Classic review: The Man Who Invented Christmas
Charles Dickens' 'A Christmas Carol' was not just a book but rather a Victorian-era Christmas miracle.
[This review from the Monitor's archives originally ran on Dec. 23, 2008.] On the evening of Oct. 5, 1843, things were looking bleak for 31-year-old Charles Dickens. Even though he was the superstar author of the wildly popular “The Pickwick Papers” and “The Adventures of Oliver Twist” – and that evening’s keynote speaker at an important charitable event – inside the man was in turmoil.Skip to next paragraph
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As young celebrities often do, Dickens (the father of five) had overspent. After a string of successful books, the great writer suddenly seemed to lose his way. He produced a couple of duds – and then slipped into debt.
Debt was a particularly horrifying prospect for Dickens. As a boy he watched his father go to jail for unpaid bills, a searing experience of which he would write, “I never afterwards forgot, I shall never forget, I never can forget.”
By 1843, Dickens was mired in woes. “[H]is marriage was troubled, his career tottering, his finances ready to collapse,” writes Les Standiford. The fabled author was even asking himself if he should give up fiction writing.
What happened next seems a kind of Victorian-era Christmas miracle.
After making his speech, Dickens wandered disconsolately through the dark streets of Manchester. But as he walked, an idea for a story suddenly came to him. If he could quickly turn that story into a book – a Christmas story in time for the season – perhaps he could earn £1,000. Such a sum, he reckoned, might extricate him from debt.
So, as Standiford recounts in The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens’s ‘A Christmas Carol’ Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits, in just six weeks Dickens sat down and wrote a classic of Western literature.
The story of the churlish Ebenezer Scrooge, the endearing family of his impoverished clerk Bob Cratchit, and Scrooge’s moral transformation after visits from a series of ghosts, did more than restore Dickens’s reputation. The book, which, at the turn of the 20th century was thought to have more readers than any book other than the Bible, is still one of the best known works in the English language.
But even beyond that, argues Standiford, who is an author and director of the Creative Writing Program at Florida International University, “A Christmas Carol” profoundly changed the way we celebrate the Christmas holiday. “If Dickens did not invent Christmas,” he writes, “he certainly reinvented it.”
For many Christians of the period, Christmas had uncomfortably pagan associations and they preferred to keep it low-key. Certainly, Standiford points out, “There were no Christmas cards in 1843 England, no Christmas trees ... no Christmas turkeys ... no weeklong cessation of business affairs, no orgy of gift-giving ... no plethora of midnight services celebrating the birth of a savior.”