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Dickens and the Archagent Gabriel

by
17 December 2021

James Cary tells how A Christmas Carol survived a visit from an angelic critic

CHARLES DICKENS lay in bed, fast asleep. Although he was in debt and his latest novel had sold poorly, he was sleeping deeply, for he had just finished a new work that he felt could reverse his fortunes. The book was called A Christmas Carol and concerned a miserly figure called Ebenezer Scrooge.

As the clock struck one, the curtain rustled. The dog, sleeping by the glowing embers of the fire downstairs, woke up and then quickly dozed off again, unaware that in his master’s bedroom, a shining white figure had appeared at the foot of the bed. “Charles Dickens,” said the angel Gabriel. Dickens did not respond.

“Charles Dickens,” repeated the angel Gabriel, a little louder but not loud enough to wake Mrs Dickens. He sighed to himself and said, “This is Acts 12 all over again. I hope he doesn’t sleep as deeply as the Apostle Peter.”

So he walked over to Charles’s side of the bed and gave his side a shove. Charles Dickens opened his eyes and was afraid. He sat up in bed and stared in wonder at the archangel. “Are you a spirit come to torment me?” said Charles Dickens. “Do I look like a spirit?” said Gabriel.

“You mean, you’re an angel?” said Dickens. “An archangel, actually,” said Gabriel. “You’d think that would mean I don’t have to run errands like this, but apparently not. Anyway, I’ve just come to kick the tyres on this book you’ve written because it feels like it is going to define Christmas for the English-speaking world for decades to come.”

“You mean A Christmas Carol is going to be a bestseller?” said Dickens with great excitement. “Not that I wrote it in order to make money.” The angel looked at the author, who looked away. “Okay, I was hoping to clear a few bills,” said Dickens. “Can you blame me? My last novel was not a success.”

“Who’d’ve thought no one wants to read a book called Martin Chuzzlewit?” said the angel. “Where do you get these ridiculous names?” “A friend of mine helps me think them up,” said Dickens. “He is a delightful fellow by the name of Buckfast Nazalthrash.” “I honestly can’t tell if you’re joking,” said Gabriel.

 

“WELL, I’ve paid the price. I’ve fallen on hard times. Really hard times. Dire straits! Ooh, hang on.” Dickens grabbed a quill and a scrap of paper and wrote, ‘A novel called Dire Straits?’ “Here’s the problem,” said the angel. “Your book’s great. Nice, simple three-act structure in the middle with ghosts of past, present and future. Three works for us in the heavenly realms for obvious reasons. It’s just the beginning and the end we have some notes on.”

“Oh,” said the author. “Please, if the work can be improved, I’m open to suggestions and corrections.” “Really? Writers tend to hate notes,” said the angel. “You should have seen the pushback when I visited Jude writing that letter for the New Testament. I suggested taking out the stuff about angels arguing over the body of Moses. It wasn’t something Michael particularly wanted remembered but Jude was determined to keep it in, so I just left it.”

“Well, I like to think I can always improve on my craft and that my best work is yet to come,” said Dickens, eyeing his piece of paper that said, ‘A novel called Dire Straits?’ The angel saw the note and said, “Call it Hard Times. Not Dire Straits. Trust me.”

“Really? I can see Dire Straits being a global phenomenon,” said Dickens. “So can I,” said the angel. “Just not for you. Anyway, the beginning of your novel has a visit from Scrooge’s old business partner, Marley. Do we need that?” “What’s wrong with it?” said Dickens. “People speaking from beyond the grave? Do we want to encourage this sort of thing?” said the angel. “I mean, these Victorians will need very little encouragement when it comes to seances and spiritualism.”

“You get it in the Bible,” said Dickens. “One Samuel chapter 28? King Saul wants to talk to Samuel. Who is dead. So he goes to the Witch of Endor. And Samuel is actually summoned from the dead. Can you imagine? Saul, King of Israel, wants to hear the voice of Yahweh’s prophet whom he ignored when he was alive. And in order to speak to him now he’s dead, he has to use witchcraft, which should incur a death penalty!”

“That is quite funny,” said the angel. “Never thought of it like that. Okay, Marley stays. But here’s the other thing: the ending. The lesson that Scrooge learns feels like moralism. He’s decided to be good. Do we really want to turn Christmas into a festival of non-specific, deistic, Dickensfest?”

“It’s just a made-up story,” said Dickens. “Yeah, but you don’t just become a good guy overnight without supernatural intervention,” said the angel. “He sees four ghosts! How much supernatural intervention do you want?” said Dickens. “I’m talking about the indwelling of the Holy Spirit,” said Gabriel.

“Yes, I realise that,” said Dickens. “But this is a parable.” “Sure,” said the angel. “But the metaphorical and allegorical are tricky lines to walk, and —” “No, no. It is literally a parable,” said Dickens. “That Jesus tells?” “Erm, I think I missed the Parable of the Four Ghosts and the Terrible Night’s Sleep,” said the angel. “Are you sure that’s not the Gospel of Thomas?”

 

 “WELL, this is awkward,” said Dickens. “Far be it from me to tell you what our Lord said, but the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus?” “Go on,” said the angel. “It’s a parable Jesus tells in Luke’s Gospel to the Pharisees ‘who loved money’,” said Dickens. “A rich man lives in luxury while a beggar called Lazarus lives at his gate. And when the beggar dies, he is carried up to heaven by angels. Do angels actually do that?”

“Some do,” said the angel. “I don’t. Being an archangel, I take a more supervisory capacity. Annunciate saviours to virgins. That sort of thing.” “Anyway, in the parable, the rich man dies, and is buried,” said Dickens. “In Hades, he lifts up his eyes, being in torment, and sees Abraham far off, and who’s right there with him?” “Moses? Elijah?” said the angel. “Wait, Enoch! People were very weird about him in Jesus’s day.”

“No! Lazarus!” cried Dickens. “There in heaven is the great Abraham with lowly pauper Lazarus.” “That’s just like Abraham. Very good with newcomers. Knows how to break the ice,” said the angel. “I can never think of anything to say, and just stand there in bright raiment and people get terrified, but Abraham’s able to put people at their ease. Although if he introduces you to his sister, you might wanna check that.”

“Yes, of course,” said Dickens. “Anyway, the rich man cries out, but Abraham isn’t having any of it and says the rich man had his chance. So the rich man says that Lazarus should be sent to warn his relatives so they won’t be in the place of torment.” “Isn’t it incredible that the rich man is still bossing around poor Lazarus like a slave?” said the angel.

“Yes, I suppose it is,” said Dickens. “But Abraham says they have Moses and the prophets. And the rich man says that if someone from the dead warns them, they will repent. But Abraham says that if they don’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they won’t listen to someone who has risen from the dead.”

“Ooh! Ooh! I get it. That’s J— Wait. I should annunciate this properly,” said the angel, who drew himself up to his full height and was terrifying. The dog had picked the wrong moment to walk in on his master and ran back down the stairs. “Behold, the one of whom you speak is Jesus Christ, son of David, Emmanuel.”

“Nicely done,” said Dickens. “But this is how A Christmas Carol works: someone comes back from the dead to warn Scrooge to change his ways. And it works.” “But Abraham said it wouldn’t work,” said the angel. “It’s Christmas! That would be a bit of a downer for people reading at bedtime,” said Dickens. “And so Scrooge wouldn’t listen, died and went to Hades where he was tortured in burning agony for eternity. Goodnight, kids. Merry Christmas. Hope you haven’t been naughty”’

“I take the point,” said the angel. “It’s probably fine, then. But I tell you what. I never had this trouble with John Bunyan. Say what you like about The Pilgrim’s Progress. No one is ever in any doubt about who represents what.” “John Bunyan was a Puritan,” said Dickens. “He probably believed that celebrating Christmas was sinful anyway.”

“You’re probably right there,” said the angel. “Mind you, Christmas has a habit of going wrong. In Bunyan’s day, people were using it as an excuse to drink heavily and going round scaring each other. And looking into the future, there’s all kinds of weird stuff like the Grinch, Frosty the Snowman and some abomination called Kris Kringle that’s probably based on the word “Christ”, but I can barely bring myself to look.”

“Maybe a Dickensian Christmas isn’t so bad, after all,” said the author. “Did you just make an adjective of your own surname?” said the angel. “I did.” “Too soon.” “Reckon?” “Reckon. Goodnight, Mr Dickens.”


This story is taken from
The Gospel According to a Sitcom Writer by James Cary (SPCK £10.99, Church Times Bookshop £9.90; 978-0-281-08563-7).

James Cary was interviewed about the book on the Church Times Podcast. Listen here

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