It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. In 1843 Dickens was having financial troubles; his latest serialized novel, Martin Chuzzlewit, was not as popular in England and America as his early works. It didn’t help that his previous work, American Notes for General Circulation (1842) that was critical of American culture (particularly the issue of slavery), deeply offended Americans and damaged his reputation. A London correspondent reported “Dickens’s work upon America is universally condemned. It has done an injury to his fame which only some new and successful effort of his undoubted genius can redeem. Martin Chuzzlewit is certainly not such an effort.” Ouch.
Better times were actually just around the corner: Dickens’s interest in addressing child labor issues and poverty would inspire one of his most popular and enduring books — A Christmas Carol . Serendipitously, three potent elements were amalgamated in a crucible to create The Carol (as collectors of Dickens’s work affectionately refer to the famous novella), first published on December 19, 1843. And what is truly remarkable is that this cherished book has never been out of print for more than 170 years.
The first potent element was the author’s difficult childhood. Dickens’s early life is fairly well-known: to summarize briefly, Dickens’s father was imprisoned at a debtor’s prison, forcing Charles, who was then 12 years old, to leave school. Young Dickens had to sell his precious books and work in a blacking factory under horrible conditions. It was sheer torture for this intelligent and sensitive lad. During those challenging years, Dickens experienced loneliness, shame, as well as profound loss — the death of his sister and brother. These memories would haunt him for the rest of his life; and the details of those events would be intricately woven into the fabric of The Carol.
The second critical element was the social and economic conditions of Victorian England. Although the Industrial Revolution (from about the mid 1700s to 1840s), brought on a staggering wave of technological innovation and economic growth, while at the same time managed to drown the quickly expanding population. From 1740 to 1850, England’s population ballooned from 6 million to 16.8 million. Most of the workers lived in squalor, finding shelter in crowded, filthy shanties, and suffering from malnutrition, disease, and mistreatment. Even worse, the children suffered the most — forced to abandon education, and work in grimy factories, earning paltry wages. In 1832, England enacted the so-called Poor Laws that only exacerbated the plight of the poor by forcing them into dreadful workhouses. In 1842 the Commission for Inquiring into the Employment and Condition of Children in Mines and Manufactures was published — and it didn’t paint a pretty picture. Understandably, Dickens was enraged. In September of 1843, Dickens toured the tin mines in Cornish and was appalled by the deplorable conditions and wanted to write a pamphlet, titled, “An Appeal to the People of England, on behalf of the Poor Man’s Child,” to advocate urgent reforms. Other obligations distracted Dickens; consequently, he postponed writing the pamphlet. However, soon other opportunities arose that provided him with a platform for his advocacy of children’s welfare. The first was an invitation to sponsor the Ragged Schools of Field Lane, Holborn. Once again, Dickens was shocked at what he witnessed: “I have very seldom seen, in all the strange and dreadful things I have seen in London and elsewhere, anything so shocking as the dire neglect of soul and body exhibited in these children… To find anything within them — who know nothing of affection, care, love, or kindness of any sort — to which it is possible to appeal, is, at first, like a search for the philosopher’s stone.”
The truly galvanizing event for The Carol, occurred a few weeks later, on October 5, 1843. The Athenaeum, a charitable organization that served the poor in Manchester, invited the author to speak on education reform. Dickens spoke passionately about improving education for children: “My own heart dies within me when I see thousands of immortal creatures condemned, without alternative or choice, to tread, not what our great poet calls, ‘the primrose path to the everlasting bonfire,’ but one of jagged flints and stones, laid down by brutal ignorance…” The audience’s warm and enthusiastic applause deeply touched Dickens. Back at his hotel that evening, the author understood his responsibility and the role of his craft: “…the more intelligent and reflective society in the mass becomes, and the more readers there are, the more distinctly writers of all kinds will be able to throw themselves upon the truthful feeling of the people, and the more honoured and the more useful literature must be.” A few days later, on a long walk Dickens had the epiphany for The Carol and developed the essential plot of a “Ghost Story of Christmas.” In a letter to a friend he described how the story moved him: “[I] wept, and laughed, and wept again, and excited [myself] in a most extraordinary manner, in the composition; and thinking whereof, [I] walked about the black streets of London, fifteen and twenty miles…” And thus, The Carol was born into the world, eliciting the tears and joy of its proud father.
It is important to note that The Carol was born in England at a time when the old Christmas traditions, like the winter feast or Christmas festival that was a combination of pagan and Christian customs (featuring singing, plays, and sumptuous feasts, festive clothing and decor), were in decline. There were two chief reasons for this. The first was the impact of the Industrial Revolution that strongly discouraged their workers from celebrating anything that took them away from their jobs. The only thing that factory owners celebrated was profits — and they did not want to close the factories for any reason. The second reason was influence of Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans, beginning in the early 1640s, that banned any celebration of Christmas other than solemn prayer and contemplation. In short, Father Christmas was dead as a doornail. It was not until the early 1800s, that a revival of old Christmas traditions gained traction from a number or sources: the return to carol singing and the publication of several books (from 1822 to 1837) featuring the old songs, the introduction of the Christmas tree (1841) and the first Christmas card (1843).
The third significant element that helped shape The Carol, was the literature that influenced and inspired Dickens. The most critical inspiration for The Carol was a book by his good friend, American author Washington Irving, whom he had visited a year earlier. Irving’s The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. described in detail the joyous and warm celebration of an old-fashioned Christmas at Bracebridge Hall: guests were treated to a feast and entertained by parlor games, dance, song, and masques. Dickens cherished this story and Irving’s work: “I do not go to bed two nights out of seven without taking Washington Irving under my arm upstairs to bed with me.” Dickens had two warm-up acts for The Carol. The first was the essay, “A Christmas Dinner” in Sketches by Boz (1833). The second was the Christmas chapter in The Pickwick Papers (1837) that features a traditional English Christmas celebration at Dingley Dell (inspired by Irving’s Bracebridge Hall) and the story within a story — “The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton” (inspired by Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle”). The Story of the Goblins is the seed that grew into The Carol and features the prototype of Scrooge. In the story, grave digger Gabriel Grub, a lonely curmudgeon who is fond of his drink and does not wish to celebrate Christmas, is kidnapped by goblins to view panoramas of how Christmas is celebrated by the rich and the poor. Grub emerges from the experience as a changed man — he embraces Christmas as well as new-found sobriety. Dickens scholars also point to two stories by the British dramatist and journalist Douglas William Jerrold (1803-1857), who published “How Mr. Chokepear Keeps a Merry Christmas” in 1841 (that features a Scrooge-like character) and “The Beauties of the Police” in 1843 (that explores the relationship of a father and son who are separated in a work house).
The story quickly possessed and consumed Dickens. He began writing The Carol in October and completed six weeks later, during the second week of November. When the handwritten manuscript was completed he rejoiced, stating: “[When] it was done I broke out like a madman.” Subsequently, he submitted his handwritten manuscript to his publishers, Chapman and Hall. Chapman and Hall agreed to print the book on a commission basis, meaning that Dickens would pay for all costs related to the production (printing, illustrations, hand-coloring of plates, blind-stamp embossing, and binding) and earn all the profits, allowing Chapman and Hall to keep a fixed commission on the 6,000 books that were sold in the first printing. Dickens hired established Punch cartoonist, John Leech) to create the illustrations (four wood engravings and four hand-colored etchings), giving the world the first glimpse of literature’s most famous characters: Tiny Tim, Bob Cratchit, and Ebenezer Scrooge (although Leech never drew Tiny Tim stting on Cratchit’s shoulders — that was the work of another of Dickens’s illustrators: Phiz). Chapman and Hall delivered the completed books to Dickens on December 17, 1843; however the official publication date is December 19, 1843 when the books went on sale to the public for 5 shillings each (about $20 in today’s dollars). By December 24, the book had sold out (it went on to be printed in 24 editions). Unfortunately for Dickens, due to the high cost of production, the book was not as profitable as he wished; however the book was a huge success with the public and critics — in England as well as America. In essence, The Carol was the novelized form of the pamphlet that Dickens wanted to write back in September; however, the book’s impact far exceeded what the pamphlet could ever have achieved. Critic Henry Chorley, of The Athenaeum, summarized the public’s reaction to the book: “[The Carol is] a tale to make the reader laugh and cry — open his hands, and open his heart to charity even towards the uncharitable — wrought up with a thousand minute and tender touches of the true ‘Boz’ workmanship.” Although some essays proclaim that Dickens invented Christmas, it is more accurate to say that The Carol helped revive the old traditions of Christmas celebration. And as the story behind A Christmas Carol comes to a close, it is fitting that we remember Tiny Tim who observed, “God Bless Us, Every One!”
For further reading: Charles Dickens A to Z by Paul Davis, Facts on File (1998).
The Annotated Christmas Carol by Michael Patrick Hearn, Norton (2004).
The Oxford Companion to Charles Dickens by Paul Schlicke (2000).
The Life of Charles Dickens by John Forster, Sterling Publishing (2011).
The Battle for Christmas by Stephen Nissenbaum, Random House (1996).
The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol Rescued his Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits by Les Standiford, Crown Books (2008).