In the basement of a West London church, actors rehearse a scene we all know from “A Christmas Carol." Scrooge and his clerk, Bob Cratchit, sit in a freezing office on Christmas Eve. The year is 1843, and Cratchit tries to warm himself with the heat from a single lump of coal.
At one point, Scrooge, played by Tony Bell, turns to Cratchit and says, “You’ll be wanting the whole day off tomorrow, I suppose?”
“If it’s convenient,” replies Cratchit.
“It’s not convenient, and it’s not fair,” says Scrooge. “If I was to deduct half a crown for it, you’d think yourself ill-used. But you don’t think me ill-used when I pay a day’s wages for no work.”
Scrooge is the epitome of the bad boss. He keeps the thermostat low. You have to beg for a day off. And don’t even think about an office holiday party.
At least, that’s the standard interpretation. But Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, a political scientist at New York University, and the author of "The Trial of Ebenezer Scrooge", says we have Scrooge all wrong.
“If you read the actual hard economics in 'A Christmas Carol,'” says Bueno de Mesquita, “Dickens portrays Scrooge as a man who was generous to a fault.”
For example, he claims, Scrooge paid Cratchit more than the going rate in mid-19th century London.
“A lot more,” he says. “Bob Cratchit was paid, according to 'A Christmas Carol,' 15 shillings a week. The average clerk in an accounting house was paid 11 shillings, 6 pence a week.”
So, although Dickens portrays the Cratchit family as poor, de Mesquita says just compare Scrooge’s lifestyle with Cratchit’s.
“Bob Cratchit owned a home. The Christmas feast that the Cratchits had was quite expensive. They had a bowl full of oranges, which were the most expensive imported fruit in London in the winter 1843. And Bob Cratchit had enough money to have 15 rounds of gin punch, and enough goose to feed the entire large family,” says de Mesquita.
“Ebenezer Scrooge, on the other hand, lived in a run down flat in a run down neighborhood,” he says. “And, as little coal as Bob Cratchit had for his fire at the office, Scrooge had less.”
And to save money, Scrooge works by the light of a single candle and eats nothing but a bowl of thin gruel. One might say he’s a perfect example of how to live on a budget.
Bueno de Mesquita says, at any time, Scrooge could have replaced Cratchit with someone cheaper. The classified ads in London were full of clerks looking for jobs.
“But Ebenezer didn’t fire Bob. He kept him on. He was a very good man,” says de Mesquita. “He’s misunderstood.”
Of course, Dickens might take issue with that interpretation.
Florian Schweitzer of the Dickens Museum in London says if the author had wanted to make Scrooge a model employer, he would have done so.
Schweitzer says there’s no doubt that Scrooge is a miserable, penny-pinching businessman, but “Scrooge is the embodiment of somebody who can change.”
And change he does. Back at the rehearsal, Scrooge throws open his window after he’s visited by three spirits and yells down to the street below.
“Merry Christmas to everybody! A Happy New Year to all the world!” shouts Scrooge in the theater production.
Then, he sends a boy to the poultry shop to buy the largest turkey in the window.
“We’re going to send it to Bob Cratchit,” says Scrooge. “It will be such a surprise. It’s twice as big as Tiny Tim.”
Scrooge even gives Cratchit a raise. But what happens to Scrooge and Cratchit’s employer-employee relationship after Christmas?
Sarah Skwire, a fellow at the Liberty Fund who writes about Dickens, says Scrooge’s generosity can only last so long.
"In January, Scrooge and Bob Cratchit are going to have to go back to the office,” says Skwire. “And they’re going to have to come to some sort of meeting point between where Scrooge was previously – the light of one candle and a bowl of thin gruel – and where Scrooge is on Christmas morning – handing out geese like there’s no tomorrow – because there is going to be a tomorrow.”
She says Scrooge would do well to balance his newfound enthusiasm for charity with his insatiable propensity to save.