September 1843 – London, England
Hannah Brown knocked gently on her mistress’ parlor door as she opened it and peeped around, a slight smile hovering on her lips.
“He’s here, Miss Angela.” Hannah had been Miss Angela Burdett-Coutts’ governess, then paid companion for many years, and shared a sense of fun and generosity with her mistress. This afternoon would be a real treat with this special friend come a calling.
England’s richest woman, a mere slip of a girl in her mid-twenties, looked up from her knitting and returned Hannah’s smile. “Why, you must show him in then, Hannah. Oh! Do I look all right?” The young woman smoothed her dress and dark hair almost unconsciously. Hannah nodded her approval and went to fetch their visitor.
“Miss Angela, you look charming as always,” said her young gentleman caller. He bowed over her hand and twinkled into her face. “The autumn air suits you.”
“Nonsense, Charles. You flatter. But do sit, for I adore flatterers. Especially those who bring gossip and good news.” Angela winked, and patted the couch near her. Charles took his seat. Hannah went to fetch tea. “Now, how is our dear Catherine?”
“You mean Kate, my wife? She is well and sends her regards. She’s taking our Charlie for a walk and to the London zoo today, so you and I have our time to talk.”
“Ah. So all is well. Now, Charles, have you completed the quest I set you upon when we last met?”
“So quick to the point, as always, my dear. No on-dit from the court? No noise or famous turn-aways at Almack’s? Well then, I will be as pointed as you, and we shall not draw swords over the matter.”
Angela nodded. “Do proceed, Charles. I must know whether to invest my pounds in my scheme, and you are the only one who can help me decide. Are things as I heard they are in Saffron Hill? Is there hope, or is all lost?” She leaned in and let her perfume settle in the air between them.
“All I can say, my dear madam, is that I am very glad you chose to send me as your ambassador to our most deplorable slum, rather than approaching on your own.” He shook his head and gave a theatrical shudder. “I simply cannot imagine subjecting you to that squalor.”
Angela wrapped Charles on the wrist with her fan. “Oh please, Charles, you behave as if I were one of the China dolls on my shelf, and not your friend in all schemes, up to the pluck for anything. Besides, you tricked me into not going with you. So now you must pay the price by spending the afternoon with me and telling me all you saw. Every bit. Out with it now.”
Charles sighed, shook his head, and stood. “If you insist, dear madam and great friend.
“I went to Saffron Hill, just as you suggested. There I found the streets as narrow as two twigs bound together, and the air thick with soot, and smells worse than any I could describe. There was indeed, in this most obscure and squalid part of the Metropolis, a building open at night for the gratuitous instruction of all comers, children and adults, the Field Lane Ragged School. Oh, Angela, how you would have wept to see it. My recollections as a youth working in a blacking factory pale by comparison.”
Hannah brought in the tea, and the three companions continued their chat.
“Within the walls of the Ragged School, even the rats found it hard to make room for themselves. One could not distinguish between the downtrodden and the criminals, for everyone is treated with the same lack of care and concern. The girls can sit for a while in their room, pretending to absorb what the volunteer teachers have to share, but the boys are as wild as any creature known to man or God. They cannot be trusted with books or civilized supplies.”
“Is there no hope then, Charles? Would it be a useless venture to try to support this school, this area?”
“I think, truth be told, that there is hope. I saw a lad of no more than five or six there. Tiny creature with large eyes and a gentle air. He’s been working since he was three. Chimney sweep, I think. Rickets have him in their grasp. Poor boy’s bones are as fragile and bendable as a willow branch, but he spoke to me of all good things. For him alone, it would be worth your time and money to invest in projects to help the poor of Saffron Hill.
Tears sprang to Angela’s eyes. “Did you bring him out, Charles? Did you help him escape?”
“No, Angela. For every little Timmy is like him. Poor chaps. How could I take one and not them all? Miss Hannah would have her hands full if I brought the wild boys all here.” The ladies smiled at Charles’ absurdity.
“There must be something we can do.” Angela wrung her hangs in desperation.
“I will write and post a report of what I saw,” replied Charles. “Surely, I can persuade the good people of London to care for our poor, and not accuse them. I think The Daily News could use this story."
"Perhaps, Charles. But I think there is a better way for you to reach Londoners. Do you think, my dear friend, you might write a story about the plight of Saffron Hill, in one of your fictions? I have heard that even our new queen, Victoria, reads your stories until midnight.”
“Bah,” said Charles. “That’s a humbug. But for you Angela, I will try. For you and for Tim, and for all who want to see England address the needs of the poor with something better than jails, workhouses, and ragged schools. England must see that we cannot leave a legacy of Want and Ignorance if our great empire is to survive. Yes. I think I shall.”
Good to his word, Charles Dickens began writing A Christmas Carol that month and had completed the story in six weeks. It was first published December 19, 1843.
Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good write.