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.
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.”
Apart from the Christmas turkey, “A Christmas Carol” did not actually feature any of the above. But it did, as Standiford explains, give a fresh gloss to some traditional Christmas elements of the time: “[B]azing fireplaces, mince pies and wassail bowls, carol-singing, plum puddings, holly sprigs, mistletoe, fiddling and dancing.”
The effect of “A Christmas Carol,” Standiford claims, “was to make the incorporation of such elements seem obligatory for anyone’s Christmas.”
In addition, says Standiford, the story’s focus on charity, goodwill, and the hope of redemption offered a different kind of gift to Victorian England: It created “a secular counterpart to the story of the Nativity.”
Certainly, Dickens was ever after associated with the Christmas holiday by his readers. (“Will Father Christmas die too?” cried a cockney produce vendor on hearing of Dickens’s demise.)
Ironically, however, that first Christmas his book seemed to have failed him. Although it was an immediate success and sold out in four days, Dickens had underestimated the expenses of its printing and he made only a little more than £100 on that first edition.
He was left to marvel that, “[S]uch a great success should occasion me such intolerable anxiety and disappointment.” Even the many theatrical adaptations that rapidly sprang up (on Feb. 5, 1844, three productions opened simultaneously in London) were of little financial benefit to Dickens as at that time there were no copyright laws to protect his work.
In the end, of course, it didn’t really matter. Dickens had regained his reputation (and his confidence) and he went on to write “David Copperfield,” “Great Expectations,” and the string of other classic titles that have never – to this day – gone out of print. Never again, however, did he have great success with a Christmas book (although he tried several more times, with long-since forgotten works like “The Chimes” and “The Battle of Life.”)
Of course, over time “A Christmas Carol” brought Dickens huge remuneration. (Toward the end of his life he liked to read it aloud in public and could easily fill a theater with sobbing listeners eager to pay for the privilege of hearing him) and it is still honored as one of his greatest creations.
Interestingly, however, Standiford notes, “A Christmas Carol,” as widely read as it is and has always been, receives relatively little commentary from literary critics.
Perhaps, he suggests, Dickens’s contemporary, William Makepeace Thackeray (normally a tough critic himself) explained that best when he said: “Who can listen to objections regarding such a book as this? It seems to me a national benefit, and to every man or woman who reads it, a personal kindness.”
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s book editor.