Occasionally, I write a column and brace myself for angry e-mail, but I didn't two weeks ago, when I wrote about Ebenezer Scrooge giving Bob Cratchit's family a turkey at Christmas. It was, I assumed, an uncontroversial subject. But protesting e-mail pinged in: Move over wardrobe choices of Muslim women; make room, Justin Trudeau's hair. I respectfully add Charles Dickens to the List of Things Canadians Are Vehement About.
I learned there's something close to collective amnesia in this country over the poultry-giving situation in A Christmas Carol, and I wrote back to the first few people who had e-mailed to complain that, contrary to what I'd written, Scrooge gave his clerk's family a goose and not a turkey. I quoted the text of A Christmas Carol, in which Scrooge says to a boy in the street, "Do you know whether they've sold the prize Turkey that was hanging up there?" and then says, "Go and buy it." I assure you – please stop typing, people; pray, don't push "send" before you've checked this yourselves – that's exactly what happens, and at no point does the boy come back and say, "Damn, the turkey's sold, should I 'ave them send a goose then, sir?"
That's an authorial choice that would have really flatlined the narrative, as the Ghost of Christmas Present had earlier shown Scrooge a scene in which the Cratchits eat a small goose – which "eked out by apple-sauce and mashed potatoes … was a sufficient dinner for the whole family" – and make a big thing of it. Because that's the kind of people they are.
A story in which the Cratchits were given a larger goose than the one they were going to eat anyway and then got really effusive about it would likely never have become a Christmas classic. Scrooge might as well have awoken Christmas morning and eagerly sent the drapes to be cleaned so they would fetch a better price when they were haggled over as he lay dead, and I explained this to the next few e-mailers.
Still more e-mail came.
I mostly dearly appreciate reader feedback, as about seven out of 10 times it seems to indicate "reader," and some were very genial about their criticism. But the number of people willing to die on this Dickensian Goose Hill – and the bodies really did pile up – was striking.
One man wrote to say that Victorians didn't eat turkey at all. I began – full-service columnist that I am, not wanting my readers to make asses of themselves at Dickens-themed trivia nights, or very dry cocktail parties – to quote both Dickens and the legendary Mrs. Beeton, who, in 1861, wrote in her Book of Household Management: "A Christmas dinner with the middle classes of this empire, would scarcely be a Christmas dinner without its turkey … "
The turkey was Dickens's whole point. He was bumping the Cratchits up to the middle class, and I explained this to yet another e-mailer, and, for the further benefit of those corresponders convinced that no one in Britain ate turkey until the 20th century, I later cited Gervase Markham's The English Huswife (1615), which provides the aspiring-to-be-good housewife with counsel on the preparation of turkey, as well as advice on the "inward vertues of her minde."
I pointed all this out to the man who wrote back to say that, alright, I may have been correct – Dickens did write of a turkey, but Dickens was wrong. Dickens, this man insisted, had committed an anachronistic fowl to paper.
I told him that, in 1557, the London Poulters Guild kept detailed live-bird inventory records that listed bitterns, herons, swans, cranes, curlews and … turkeys. It just so happens I've been spending time at the British Library on another project and am only too happy to look into these things; Charles Dickens, I've got your back.
As late as this week, the goose-truthers, all with distinctly masculine names, were still e-mailing. And it struck me that what I was witnessing was something that has recently come to be known as "mansplaining," a word coined to describe the habit some men have of patronizingly "explaining" things to women that the women already know.
I've always thought we didn't need this (ugly) word, "mansplaining," when we already had the all-purpose, non-gendered, "Yes, I know that." I've contended that any woman who thinks men have a monopoly on dispensing condescending, unsolicited, poor advice should take a baby to the park for an afternoon – meet "momsplaining."
My main argument has been that "mansplaining" is speaking with authority, something boys are conditioned to do, and men are commended for doing, and that girls and women are mostly not. Mansplaining is essentially the opposite of "upspeak" – the habit, largely attributed to women, of ending sentences on a rising note, often interpreted as questioning.
Mansplaining is far better emulated than mocked, I've insisted. There's nothing intrinsically wrong, often something glorious, about taking a position and expressing it with certainty; I dreamt of the day when legions of women would mansplain us to full equality. I'd call us the "insufferablegettes."
The way I saw it, the day a woman looked a noted Dickens scholar in the eye and said sagely, "That Tim Cratchit was huge. That is why they called him 'Titanic Tim' " would have been a milestone for my sex. And I note the irony that, in the face of all this exhausting mandickensplaining, I'm now questioning my earlier assertions.
Perhaps everyone's responses should be given in the form of a question? I'm not sure.