The Little Matchgirl Redux

Been thinking a lot about The Little Matchgirl last night and this morning. It’s a story I adored when I was little, because the saddest stories were my favourites (the original Little Mermaid was another). It’s one of those strange ones that, when you read it later in life, is genuinely disturbing in its message: that poverty is inevitable. That a tiny, starving, abandoned girl freezing to death as shoppers walked past with presents and food for Christmas was a happy ending.

We’ve talked a lot over the last couple of years about the return to Victorian values, and how frightening it is. Mostly it’s hyperbole to highlight dangerous trends, but this Christmas more than 120,000 children will be in unstable or temporary accommodation in the UK. This Christmas there will be children too afraid of abusive parents to return home, who will not have access to the kinds of safeguards we put in place to stop them starving and freezing to death on the streets. This Christmas, young people sleeping on the streets will have difficulty finding shelter as councils across the country have been slashing beds and financial support for shelters for six years now. But the Little Matchgirl, she didn’t sell enough matches to save herself, so she was lazy or genetically inferior (-Boris). Providing help, warmth, food, safety – that would just incentivise children to run away! It would all have made children *want* to sleep on the streets.

She freed herself from the ‘welfare trap’ by being a story from a time when welfare didn’t exist, and she just died instead. Because that’s what happens. People don’t magically get better or stop being poor because you remove support systems, they just die. They starve, or freeze, or overdose on whatever they took to make the despair disappear for a while. It’s happening now, and we’re the people scurrying past, ignoring the desperate child with only hours to live, watching the shooting star heralding her death and wondering who it’s for.

Pratchett, in his infinite wisdom, rewrote the ending in The Hogfather. Rather than allow a child to die just so everyone else could feel good about not being that poor, an explanation which is monstrously horrific once it’s laid bare, he gave her the best present he could – a future.

Children are freezing and starving right now because we have chosen to let them. It fits our narrative of borders and danger and invasion. We could give them a future, but we choose not to. The danger of understanding the horror at the core of The Little Matchgirl – that the angels arrive to take her away after she dies, instead of taking her somewhere warm and safe before – means that we have to take responsibility.

“Terry Pratchett hasn’t been an escapist writer for quite some time. He’ll amuse you, sure; but he won’t tell you that things are great just the way they are, or that they’re hopeless and there’s nothing you can do. He’ll tell you that you — yes, you — should make them better.
And then he’ll do something even more radical. He’ll make you think you can.” (always credited to an article that no longer exists)

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