Friday, December 21, 2007

Scrooge: Broker, Lawyer, Accountant, or Banker?

A Christmas Carol, written by Charles Dickens in 1843, is a classic story, set on Christmas Eve, about physical suffering, mental dysfunction, and spiritual redemption.  The narrative spans the past, present, and future, and leads to healing in a few of the story's characters.

The full text of the original publication is available on many websites, such as Wikisource,
Project Gutenberg, Public Literature, the University of Adelaide, and StormFax (with antique text and a rich background). Contemporary illustrations are posted by the University of Glasgow.

The main character,
Ebenezer Scrooge --the one most miserable and the one most changed -- is described by Wikipedia:
Ebenezer Scrooge is the main character in Charles Dickens' 1843 novel, A Christmas Carol. He is a very cold-hearted, selfish man, who has no love for Christmas, children, or anything that even provokes happiness. * * *

His last name has come into the English language as a byword for miserliness and misanthropy, traits displayed by Scrooge in the exaggerated manner for which Dickens is well-known.

The story of A Christmas Carol begins on Christmas Eve, with Scrooge at his place of business.

The book does not specifically state what business he is in, though it is usually assumed that he is a banker or professional money lender. Some recent versions portray him as a solicitor.

Whatever his main business is, he seems to have usurious relationships with people of little means. * * *
Since Scrooge was so focused on "business", and since his well-known miserly character could reflect on that profession, I wonder: What was the occupation of Ebenezer Scrooge?

In the opening lines of the story, Dickens mentions the place of business where Scrooge worked:
Scrooge never painted out Old Marley's name. There it stood, years afterwards, above the warehouse door: Scrooge and Marley. The firm was known as Scrooge and Marley.

Sometimes people new to the business called Scrooge Scrooge, and sometimes Marley, but he answered to both names: it was all the same to him. * * *
The reference to "warehouse" suggests storage of some commodity.

Could Scrooge have been a commodities broker?

The 1984 movie version of A Christmas Carol, starring George C. Scott, adopts this interpretation completely. Scrooge sells warehoused corn in transactions negotiated at an exchange in London, as depicted in this conversation:

Ebenezer Scrooge: Yes, I have changed my mind. The price has gone up.

Mr. Pemberton: Gone up? But that's impossible!

Ebenezer Scrooge: If you want my corn, gentlemen, you'll meet the price I quoted yesterday... plus five percent interest for the delay.

Mr. Tipton: That's outrageous, Scrooge. You'll be left with a warehouse stuffed full of corn!

Ebenezer Scrooge: Well, that's my affair, isn't it?

Mr. Pemberton: If we have to meet your price, our bread will be more expensive. The poor will suffer.

Ebenezer Scrooge: Then buy someone else's corn. Good day, Sirs. * * *
Or, instead, could Scrooge have been an English "solicitor", that is, a lawyer?

Wendy R. Liebowitz, an editor, of Washington, D.C., had assumed that he was. However, in her listing of "Lawyers in the Movies", posted on her WendyTech website, she reconsidered that impression, which was based on the 1951 movie version of A Christmas Carol, starring Alastair Sim.

She investigated that impression, and then rejected it in her description of that movie.

I always assumed that Ebenezer Scrooge was a lawyer, of the London firm of Scrooge and Marley. * * *

But a careful reading of the text does not support this decisively.

During a conversation at a law office about this question -- on Christmas Day, appropriately enough -- I learned that in England, the name of a law firm cannot bear the name of a deceased person, and the name of Scrooge's firm was Scrooge and Marley.

As Marley was dead as a doornail -- we learn this early on -- perhaps Scrooge was just a generic miserly businessman.

Well, Scrooge was Marley's "sole executor, his sole administrator, his sole assign, his sole residuary legatee, his sole friend, and sole mourner." * * *

Estate lawyers have a field day imagining Scrooge's will. * * *
Some people believe that Scrooge was an accountant.

This view may be based on multiple references to Scrooge's "counting house", such as those found in
Stave One ("Marley's Ghost").
Once upon a time -- of all the good days in the year, on Christmas Eve -- old Scrooge sat busy in his counting-house. * * *

The city clocks had only just gone three, but it was quite dark already -- it had not been light all day: and candles were flaring in the windows of the
neighbouring offices, like ruddy smears upon the palpable brown air. * * *

The door of Scrooge's
counting-house was open that he might keep his eye upon his clerk, who in a dismal little cell beyond, a sort of tank, was copying letters. * * *
"Counting-house" is an archaic term. In response to the question, "What is a counting house?", posted on a Yahoo "Victorian" forum, one responder opined:
It was what is now called an accountant's office. They would have handled financial transactions for clients, such as collecting rent, paying bills, auditing etc.

It is analogous with today's certified public accountant which is what Bob Cratchitt probably was.
But another responder to the same question offered a different answer:
It's basically a loan office or a collection office. In the Christmas Carol, Scrooge would collect money from loans or rent from properties, a variety of things. So he'd be counting money in his "counting-house".
So, was Scrooge, instead, a lender, that is, a banker?

The ghost of Jacob Marley, in his visitation to Scrooge, woefully referred to their "counting-house" and their work together as money-changers:

My spirit never walked beyond our counting-house -- mark me! -- in life my spirit never roved beyond the narrow limits of our money-changing hole; and weary journeys lie before me!" * * *
In Stave Four ("The Last of the Spirits"), during the visitation by the silent "Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come", Scrooge observes this conversation, which occurs between a husband and his wife about the death of a businessman (who is Scrooge):
‘We’re quite ruined?' she asked.

‘No. There is hope yet, Caroline,' he replied.

‘If he relents,' she said, ‘there is. Nothing is past hope, if such a miracle has happened.'

‘He’s past relenting, ' said her husband. ‘He’s dead.'

She was a mild and patient creature…but she was thankful in her soul to hear it, and she said so, with clasped hands. She prayed for forgiveness the next moment, and was sorry; but the first was the emotion of her heart.

The husband continued: ‘What the woman whom I told you of last night, said to me, when I tried to see him and obtain a week's delay -- and what I thought was a mere excuse to avoid me -- turns out to have been quite true. He was not only very ill then, but dying.'

‘To whom will our debt be transferred?' asked the wife.

‘I don't know. But before that time we shall be ready with the money; and even though we were not, it would be bad luck indeed to find his successor so merciless. We may sleep tonight with light hearts, Caroline!' * * *
Throughout the developing story, and up to its climax, what Scrooge does in business remains a mystery.

While being conducted towards the place to be occupied by himself in the future, Scrooge veers off the indicated course to peer, instead, into his "office" where he had practiced his "occupation":

The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come conveyed him, as before -- though to a different time, Scrooge thought -- until the Spirit was asked by Scrooge to tarry for a moment.

‘This court,' said Scrooge, ‘through which we hurry now, is where my place of occupation is, and has been for a length of time. I see the house. Let me behold what I shall be, in days to come.'

The Spirit stopped; the hand was pointed elsewhere.

‘The house is just there,' Scrooge exclaimed. ‘Why do you point away?'

The finger underwent no change.

Scrooge hastened to the window of his office, and looked in. It was an office still, but not his. The furniture was not the same, and the figure in the chair was not himself. The Phantom pointed as before. * * *
This, then, is what we have learned about Scrooge: He worked in an office; he and managed the firm as surviving partner; he employed a clerk; he conducted commerce with both businessmen and consumers; and he controlled assets and collected debts.

Most importantly, we observe that he conducted commerce in such a way that the commerce consumed him . . . until the night of his reclamation.

Considering that transformation -- which is the point of the story -- must we know his self-centered pre-occupation? Perhaps it could be our occupation, too. Perhaps it is you or me who is the successor occupant of Scrooge's office.

Dickens' focus rests on Scrooge's
redemption within it. The alteration of Scrooge's character -- after reflections on his past, review of the present, and renewal for the future -- avoided a destructive lonely death, brought healing to himself and others, and then became widely known in his community.
He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. * * *

He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.

May that be truly said of us, and all of us!

"At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge," said the gentleman, taking up a pen, "it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and Destitute . . . ."  -- Charles Dickens

Update: 2010-12-22:

The same question -- What is Scrooge's occupation? -- was asked by Professor Stephen C. Behrendtas as the first of thirteen study questions for his college students "intended to lead you to particular sorts of information that will be useful for seeing A Christmas Carol as a work that reflects its times and some of the issues that characterized the culture of the times."  See: Background questions — Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, posted by the University of Nebraska - Lincoln (01/12/10), which includes some useful Internet resources about the fictional work.

Update: 2010-12-23:

Ultimately, I doubt that Scrooge was a lawyer, since he did not talk like a lawyer, even for that time. See: EE&F Law Blog post, Lawyer's Christmas Greetings (12/23/10).