To millions, Charles Dickens is synonymous with Christmas. To me, he represents shame. Mine, not his. Some decades ago, I played Bob Cratchit in an elementary-school insult to A Christmas Carol, the magical tale of a heartless miser redeemed into a paragon of goodwill. I might as well have played the turkey. My poor teacher was repeatedly forced to pierce the silence between flubbed lines with whispered prompts from the wings. On the way home from school, I wished for one thing: that Dickens, who bounced into the world 200 years ago this year, had never been born.
Perhaps I should say that he used to represent shame. When I think of Dickens today, my mind turns to wine. One reason involves a key scene in A Tale of Two Cities, which I mustered the courage to read later in life while travelling between London and Paris, the book’s settings: In Paris, a cask drops in front of a wine shop and breaks, its contents spilling onto the street as peasants drop to their knees in a free-for-all slurpfest. It’s a metaphor: The mobs are bloodthirsty and will soon exact revenge on the aristocracy with gruesome guillotines. The French Revolution is stirring.
The other reason is Scrooge – not the fictional character, but his purported real-life inspiration. Years ago, a story began making the rounds in newspapers linking Dickens to an Edinburgh man named Ebenezer Lennox Scroggie, who died in 1836. I lapped it up like free cabernet because Scroggie – get this – was a vintner as well as a corn merchant.
Here’s the story, to be spoiled later with a few facts: Prior to conceiving A ChristmasCarol, the great author travelled to Edinburgh to deliver a lecture. On a walk through Canongate church graveyard, he chanced upon a tombstone that read: “Ebenezer Lennox Scroggie – meal man.” In the waning light, the mildly dyslexic Dickens misread the corn reference as “mean man,” prompting the writer to wonder how loathsome a man must have been to warrant such an epitaph – an irony, too, given that Scroggie was something of a party animal.
In 2004, The Scotsman published a piece about it (with a quotation attributed to Dickens’s diary) and another in 2010 (with reference to Edinburgh’s plans to erect a Scroggie memorial and to use the connection to promote itself as a UNESCO World City of Literature). The tale is also cited in numerous blogs, including a post last December by the Adam Smith Institute, which boasted that Scroggie was a great-nephew of Smith, who came to rest in the same cemetery. How about that? Literature’s most famous miser based on a wine merchant linked to the Scottish economist who wrote The Wealth ofNations . You could say that it’s just too tasty to be true, because, in fact, it is.
Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, a fellow of Magdalen College at the University of Oxford and the author of last year’s Becoming Dickens, told me that the only surviving Dickens diaries cover two periods – 1838 to 1841 and 1867 – and that they make no mention of Scroggie. “It’s a shame, as it would be fun if the story were true,” he said, “but I suspect it’s an urban legend rather than a genuine snippet of biography.”
I was offered the same verdict by Robina Brennan at the Charles Dickens Museum in London; she cited information from Michael Slater, another Dickens biographer and author of a new book about the writer’s alleged affair with a teen actress. Slater dismissed the tale as patently false and confirmed that Dickens destroyed almost all of his engagement diaries at the end of each year.(Wouldn’t you if you were sneaking around on your wife?)
John Baird, professor emeritus of English at the University of Toronto, told me he finds the “mild dyslexia” bit particularly suspect. Young Dickens devoured novels by Henry Fielding and Tobias Smollett, he noted. “His dyslexia must have been mild indeed.” And there is no mention of a graveyard walk in Dickens’s letters about his two weeks in Edinburgh in 1841, he confirmed.
Besides, the biblical term “Ebenezer,” meaning “stone of help,” had already been deployed by Dickens in connection with puritanical hostility to pleasure, Baird added, citing the author’s satirical passages about meetings of the “United Grand Junction Ebenezer Temperance Association” in his first novel, The Pickwick Papers . And “screw” was then the current slang for a stingy person. “He could just as easily have made the name up from scratch,” Baird said.
Alas, Scroggie’s tombstone exists no longer, victim, according to The Scotsman, of redevelopment in the 1930s.
Like others, I initially fell for the yarn, which one duped reporter I contacted now traces to a practical joke contrived by a political economist in the mid-1990s. And I still wish it were true. I now can’t help but think of Scrooge as a vintner. In my reimagined Christmas Carol, he would dispense critiques of overpriced “claret,” the old British nickname for red Bordeaux. He would also teach the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come a few things, like how to shop for dirt-cheap modern alternatives, such as those below. They’re fruitier than the average claret and pair better with Bob Cratchit’s Christmas turkey.
La Casona de Castano Old Vines Monastrell 2011 (Spain, $8.90)
Smoother than Scrooge’s balding head yet crisp, with a dusting of smoked herbs.
Bosco Eclipse Montepulcianod’Abruzzo (Italy, $7.60)
Medium-bodied and supple, with cherry-like fruit and a little grip of tannins to keep things as tight as a Victorian corset.
Taylor Fladgate Late Bottled Vintage Port 2007 (Portugal, $17.95)
A reformed Scrooge winds up inviting Bob Cratchit for a “Smoking Bishop” – mulled wine made with port. Make yours with this spicy, raisin-like nectar.
Amalaya Torrontes Riesling 2011(Argentina, $10.95)
Here’s a dry, aromatic white that starts with table grape, moves to peach and finishes with lime for a dramatic arc.
Bodega Volcanes de Chile Summi tReserva Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot 2011 (Chile, $9.95)
It’s rich, with smoky plum, dark chocolate and espresso notes and not a drop of humbug.