British Billy's Great Britons: Charles Dickens, 1812 - 1870

British Billy has been restricted to quarters much of the time during the recent snowy weather in the U.K., apart from the odd trot around the garden to check all is in order, and then a hasty retreat back through the cat flap. He has had to gaze at the garden birds from the upstairs windows. Billy the Cat (aka British Billy) lives in Elveden, a local village about ten miles from RAF Lakenheath. Many of his American friends and admirers ask Billy about the things puzzling them about life and culture in the U.K., and if he doesn’t know the answer, he has ways and means of finding out. Feel free to send him any questions, and when he isn’t sleeping or hunting, he’ll try and put a few thoughts together to help you out.(Photo by Suzanne Harper)

British Billy gazes out upon a snowy landscape. Snowy Christmases here in the U.K. have only occurred seven times since 1900. (Courtesy photo)

ROYAL AIR FORCE LAKENHEATH, England -- It's turned a bit chilly, hasn't it? My family in Scotland is already experiencing their first snowfalls of the winter, and the sight of flurries of snowflakes never fails to stir the festive feline within me.

Apparently this is largely due to Mr. Charles Dickens, the quintessential Victorian author whose epic stories and vivid characters are tightly entwined with all our imaginings of British life in his time. Christmas cards traditionally depict snowy scenes. However, truly snowy Christmases here in the U.K. have only occurred seven times since 1900. Before then, sparse records suggest that less than a score of 19th-century Christmases were white.

It would seem that Charles Dickens' childhood coincided with a decade of freakishly cold weather. The novelist persistently described a Britain smothered in snow on Christmas Day.

Dickens was born in Landport, Portsmouth, on Feb. 7, 1812. He was the second of eight children. The Dickens family moved to London in 1814 and two years later to Chatham, Kent, where Charles spent the early years of his childhood. Due to the financial difficulties, they moved back to London in 1822, where they settled in Camden Town, a poor neighbourhood of London.

Literary experts suggest that Dickens' world-famous story, "A Christmas Carol", is really an invocation of Dickens' own childhood Christmases with his family before his father fell into debt and was sent to the debtors' prison. Dickens wrote "A Christmas Carol" before the Christmas of 1843, while suffering from a cold, walking at night in a feverish state through the streets of London and drawing inspiration from all he saw. Records suggest the weather was mild at the time, yet Dickens would describe Ebenezer Scrooge in the city on a Christmas morning, watching inhabitants "scraping the snow from the pavements in front of their dwellings, and from the tops of their houses: whence it was a mad delight to the boys to see it come plumping down into the road below, and splitting into artificial little snowstorms".

The evergreen tale of miserly Scrooge, Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim rekindled the joy of Christmas in Britain and America. Today, even after so many years, it is a story which continues to be relevant, sending a message that cuts through the materialistic trappings of the season and gets to the heart and soul of the holidays. It has been adapted for theatre, film, television, radio and opera countless times. The various adaptations have included straightforward retellings, modernizations, parodies and sequels. Kermit's portrayal of Bob Cratchit in "The Muppet Christmas Carol" never fails to move me.

Six of Dickens' first nine Christmases were white. One of these fell in the winter of 1813-14, when Britain's last Frost Fair was held on a frozen River Thames and Dickens was nearly two. The ice around Blackfriars Bridge in London was thick enough to bear the weight of an elephant. Yes - an elephant really was led down the River Thames. Apparently there is a plaque on Blackfriars Bridge to commemorate the event.

Dickens' work was very popular in his lifetime, largely due to his ability to capture the imagination of his audience, many of them new to fiction due to a rise in literacy during the Industrial Revolution. He had amazing powers of observation, incredible wit and a command of the English language some say is second only to Shakespeare. His fiction provided a voice for the causes and frustrations of the poor and working classes, helping to assure popularity across class boundaries.

Dickens was certainly not averse to hard work. As well as a huge list of novels, he published an autobiography, edited weekly periodicals and administered charitable organisations. He was also a theatre enthusiast, wrote plays and performed before Queen Victoria in 1851. His energy was inexhaustible, and he spent much time abroad, for example lecturing against slavery in the United States and touring Italy with companions Augustus Egg and Wilkie Collins, a contemporary writer who inspired Dickens' final unfinished novel,"The Mystery of Edwin Drood".

Charles Dickens died at home on June 9, 1870 after suffering a stroke, and was buried in the Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey. The inscription on his tomb reads, "He was a sympathiser to the poor, the suffering, and the oppressed; and by his death, one of England's greatest writers is lost to the world".

So, as I curl up in front of the blazing fire at home, my heart as well as my fur is warmed by the legacy of festive fun, friendship and fellowship Charles Dickens has left for us all. I will pounce upon anyone who mutters, "Bah Humbug!" within my earshot.