Sunday, December 01, 2019

“Why, It’s Old Fezziwig!” | Dickens



Illustration by John Leech.

As I talk about Dickens' original version of the scene, I'm going to copy the entire text in bold italics and insert commentary. That'll help identify elements that we want to pay attention to in the adaptations.

Although they had but that moment left the school behind them, they were now in the busy thoroughfares of a city, where shadowy passengers passed and repassed; where shadowy carts and coaches battled for the way, and all the strife and tumult of a real city were. It was made plain enough, by the dressing of the shops, that here too it was Christmas time again; but it was evening, and the streets were lighted up.

The Ghost stopped at a certain warehouse door, and asked Scrooge if he knew it.

“Know it!” said Scrooge. “Was I apprenticed here!”

They went in. At sight of an old gentleman in a Welsh wig, sitting behind such a high desk, that if he had been two inches taller he must have knocked his head against the ceiling, Scrooge cried in great excitement:

“Why, it’s old Fezziwig! Bless his heart; it’s Fezziwig alive again!”

A Welsh wig isn't an actual wig as depicted in most adaptations. It's a knit wool cap. I doubt we'll see an actual Welsh wig in any version, but it's something to keep an eye out for. I like the antiquated, powdered wig that's most identified with Fezziwig, so I'm not complaining. It makes Scrooge's old boss seem pleasantly old-fashioned and out of touch.

I'm curious to see if any adaptations have Fezziwig's extremely high desk.

Old Fezziwig laid down his pen, and looked up at the clock, which pointed to the hour of seven. He rubbed his hands; adjusted his capacious waistcoat; laughed all over himself, from his shoes to his organ of benevolence; and called out in a comfortable, oily, rich, fat, jovial voice: “Yo ho, there! Ebenezer! Dick!”

According to Michael Patrick Hearn's Annotated Christmas Carol, most shops of this kind closed around nine o'clock, so Fezziwig is shutting down super early.

From the description of his "capacious waistcoat," Fezziwig's jolliness extends to a healthy appetite, so let's see which versions play this up.

The "organ of benevolence" refers to the part of Fezziwig's skull just above his forehead. It's a phrenological term, referring to the pseudoscience of using skull shape and size to indicate someone's character and mental ability. Phrenology was popular in the nineteenth century, but Dickens doesn't seem to be actually endorsing it here with any editorializing about Fezziwig's faculties. It's just a Victorian pop culture reference.

Scrooge’s former self, now grown a young man, came briskly in, accompanied by his fellow-’prentice.

“Dick Wilkins, to be sure!” said Scrooge to the Ghost. “Bless me, yes. There he is. He was very much attached to me, was Dick. Poor Dick! Dear, dear!”

We'll keep an eye out for how important Dick Wilkins is to the scene. I'm especially curious about the Reginald Owens version, because it mentioned Dick as one of Scrooge's schoolmates in the previous scene.

“Yo ho, my boys!” said Fezziwig. “No more work to-night. Christmas Eve, Dick. Christmas, Ebenezer! Let’s have the shutters up,” cried old Fezziwig, with a sharp clap of his hands, “before a man can say Jack Robinson!”

Jack Robinson is another pop culture reference, but it goes back all the way to the late seventeenth century. There was a popular song about a guy named Jack Robinson who would show up to parties and then leave again before he could even be announced. So, he'd be gone before the doorman could say, "Jack Robinson."

You wouldn’t believe how those two fellows went at it! They charged into the street with the shutters—one, two, three—had ’em up in their places—four, five, six—barred ’em and pinned ’em—seven, eight, nine—and came back before you could have got to twelve, panting like race-horses.

I like the image of having to go outside to put up the store's removable shutters. I wonder if any versions will have that. And if not, what other preparations will they assign Scrooge and Dick instead?

“Hilli-ho!” cried old Fezziwig, skipping down from the high desk, with wonderful agility. “Clear away, my lads, and let’s have lots of room here! Hilli-ho, Dick! Chirrup, Ebenezer!”

Clear away! There was nothing they wouldn’t have cleared away, or couldn’t have cleared away, with old Fezziwig looking on. It was done in a minute. Every movable was packed off, as if it were dismissed from public life for evermore; the floor was swept and watered, the lamps were trimmed, fuel was heaped upon the fire; and the warehouse was as snug, and warm, and dry, and bright a ball-room, as you would desire to see upon a winter’s night.


In came a fiddler with a music-book, and went up to the lofty desk, and made an orchestra of it, and tuned like fifty stomach-aches. In came Mrs. Fezziwig, one vast substantial smile. In came the three Miss Fezziwigs, beaming and lovable. In came the six young followers whose hearts they broke. In came all the young men and women employed in the business. In came the housemaid, with her cousin, the baker. In came the cook, with her brother’s particular friend, the milkman. In came the boy from over the way, who was suspected of not having board enough from his master; trying to hide himself behind the girl from next door but one, who was proved to have had her ears pulled by her mistress. In they all came, one after another; some shyly, some boldly, some gracefully, some awkwardly, some pushing, some pulling; in they all came, anyhow and everyhow. Away they all went, twenty couple at once; hands half round and back again the other way; down the middle and up again; round and round in various stages of affectionate grouping; old top couple always turning up in the wrong place; new top couple starting off again, as soon as they got there; all top couples at last, and not a bottom one to help them! When this result was brought about, old Fezziwig, clapping his hands to stop the dance, cried out, “Well done!” and the fiddler plunged his hot face into a pot of porter, especially provided for that purpose. But scorning rest, upon his reappearance, he instantly began again, though there were no dancers yet, as if the other fiddler had been carried home, exhausted, on a shutter, and he were a bran-new man resolved to beat him out of sight, or perish.


I love the image of the fiddler playing from atop Fezziwig's lofty desk. Let's see if that shows up in versions. There are some interesting characters among the guests that we can keep track of, too. For instance, how many adaptations feature the three Fezziwig daughters and their suitors?

I've seen a stage adaptation that identified the "particular friend" of the cook's brother as his gay partner. I don't recall seeing that on screen or comics page anywhere, but it's a cool interpretation. The Fezziwigs appear especially receptive and kind to society's outsiders. I love how their guests include a kid "from over the way" who's not getting enough to eat from his own employer and a girl or young woman who's being abused by hers. The Fezziwigs clearly don't care about convention or appearances. They care about taking care of their people. And their people includes anyone who needs help. I'm going to keep an eye out for adaptations that convey this compassion for outcasts in some way.

People with more beer knowledge than me probably already know this, but I had to look up that the "porter" the fiddler plunges his face into is a kind of ale.

There were more dances, and there were forfeits, and more dances, and there was cake, and there was negus, and there was a great piece of Cold Roast, and there was a great piece of Cold Boiled, and there were mince-pies, and plenty of beer. But the great effect of the evening came after the Roast and Boiled, when the fiddler (an artful dog, mind! The sort of man who knew his business better than you or I could have told it him!) struck up “Sir Roger de Coverley.” Then old Fezziwig stood out to dance with Mrs. Fezziwig. Top couple, too; with a good stiff piece of work cut out for them; three or four and twenty pair of partners; people who were not to be trifled with; people who would dance, and had no notion of walking.

There are a lot of party terms in this paragraph. A forfeit was any king of turn-taking game where if you missed your turn you had to pay a penalty. Originally it was small amounts of money, but by the early 1800s that had been changed to a kiss. The whole fad was out of favor with the London crowd by Dickens day, though, so this is another example of the Fezziwigs' being sort of antiquated and just really not caring.

Negus was a wine (usually a port or sherry) mixed with hot water, sugar, nutmeg, and lemon juice. So I guess you could call it a mulled wine? Sometimes there would be an orange stuck with cloves that would get dipped in or float in the punch bowl.

I'd never heard of Cold Boiled, but it's exactly what you'd think. Like Cold Roast it's a way to prepare beef or mutton. First you boil it, then you leave it out to cool and serve it cold.

I don't imagine that mince pie needs a lot of explanation except that I learned the ingredients were intended to suggest the wise men's gifts and the pie was often oblong, like a manger.

The "Sir Roger de Coverley" was a popular country dance. It was especially energetic, so it was often the last dance of the evening.

I love the description of some of the dancers as "people who were not to be trifled with." These folks take their dancing seriously, even if they don't do it very well.

But if they had been twice as many—ah, four times—old Fezziwig would have been a match for them, and so would Mrs. Fezziwig. As to her, she was worthy to be his partner in every sense of the term. If that’s not high praise, tell me higher, and I’ll use it. A positive light appeared to issue from Fezziwig’s calves. They shone in every part of the dance like moons. You couldn’t have predicted, at any given time, what would have become of them next. And when old Fezziwig and Mrs. Fezziwig had gone all through the dance; advance and retire, hold hands with your partner, bow and curtsey, corkscrew, thread-the-needle, and back again to your place; Fezziwig “cut”—cut so deftly, that he appeared to wink with his legs, and came upon his feet again without a stagger.

A lot of dancing terms to comment on, starting with "hold hands with your partner." That's a term that Dickens was apparently uncomfortable with, because he changed it several times through various drafts and even printed editions. For instance, my copy of Hearn's annotated edition has "hold hands with," but the version on Project Gutenberg has "both hands to your partner." Other ways that Dickens tried to describe it were "seize" and "turn." According to Hearn, Dickens was trying to describe a move where the dancers take the hand nearest to each other when they're standing side by side, so "hold hands" is a perfectly natural way to describe that. Maybe there's something else he had in mind, too, though, that "hold hands" doesn't perfectly capture.

A corkscrew is a move where everyone joins outstretched hands while face to face, then the couple at the top end of the row threads their way in and out of the other couples doing little turns with the other couples as they go. When they get to the end of the line, they take their place there and the next couple at the top go.

Threading the needle is a complicated figure where the bottom couple joins hands to make a horseshoe shape, then the top couple threads their was down the line pulling the rest of the dancers behind them and somehow it all ends up okay at the end. I can't even imagine. British country dancing is hard.

Fezziwig's "cut" describes his jumping into the air and quickly crossing and uncrossing his feet before landing on the floor again.

When the clock struck eleven, this domestic ball broke up. Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig took their stations, one on either side of the door, and shaking hands with every person individually as he or she went out, wished him or her a Merry Christmas. When everybody had retired but the two ’prentices, they did the same to them; and thus the cheerful voices died away, and the lads were left to their beds; which were under a counter in the back-shop.

A lot of adaptations insert Belle into this scene, either as Scrooge's introduction to her or just the audience's. She doesn't appear in Dickens' version until later, but I'll keep an eye out and see which versions bring her in early and what they do with the opportunity. It makes sense to have an early scene when she and Scrooge are happy, just as contrast to their break-up scene later on.

During the whole of this time, Scrooge had acted like a man out of his wits. His heart and soul were in the scene, and with his former self. He corroborated everything, remembered everything, enjoyed everything, and underwent the strangest agitation. It was not until now, when the bright faces of his former self and Dick were turned from them, that he remembered the Ghost, and became conscious that it was looking full upon him, while the light upon its head burnt very clear.

The Ghost continues to use the same tactic it used in the schoolhouse scene: showing these vivid memories to Scrooge in order to get past the mental defenses he's built up over the years and speak directly to his emotions. It seems to be working.

Every iteration I can think of highlights this, so I won't comment on them individually, but it's worth pointing out in the novel as part of Scrooge's transformation. He's forced to remember what it was like to be an outsider - part of the "surplus population;" a "silly folk" as the Ghost says next - himself.

“A small matter,” said the Ghost, “to make these silly folks so full of gratitude.”

“Small!” echoed Scrooge.


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?”


I know at least one adaptation has Scrooge and Dick praising Fezziwig after the party. Let's see if there are any others.

“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 ’em up: what then? The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.”

He felt the Spirit’s glance, and stopped.


“What is the matter?” asked the Ghost.


“Nothing particular,” said Scrooge.


“Something, I think?” the Ghost insisted.


“No,” said Scrooge, “No. I should like to be able to say a word or two to my clerk just now. That’s all.”


His former self turned down the lamps as he gave utterance to the wish; and Scrooge and the Ghost again stood side by side in the open air.


Seeing his younger self at school gave Scrooge empathy for the young urchin singing in the cold in Scrooge's present. Likewise, remembering his own early days as an employee has created empathy in him for Bob Cratchit. I imagine that Scrooge has intentionally suppressed these early memories of hurting and needing comfort. It's an understandable tactic. But forgetting is harmful when it makes us unable to relate to people who are currently going through circumstances that we've already overcome. That's exactly the moment when we should embrace and deepen that connection in order to comfort someone whose experiences we've shared.

So here's what we're on the look out for this year:
  • Fezziwig's appearance. Does he have the wig? Is it an actual Welsh wig? Is he fat? Does he sit at a ridiculously high desk?
  • Dick Wilkins. Is he named? How close do he and Scrooge seem? I want to pay especially close attention to Reginald Owen's version since that one also had Dick and Scrooge as childhood schoolmates.
  • Does Scrooge help close up and get ready for the party? If so, what's he doing? Are there shutters?
  • Is the fiddler sitting on the desk at the party?
  • Does Fezziwig have three daughters? Does the adaptation mention or focus on their suitors at all?
  • Do the guests seem like social outsiders? If not, is Fezziwig's compassion for outcasts conveyed in some other way?
  • Is Belle at the party? If so, how does the adaptation foreshadow her future relationship with Scrooge?
  • How does Old Scrooge react to this whole scene? Is he having a good time? Is he learning empathy?
  • Is there a moment where Scrooge and Dick praise Fezziwig after the party?

1 comment:

Caffeinated Joe said...

Quite the scene this year! Seems like so much to cover. Definitely an eye-opening moment for old Scrooge. Faced with things he probably hasn't had to dwell on seriously for years. I can't wait. :)

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