This post originally appeared on the Austen Authors’ blog on December 14, 2021. Enjoy!
Because Christmas is little less than a week from today, I decided to share the story behind the creation of Charles Dickens’ masterpiece, a work as popular now as when it was first published. It is to me an inspiring account, and a message of love during this most precious and sacred time of year.
A Christmas Carol, or to use its proper title of A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas, is one of Mr. Dickens’ best known and most beloved literary creations. For many, myself included, the story illustrates the true meaning of many aspects of the season.
The account, first published in the form of a novella in 1843, concerns Mr. Ebenezer Scrooge, an elderly miser who is haunted on Christmas Eve by the ghosts of his former business partner Jacob Marley and those of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come. The effect of these visits is to transform this penny-pinching, ill-tempered curmudgeon into a kinder and gentler man.
Dickens wrote the story at a time when the British were re-evaluating their traditions of Christmas, and adopting different ideas to help them commemorate the festive occasion. Many of these new customs were essential parts of his story and provide us, as readers, with incredibly clear mental images of Christmas observances during this time in England.
Celebrations of the Christmas season had grown in popularity throughout England, beginning in the Georgian era and extending into the Victorian. The practice of decorating an indoor Christmas tree, a German tradition first introduced by Queen Charlotte and adopted by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, was copied in many homes throughout the country. The early part of the 19th century had also seen a revival of interest in singing Christmas carols, reversing their decline in popularity over the preceding few hundred years, when the observance of Christmas had actually been against the law. The publication of numerous books of carols, complete with music and lyrics, fed this growing appreciation.
Many of the author’s own experiences and history were included in the narration, as his childhood had been anything but blessed and happy. He was born into a middle class family, but his father was a spendthrift who was committed to Marshalsea, a debtor’s prison in Southwark, London. As a result Charles, who was only twelve at the time, was forced to pawn his book collection, leave school, and work in a rat-infested shoe-blacking factory. This change in his circumstances heavily influenced both his writing and his general outlook on life, giving him what was described as a “deep personal and social outrage”.
Dickens loved Christmas, and his first story on the subject, Christmas Festivities, was published in 1835; it was then republished as A Christmas Dinner in “Sketches by Boz”, a Dickens periodical from 1836. Many of his stories from this time contain ideas and themes that were included in A Christmas Carol and indeed, all Dickens’ stories up to this point influenced the final iteration of this wonderful tale.
By 1842 he was a well-established and popular author, having written and published six major works and a number of novellas, short stories, and other pieces. At the end of the year he introduced Martin Chuzzlewit as a monthly serial, but though the novel was his personal favorite, it was not as popular with the public, and Dickens faced potentially serious difficulties. Sales had fallen off and his wife, Catherine, was pregnant with their fifth child.
To add insult to injury, his publisher threatened to reduce his monthly income by £50 if the buying public continued to ignore the work. Desperate for a story that would solve his financial problems once and for all, he came up with the idea for one of Christmas redemption.
Mr. Slater says that A Christmas Carol was: “intended to open its readers’ hearts towards those struggling to survive on the lower rungs of the economic ladder and to encourage practical benevolence, but also to warn of the terrible danger to society created by the toleration of widespread ignorance and actual want among the poor”.
Interestingly, his hand-written manuscript of the story does not contain the sentence in the penultimate paragraph “…and to Tiny Tim, who did NOT die,”; it was added later, during the printing of the novella.
Reviews of the work were for the most part uniformly kind. The Illustrated London News described how the story’s “impressive eloquence … its unfeigned lightness of heart—its playful and sparkling humour … its gentle spirit of humanity” all put the reader “in good humour with ourselves, with each other, with the season and with the author”. Other reviews echoed the same sentiment, although there were some that were not as impressed with the story. The reception in the US was less enthusiastic, but by the end of the Civil War the book was widely circulated in North America.
Published on 19 December, the first edition sold out by Christmas Eve. By the end of 1844 thirteen editions had been released. In 1849 Mr. Dickens began public readings of the story, which were so successful that he continued doing them. He personally read the account one hundred and twenty-seven times, the last in 1870, the year of his death. In the end, while he initially set out to write a story that would give him financial security for the rest of his life, what he created was a tale that transformed him spiritually, and has touched the world with its themes of hope, love, and the spirit of Christmas, sentiments that for me take on a special importance at this wonderful time of year.
My mother and sisters are great fans of the Alistair Sims and George C. Scott film versions of the tale. I am not, as I find both of them depressing, to put it mildly. I have two versions I watch every year. One is Scrooged, starring Bill Murray, and the other is A Muppet Christmas Carol. These movies stay more or less true to the original tale while interjecting humor into the plot. When Carol Kane, as the ghost of Christmas Present, tells Bill Murray “It’s a toaster!” while using it to lay him out, I lose it. One of my favourite scenes in the Muppet’s version is Rizzo screaming: “Light the lamp, not the rat! Light the lamp, not the rat!” Again, it might be my infantile sense of humor, but those scenes crack me up every year.
Above all, though, I appreciate the message contained in every version of this story. Scrooge’s redemption and transformation is a lesson much needed in the world today, and it continues to touch my heart.
It is my hope that everyone, including those who do not celebrate the season, feels an extra measure of love from friends, acquaintances, and the people you meet as you go about your business. May the season be filled with the joy of giving and the companionship of family and loved ones. This year will be a special one for me and my wife, as we are expecting children and grandchildren to spend the holiday with us in our new home, as I mentioned last month. I even went out and purchased a seven foot pre-lit Christmas tree in defiance of Debbie’s wishes because our little three footer just didn’t do it for me, and we now have the room for a decent tree.
That’s not to say the former was relegated to the dustbin of history. Au contraire, I put it to use in my new office, and gave it a place of honor on my desk. I’m doing my darndest to feel the joy of the season and decorated it all by myself, as you can probably tell. With luck my wife will help with the big tree, because for me, the ability to decorate is lacking in a major way. I hope that the kitten we just adopted can be convinced to leave my little tree alone, but I have my doubts. The little twit keeps trying to climb it, and doesn’t seem to understand why it falls on him.
I haven’t yet decided whether to bring out my Charlie Brown tree; that one doesn’t say Christmas to me. I might, but doing so could get me in trouble with my sainted wife, and I don’t want to push my luck too far.
In closing, let me quote from Mr. Dickens’ work: “…and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!”
I wish you a very Merry Christmas, and to those who purchase my latest, Duplicity and Deceit, thank you from the bottom of my heart. I’d love to hear what you thought of it.