if to obtain
it, he must sacrifice ‘the soul’s calm sunshine, and the
heart-felt joy.’” (“Beauty and Wealth,” October 1840)
 “there is no connecting link between riches and
happiness, nor between misery and poverty. . . .
Happiness is not the offspring of wealth”
(“Contentment,” December 1840)
 “with how much more ardor does [Man]pursue the
things which are merely worldly. . . Than the rich
treasures . . . Which know no decay” (“The Nature of
Man,” 1840
 “virtue alone is happiness. . . .
Whether it be found in the
obscurity of the cottage, or
amidst the dazzle and grandeur
of a lordly potentate”
(“Reflections at Home,” by
“Dorothea,” February 1841)
 Obviously this is not a new
theme, but it’s preponderance in
L.O. is noteworthy, particularly
considering that the next two
works that Dickens pens, Martin
Chuzzlewit and A Christmas
Carol, focus on this theme and
make it a major structural device
Spirits and dream
visions in L.O.:
 “The Sea of Genius”
 “A Marvelous Incident”
 “A Visit from Hope”
 “Happiness”
 “A Vision of Truth”
 “Memory and Hope”
 All from 1841 (Feb., Apr.,
May and Aug. issues)
Spirits and dream
visions in C.C.:
 Opens with a spirit visitation: “’Past twelve!’ said a
sweet, musical voice, as I was seated by the expiring
embers of a wood fire. I turned hastily to see who had
thus intruded on my presence, when, lo! I beheld an
old man. His thin white locks were parted on his
forehead, his form was bent, and as he extended his
thin, bony hand toward me, it shook like an aspen
leaf” (“A Visit from Hope,” 39-40)
 The spirit appears to the speaker much as Marley
appears to Scrooge late at night as he leans over “a very
low fire indeed” (Christmas Carol, 1.43), cont. . .
Spirit of Hope:
 Starts old but grows
 White haired
 Takes protagonist to visit
scenes from her youth
 She will “endeavor to
profit by the advice he
[the spirit] gave me”
Ghost of Christmas Past:
 Looks both old and
young, “like a child: yet
not so like a child as like
an old man”
 White haired
 Takes Scrooge to view
scenes from his youth
 “I will not shut out the
lessons that they [the
spirits] teach”
“Memory and Hope”
A Christmas Carol
 Protagonist approached by
 Protagonist approached by 3
2 spirits
One spirit is “slender and
The other “fair but with the
reflection of age”
“I shall profit by the advice
of Memory” (177)
Title would be good subtitle for the Carol (as would
“ A Visit from Hope”)
 Similar to Christmas Past
 Similar to Christmas Present
(1,800+ years old and gets
older-looking by the end of
the stave)
 “I will live in the Past, the
Present, and the Future. The
Spirits of all Three shall strive
within me. I will not shut out
the lessons that they teach”
 Extols Christmas as best
 Like Fred’s speech in CC:
time of year
 Finds happiness in the
 Ends with a vow to live a
better life
“I am sure I have always
thought of Christmas
time . . . As a good time: a
kind, forgiving
charitable, pleasant time”
 Finds happiness in
humble scenes
 Ends with vow to live a
better life
 Dickens’s own “The
Goblins Who Stole a
Sexton,” an interpolated
tale from Pickwick Papers
 But the goblins are silly,
cartoonish characters,
unlike the C.C. spirits
 And the Sexton, Gabriel
Grub, does not translate
his encounter into
positive actions
 Devastating report on child labor practices in England
which Dickens read 7 months before composing the Carol
 He wrote to Dr. Southwood Smith, the health reformer who
sent him the report, “I am so perfectly stricken down by the
blue book you have sent me, that I think . . . Of writing . . .
a very cheap pamphlet, called “An appeal to the People of
England on behalf of the Poor Man’s Child”
 He never wrote the pamphlet, but later wrote Smith that he
would see “a Sledge hammer has come down with twenty
times the force—twenty thousand times the force I could
exert by following out my first idea.”
 Pilgrim edition of
Dickens’s letters suggest
that it was A Christmas
Carol, that came out at the
end of the year
 Particularly the portraits of
Ignorance and Want
 These portraits might also
be the “blow” he promised
E. M. Fitzgerald back in
1838 after visiting
Manchester factories
 But how do they relate to
factory children???
 Lowell offered the best possible response to the Second Report of
the Childrens’ Employment Commission, and to Dickens’s visit to
Manchester factories, because
Lowell offered more than an attack—
it offered a solution
 Industry conducted humanely, manufacturing and the arts
in harmony, healthy and attractive living accommodations
for the workers.
 Lowell would be in his mind as he worked to strike his
“blow,” so naturally words, images, and themes from The
Lowell Offering would be resonating with him as he wrote.
 More active and interesting female characters
(Compare Rose Maylie, Kate Nickleby, Little Nell to
their post-Lowell counterparts: Sarah Gamp, Edith
Dombey, Lady Dedlock, Estella, Miss Havisham)
 Combines art and industry in his writing process more
consciously after 1842 (more well-planned works of
fiction from then on—using working notes and central
themes to unify the narratives as can be seen in Martin
Chuzzlewit and even more so in A Christmas Carol.
 Paul Schlicke, ed. of Oxford Reader’s Companion to
Dickens, refers to the Carol as “the most perfect work
Dickens ever wrote” . . .

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