Is there any more beloved Christmas story than that of Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol? Who has not shed a tear over some version of this tale? Or at least felt some measure of Scrooge’s schoolboy giddiness when he wakes to find it is not too late to change his fate? It takes true genius to create a story that resonates through centuries and evokes sentimentalism in millions upon millions. God bless you, Mr. Dickens, for writing it.
In the fall of 1843, Dickens was in the midst of working on a novel, The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit, probably his least popular book, although one of his personal favorites. At age 31, he was already an acclaimed writer, having published five novels including Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby.
Although his financial situation was certainly comfortable, things were getting just a bit tight for the Dickens family at that time. He and his wife Carolyn were expecting their fifth child. And Dickens had hopes of someday going back to Italy for an extended stay during which he might finish Chuzzlewit. For both reasons, he needed money.
And so he began to concoct a project that might quickly earn him some cash. He planned to write a story of Christmas and release it in time for the holiday, just a few months away. In doing so, he became one of the first in a long line of writers and filmmakers looking to capitalize on the Christmas season.
I say this with no cynicism. It was a simple plan and a good one. And the fact of the matter was, Dickens loved Christmas and he loathed heartlessness. He was sincere in his desire to write a tale that would depict the inhumanity of which so many are capable, the way in which the government itself had abandoned common people, and, mostly important, the absolute possibility of redemption for us all.
Still working on Chuzzlewit, he stole moments when he could to work on A Christmas Carol. The novella soon consumed him as he wrote at a feverish pace. It was finished in six weeks. A year later, he described the process in a letter to his American friend, Professor Cornelius Felton of Harvard College. Sending the letter with a copy of the book, Dickens refers to himself in the third person:
…In that parcel you will find a Christmas Carol in prose; being a short story of Christmas by Charles Dickens. Over which Christmas Carol Charles Dickens wept and laughed and wept again, and excited himself in a most extraordinary manner in the composition; and thinking whereof he walked about the black streets of London, fifteen and twenty miles many a night when all the sober folks had gone to bed…Its success is most prodigious. And by every post all manner of strangers write all manner of letters to him about their homes and hearths, and how this same Carol is read aloud there, and kept on a little shelf by itself. Indeed, it is the greatest success, as I am told, that this Ruffian and Rascal has ever achieved.
While Dickens may have been a little dramatic in his description of the process, I still like to think that it happened in this fashion. Imagine Dickens walking the soot filled streets of London in the night, laughing and crying as he conjured the scenes we all know so well: Nephew Fred amicably teasing his uncle, “What reason have you to be morose? You’re rich enough!”…Scrooge’s dismal home, “darkness is cheap, and Scrooge liked it”…the hideous ghost of Marley, “At this rolling time of the year, I suffer most. Why did I walk through crowds of my fellow beings with my eyes turned down?”…Mr. Fezziwig and Mrs. Fezziwig, who were, “one vast substantial smile”…the departure of Scrooge’s fiancé, “You fear the world too much. All your other hopes have merged into the hope of being beyond the chance of its sordid reproach.”
After the book was released on December 19, 1843, the first printing of six thousand copies sold out in a few days. Unfortunately, Dickens had been so particular about the expensive bindings (he wanted the books to be handsome Christmas presents) that the first edition did not yield the profit for which he had so hoped.
But, it would certainly pay off in the end. Since then, the book has never been out of print. And the praise was universal. One literary critic, soon after the book appeared, wrote that A Christmas Carol was, “a national benefit, and to every man and woman who reads it a personal kindness.”
I would say that is certainly true for me personally. Every year, the story serves as the most powerful reminder that we are all capable of effecting small miracles…and here comes the historian’s moral…if we learn from the past while paying attention to the present. My favorite passage, the one that gets me every time, is Scrooge’s earnest plea:
Good Spirit…assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life…I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me!
So, a Merry Christmas to you, and may it be said of you, as it was said of Scrooge, “that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man possessed the knowledge. May that truly be said of us, and all of us!”
[Sources: Michael Slater, Charles Dickens: A Life Defined by Writing (2009); Ruth F. Glancy, Student Companion to Charles Dickens (1999)]
A footnote…because I’m curious. Leave a comment and tell what is your favorite version of A Christmas Carol.