As Christmas appears head and shoulders above the horizon, that hardy perennial of the season, A Christmas Carol will no doubt also appear in some form or other. And that's no bad thing, for there's some fine writing in it, and it can claim to have shaped our present conception of the holiday like no other book. We have had a hundred and seventy two years to form our thinking about the characters in the novel, and that has been helped along by the vision of illustrators who worked on the book and its re-issues in Dickens's life and after his death. Charles Dickens was apparently somewhat ambivalent about having his work illustrated, probably because he felt it detracted from the seriousness of the writing, but as his publishers insisted throughout his career that his work have pictures he then tried to take as much control over the process as he was able.
It was not that he disliked the illustrations, or the artists themselves, many of whom were close friends. It's more that he felt the illustrations were another tool of his writing it was his right to take control of, just as he took control of every word in his novels. Anyone who tried to keep him out of that decision process was a problem. This is understandable to an extent, but he seems, like many other writers of the day, to have derived ideas about character from the pictures, often asking for sketches to be forwarded to him so as to gain a clearer idea of the characters during the ongoing work. And so I think, the ambivalence; on the one hand the pictures were facile but on the other a source of inspiration.
|Artists of 'A Christmas Carol'. Top left - John Leech. Top Right - Fred Barnard. Bottom Left - Harry Furniss. Bottom Right - Arthur Rackham.|
I am really distressed by the illustration of Mrs Pipchin and Paul (Dombey and Son). It is so frightfully and wildly wide of the mark. Good heavens! In the commonest and most literal construction of the text it is all wrong.....I can't say what pain and vexation it is to be so utterly misrepresented. I would cheerfully have given a hundred pounds to have kept this illustration out of this book.
The artist who first illustrated A Christmas Carol was John Leech (1817 - 1864) a Londoner of Irish decent, who completed four plates for the novel, and Dickens must have been happy with them as all subsequent depictions of the characters have usually drawn something from them. I don't think Leech illustrated more of Dickens novels, but then, he was heavily involved in work for the publication Punch, and may have found little time. I was looking at the quartet of images he produced for A Christmas Carol, and especially the one of Marley's ghost. This is a pivotal scene in the story, it is filled with atmosphere and really sticks in the mind. Anyone who wishes to illustrate it would have to get this right, and I feel Leech's effort is a bit stiff and cramped, and although it is the first to realise a scene that other artists drew from, it is maybe not the most effective.
|The original. John Leech's version of Scrooge meeting Marley's ghost.|
|Fred Barnard's version.|
|Harry Furniss's version|
'How now!' said Scrooge, caustic and cold as ever. 'What do you want with me?'
|Arthur Rackhams version.|
So in the end, who gets my vote for the best Marleys Ghost? Step forward Mr Fred Barnard.