Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, A Ghostly History

Christmas always brings a warm fuzzy feeling, maybe it’s part commercialism, walking through the malls with the overwrought folks who are trying to keep a budget, get the perfect gift, and have their child’s picture taken with Santa; and part weather.  Here in Boise there is snow on the ground and it’s begun to accumulate, snowing a few good inches last night and continuing all this week.  The other part of that warm fuzzy feeling is my first overheard ‘Bah Humbug’ of the season that transports me back to my childhood and the family traditions I was brought up with.

Growing up in Southern California, our Christmas season was a world away from Charles Dickens Victorian London of the 1800s.  Our California Christmas was not a snow filled, scarf covered, fire glowing event. Dreaming of a White Christmas was not something we did in So Cal. It was a light sweater and flip-flop sort of holiday. Yet, that did not make it any less warm and dreamy and magical. As the years have gone by, it was apparent what made Christmas special were our family traditions.

My family is a Dickens Christmas Carol family to the core. It all started when my youngest sister was learning to read. My father, an English teacher and a self declared Dickens scholar, brought a copy of A Christmas Carol home soon after Thanksgiving one year. He declared that each night before Christmas, after homework was done, we were all going to gather together and take turns reading the story aloud.

At first, there was much groaning; we knew the story, we had seen it on TV countless times.  Why read it, why did we have to read it aloud, why was dad forcing us to give up our one precious hour of TV time a night to read?!?!

Then it began, quite simply, quite dramatically:  “Marley was dead: to begin with.”

With a flare for reading aloud and dramatics, my father began a life long family tradition we would repeat every Christmas season with that first sentence.

Each year, it seems that there is a new addition to Dickens’ masterpiece, a new remake, a new spin on the Classic tale. The basic plot has been used as an outline for everything from It’s A Wonderful Life to Ghosts of Girlfriends Past.

Such a small novella published in 1843 has transformed our present day ideas of Christmas. Some have even gone so far as to impose on Dickens, that he himself is, well, Father Christmas. The sole craftsman of what we consider the modern Christmas season.

In the last few decades, that Victorian ideal of a season based on good will toward man has slowly been elbowed out of the way by consumerism based ideals, but still, the voice of Father Christmas rings out loud this time of year in print, on screen, and stage.

There are few books that have been so widely read, widely imitated, widely criticized, or widely referred to as A Christmas Carol.

Here is a cliff note version of Dickens’ life: Charles Dickens was born February 7, 1812 to a ‘moderately’ wealthy family. As with many authors, it was Dickens’ childhood that would define the man. His father, not being great with money, went bankrupt and was imprisoned for debt in 1824. Dickens, then 12 years old, was put to work at Warren’s Blacking Factory while the rest of his family went to join the father in prison.

Dickens was at the Factory less than a year, but the ten hour work days, six days a week were quite enough to leave its mark on the author. Shades of this time in Dickens life is seen in many of his works where orphaned and forgotten boys stand at the center of the prose.

Dickens father was able to pay off his debts, affording Dickens the opportunity to attend a day school in London until, at the age of fifteen he became an office boy at an attorney’s office while he studied shorthand at night. He was so good at shorthand that it was said of Dickens, he could take down entire speeches and lectures word for word.

In 1830s Dickens worked as a free-lance reporter, here his writing life began to take form. He contributed to Monthly Magazine, and The Evening Chronicle and he edited Bentley’s Miscellany.

In 1833, the Monthly Magazine published Dickens first story, or sketch, entitled “A Dinner at Poplar Walk”.

Soon after, Dickens took on the soon to be famous pen name of Boz. His sketches were published in monthly parts from April 1836 to November 1837, resulting in his first book, Sketches by Boz.

Dickens’ success as a novelist continued, and most of his first novels were serialized, meaning they were monthly installments in magazines and periodicals; a common practice of the time.

Dickens went on to publish The Posthumous Papers Of The Pickwick Club, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge: A Tale of the Riotos of Eighty as monthly installments in the paper before they were made into books. Throughout his literary career, Charles continued to contribute and edit journals.

On April 2, 1836, Dickens married Catherine Thomson Hogarth and together they had ten children. He and Catherine were married for 23 years, until they separated in 1858, Dickens left her for his mistress, Nelly Ternan. He never marred Nelly, but on his death, he left her an annuity, which made her a financially independent woman.

Throughout his life, Dickens traveled as intensely as he wrote. He went on tour, and did public readings.  His fame throughout Europe and America preceded him.  My favorite fact about Dickens is that he wrote so much, worked so hard, that he kept 7 scribes employed at one time.  Some scholars believe he worked so hard to make sure his family, or perhaps just himself, would never have to see the inside of a debtors prison or a work house ever again; those scars from his childhood continued throughout his life to be a constant black threatening cloud.

Charles Dickens passed away from a cerebral hemorrhage in his home, Gad’s Hill Place, on June 9, 1870. He was 58 years old, he had published over a dozen major novels; a large number of short stories; a handful of plays, and half a dozen non-fiction books. Dickens’s novels were reprinted in book format after their original format as monthly installments in magazines.

Charles Dickens is buried in Westminster Abbey, London. On his tomb is inscribed: “He was a sympathizer to the poor, the suffering, and the oppressed; and by his death, one of England’s greatest writers is lost to the world.”

Even though the man himself is lost to us, his legacy lives on, perhaps most eloquently each Christmas season when we catch glimpses of the man with the simplest overheard ‘Bah, Humbug!’.

Here’s something you might find interesting, did you know that A Christmas Carol was not meant to be a little story about Christmas, but rather a story meant to combat the treatment of children in work houses?
The early nineteenth century was an era of the ten hour a day, six days a week work schedules for men, women and children alike. This modern age had been ushered in as the Industrial Revolution. It had indeed increased production of factory goods, but at the expense of personal well-being and social disorder. These issues, which seem so far from Christmas Spirit, were actually at the very heart of Dickens story.

Dickens motivation was the unjust Poor Laws, England’s welfare system. The Poor Laws were a system of poor relief that encouraged the development of workhouses to help with the vagrant and beggar population in the British Government. Dickens pleaded for the “plight of those whom the Industrial Revolution has displaced and driven into poverty, and the obligation of society to provide for them humanely.”1 The need for the upper classes to assist those who had fallen on hard times rather than sit on them in judgment of them was what Charles saw as a theme to intensely pursue.

Now, add the before mentioned with the fact that Dickens was an admirer of Washington Irving who, in his book Bracebride Hall, talked about long lost Christmas customs and traditions that needed a revival, and you get the planting of a seed of an idea.

Dickens thought that the simple act of recreating a long lost English Christmas of old could help begin to heal the state of the modern world he saw as cold and hard. He believed this so much that he wrote about it several times. The first in 1833, in his Sketches by Boz; he wrote “A Christmas Dinner”. The second, he wrote in 1837 in The Pickwick Papers. It was this version that was a prototype for A Christmas Carol. In this first version, a character named Mr. Wardle tells the story of Gabriel Grub, a disreputable man who undergoes a Christmas makeover after being visited by goblins who show him the past and future.

As the years progressed, these ideas marinated and mingled with Dickens Fascination of spiritualism. It is a well-known fact that throughout his life, Dickens was fascinated by spiritualism. He considered fairy tales stories of alteration and conversion. This was another likely influence that added to the tale that would become A Christmas Carol.

Finally, in early 1843, a litany of events occurred. Dickens toured a Cornish tin mine and saw first hand the working conditions of the children there. Second he visited the Field Lane Ragged School in London, a school for starving, illiterate children. Next, he read the Second Report of the Children’s Employment Commission. A report that talked about the inhumane effects the Industrial Revolution was having on the lives of child laborers.

Dickens was convinced that education of children was the answer to these conditions, to help children who were so unfortunate they had no choice but to turn to crime and delinquency just to try and survive. In May 1843, he planned to publish a pamphlet about these conditions. He tentatively titled the work, “An Appeal to the People of England, on behalf of the Poor Man’s Child.” He did not complete the pamphlet as planned; instead, the planned pamphlet would become what we know today as A Christmas Carol.

However, there are some scholars that believe A Christmas Carol was the result of a desperate Dickens who needed money as his wife was pregnant with his fifth child. The proof being that Dickens did not accept a lump sum of money for A Christmas Carol, but instead he chose to receive a percentage of the profits hoping to make more money.  However critics wish to look upon the quickness in which Dickens wrote the book, the fact that he had been working on the story for years prior must not be overlooked.

A Christmas Carol was actually a self-published book, Dickens published the book at his own expense. He even went so far as to insist that the binding be lavish, the edging was gold, it contained hand colored illustrations and he even set the price at 5 shillings so that everyone could afford it. Granted, he did not make much money on the book, even though the book sold six thousand copies in the first few days of its release, it was a matter of low profit due to high sales for an affordable book.

Today, it seems a strange idea that there was a time when the spirit of the Christmas season was not peace on earth and good will toward our neighbors. In Charles Dickens time, the theme of A Christmas Carol struck a powerful chord. This was a new idea, that Christmas could become the perfect family holiday. Old customs were unearthed and in the United States, the holiday would go so far as to help solidify the melting pot of America as the message of the season was to embrace traditions and customs from many different cultures; this was evident in the sharing of customs, everything from decorating trees to gift giving.

Dickens is credited as being the first to show a modern world a new way of celebrating Christmas. Instead of putting the importance on the twelve days of Christmas, he showed that any family could create a celebration in their own home in one day. Even with a small income, a small family, a hard working family, he showed that Christmas could still invoke good will toward man and solidify family values.

That little pamphlet was written in six weeks, published December 19, 1843, just in time for Christmas. The original 1843 novella by Charles Dickens was titled A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost Story of Christmas. It was an instant success, so much that the book was adapted as a play, and a reported 8 versions penned less than three months later in February of 1844.

A Christmas Carol was the first in a line of Christmas themed books Dickens would write. From 1843 to 1846, Dickens wrote five Christmas Books. A Christmas Carol, The Chimes, The Cricket on the Hearth, The Battle of Life, and The Haunted Man. Dickens continued to use “what he called “the Carol philosophy” to “strike a sledgehammer blow” for the poor, uneducated, and repressed.”2

Throughout his life, Dickens would receive many letters from his readers, people who lived modest lives in the back streets of London, exalting his story that was read aloud and brought nothing but good to their family. To think, 126 years later, people are still reading this book aloud and finding nothing but good in it.

This little book has been viewed as the inspiration of the Victorian era to revive the holiday season of Christmas. This book that lacks shepherds, wise men, stars, and angels; this book that has never been out of print and has been adapted to the stage, screen, and even Opera. This book whose muse was the mistreatment and neglect of working children in the Industrial Revolution, this book that is simply quite something.

A Christmas Carol has had its fair share of critics over the years, and they will continue after we are long gone. Some claim that Dickens was more the father of commercialism, rather than good will toward men. Claiming that the Cratchit family was poor, but they had enough money for their own home, a goose for Christmas feast, however meager, and Bob had a job. In his too syrupy sentimental tale, Dickens was only trying to make a fast buck.

Perhaps Dickens knew before he published his book that it would be met with a few critics and that is why he left a sort of defense in the preface of the book:

“I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.
Their faithful Friend and Servant, C.D., December, 1843.”

Still, I believe as Scrooge’s nephew Fred did, “I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round…as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!'”

Dickens, Charles: A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas. With Illustrations by John Leech. London: Chapman & Hall, 1843.

Merriman, C.D. “Charles Dickens.” The Literature Network. Jalic Inc. 7 December 2009 <http://www.online-literature.com/dickens/&gt;.

Perdue, David A. “Charles Dickens.” David Perdue’s Charles Dickens Page. Ed. David Perdue. 7 December 2009 <http://charlesdickenspage.com/index.html&gt;.

“Charles Dickens.” Wikipedia. 2009. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc.. 7 Dec 2009 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Dickens&gt;.

“A Christmas Carol.”  Wikipedia. 2009. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc.. 7 Dec 2009 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Christmas_Carol&gt;.

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