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Enter Ms Scrooge … as sexist Dickens turns in his grave | Stage

He’s remembered as a champion of the poor and downtrodden in Victorian society. Yet behind closed doors Charles Dickens was as menacing and controlling as some of his most notorious villains – even scheming to get his wife locked up in an asylum so he could carry on an affair with a younger woman.

Now an adaptation of one of his most famous tales, A Christmas Carol, aims to challenge Dickens’s misogyny by, for the first time on the London stage, casting a woman as Scrooge.

“It’s about time” said Sally Dexter, who plays Fan Scrooge, Ebenezer’s equally miserable and miserly sister. In Dickens’s story, Fan died young but in this version it is Ebenezer who dies first, and Fan who goes on to become the despised debt collector.

Dexter said the production was an opportunity to take Dickens to task and “get to the heart of what women in Victorian society were struggling against, and what we’re still fighting against today”.

Fan is a “complete git, a monster,” she said, but the story looks at why she turned out like that. “It’s not a feminist rant – it’s a humanist rant, because, by the end, the men are freed as well as the women.”

The writer, Piers Torday, was inspired to create the show after reading of a cache of previously unseen private letters which revealed how badly Dickens treated his wife, along with other women in his life. Torday insisted he was not trying to score points against the author, although he does think he was a “real shit” and deserves to be scrutinised.

Dickens’s wife, Catherine, bore 10 children, which reportedly took its toll on her body and mind. Dickens couldn’t handle it, said Torday so tried to get a doctor to pronounce her insane. “I found that really shocking,” he said.

Torday sees Dickens’s attitude to women as implicit in the way he wrote them. “They’re often caricatures rather than three-dimensional people – and there’s a lot of older, grotesque women,” he said.

So he wanted to create a complex female lead for his version of A Christmas Carol, and break up what is “otherwise an unbelievably male story – Scrooge, male ghosts, men, men, men, men, men,” he said.

There are still three ghosts in the show – though one is a woman and Bob Cratchit’s wife has a more significant role (Cratchit is Scrooge’s abused, underpaid clerk in the original story).

But the new show, which opens on 29 November at Wilton’s Music Hall in east London, has tried to stay true to what Torday calls the power and warmth of the original, and use that as a way to explore issues of money, power and family – and women’s place in society.

“At the heart of A Christmas Carol is a plea for people to unite against injustice – but women were definitely among the most unjustly treated at that time, both personally by Dickens and by the wider society,” Torday said.

Dexter said she was horrified by the apparent cruelty of Dickens toward his wife but she didn’t feel it was fair to condemn the man outright because he was a product of his age. “Much of what he’s written is utterly beautiful and strikes a chord with wanting to celebrate humanity,” she said. “Equally, you can’t stick your fingers in your ear and go la-la-la.”

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