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Featuring some of Charles Dickens’ best-known and best-loved characters, Ebenezer Scrooge, Bob Cratchit, Tiny Tim, and a trio of ghosts, A Christmas Carol has been an essential part of the holiday season for more than one hundred and fifty years. The enduring tale of the reformation of the miserly Scrooge has touched the hearts of generations of readers across the globe. With its combination of convivial festive celebrations, freezing weather, and otherworldly visitors, A Christmas Carol has come to embody the spirit of Christmas, reminding readers that it is a time for giving as well as receiving.
Charles John Huffam Dickens was born in Portsmouth, England, in 1812. His father, John Dickens, worked as a pay clerk for the royal navy and was known for his good nature and generosity. John struggled with debt for much of his adult life, however, and in 1824 he was arrested and imprisoned as a debtor in the Marshalsea Prison. John Dickens’ family joined him in the prison, with the exception of Charles who, at the age of twelve, was sent out to work at Warren’s Blacking Factory, pasting labels onto bottles of boot polish. The young Dickens was a deeply sensitive boy who found the experience to be humiliating and degrading. To add insult to injury, while he labored day after day, his elder sister Fanny continued to attend an expensive school of music. John Dickens was released from Marshalsea in May 1824, but Charles continued to work at the factory until his father quarrelled with the owner some weeks later. So traumatized was Dickens by these events, that he only confided his childhood sufferings to one friend during his lifetime, John Forster,who was later to become his biographer. Dickens was particularly distressed by the fact that his mother wanted him to continue with his work and protested when his father removed him from the position and sent him back to school. Although it was never published during his lifetime, Dickens wrote a brief autobiographical fragment in which he recounted the heartbreak evoked by his mother’s response “I never afterwards forgot, I never shall forget, I never can forget, that my mother was warm for my being sent back.”
The trauma of the Blacking Factory shaped the course of Dickens’ life. His brief taste of poverty left him terrified of returning to a life of drudgery, but it also gave him an acute understanding of the miseries of the poor and in particular the suffering of children. Dickens returned to school for a brief period, before being apprenticed to a legal firm as a clerk. He went on to work as a parliamentary reporter, writing up accounts of debates for newspapers, before joining the staff of his uncle’s new newspaper, The Mirror of Parliament. Watching debates in Parliament night after night, Dickens was moved by accounts of poverty, suffering, and attempts to improve conditions for the workforce through regulating factory legislation. While his position demanded impartial reporting, his experiences were later to be channelled into his portraits of working-class poverty in works like Oliver Twist (1837–9) and A Christmas Carol.
In addition to his duties as a reporter, the boundlessly energetic Dickens began to write short fictional sketches. Late in 1832, the twenty-year-old Dickens submitted one of his pieces to the Monthly Magazine to be considered for publication. It was published in December of the same year, and the magazine’s editor commissioned more short works from the young author. These pieces were eventually collected as Sketches by Boz—“Boz” being a childhood nickname. Then, in 1836, the publishers Chapman and Hall asked the young author to provide the text for a set of sporting illustrations by the artist Robert Seymour. In its early stages, the task was not a demanding one, but as Dickens sought more creative input, his characters became increasingly developed, and Mr. Pickwick of The Pickwick Papers (1836–1837) was born. Early sales were not good and when the depressive Seymour committed suicide in April 1836, Dickens took charge of the work, recasting it as a sequence of narratives that showcased his talents for comic realist writing.
Having married Catherine Hogarth, the daughter of a colleague, on April 2, 1836, Dickens must have welcomed this change in his circumstances. He gradually moved away from journalism into professional authorship, although as his novels appeared in serial format, he never left behind the journalistic pressure of writing for a deadline. While at the beginning of his career Dickens worked for other publishers as a paid author, in 1850 he founded his own weekly magazine, Household Words, which gave him creative control over his work. The journal was replaced in 1859 by All the Year Round, which took a similar format, mixing educational pieces with stories, poetry, and the latest instalment of a major novel. Sometimes these novels were by Dickens himself, while others were by up-and-coming contemporaries including Wilkie Collins and Elizabeth Gaskell. Dickens’ novels were extremely popular with Victorian readers from all classes. Serial publication meant that his works were cheaply available, and stories abound of illiterate working people gathering together so that a designated reader could regale them with the latest instalment of a Dickens novel that they had all clubbed together to read. A regular and greatly loved feature of both of Dickens’ magazines was the special “Christmas number,” which always included a much-anticipated tale. However, the best known of all of Dickens’ Christmas stories was published as a slender, stand-alone volume in December 1843.
Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol quickly in October and November of 1843, whilst also working on installments of his novel Martin Chuzzlewit. He had great hopes for the story’s commercial success, not least because it would help him to clear a debt to his publishers. In terms of its appearance, the volume was impressive, containing woodcuts by the artist John Leech, as well as four-colored plates. As the Dickens scholar Paul Schlicke has noted, the beauty of the book certainly made it more marketable as a holiday gift, but it also ate into Dickens’ profits (Schlicke, 98–99).
The book’s first print run was six thousand copies and it sold out within a matter of days. By early 1844, Dickens had sold around fifteen thousand copies. These sales figures were not particularly impressive in comparison to Dickens’ other works and this was partly because of problems with the advance advertising for the story. A further difficulty to hinder the Carol’s progress in the marketplace was a problem that had plagued Dickens for most of his career: literary piracy. An unauthorized edition of A Christmas Carol had been produced by the publishers Lee and Haddock in early January 1844, which would inevitably have cost Dickens sales. Although Dickens successfully prosecuted the firm, the pirates had themselves declared bankrupt, leaving him to foot the bill for the legal expenses. In spite of Dickens’ disappointment with sales, however, the Carol’s success can be measured in other ways. By February 1844 there had been eight stage productions of the story and it remained a firm favorite with Dickens’ public. Indeed, when in the final years of his life, Dickens undertook a sequence of demanding and highly popular public-reading tours, the story of Scrooge and Tiny Tim always formed part of the program.
A Christmas Carol was written in response to a visit Dickens paid to a “ragged school” for the poor in Field Lane, London. He had also been deeply moved by reports he had received from the social reformer Dr. Southwood Smith and had planned to produce a pamphlet in consultation with Smith to be titled “An Appeal to the People of England on Behalf of the Poor Man’s Child.” This plan seems to have given way to the writing of the story we know today. However Dickens’ depictions of the children of mankind, “Want” and “Ignorance,” who are shown to the miser Ebenezer Scooge by the Ghost of Christmas Present, have made a more lasting impression upon readers than any political tract. Dickens was able to address a much wider audience through his Christmas story, skilfully connecting the need for social change with the season of goodwill, thus promoting what he came to call a “Carol philosophy.” This seems to have been a carefully considered strategy for managing public opinion and presenting a call for change in a way that would rally people to reform, rather than alienating them. Dickens wrote of these concerns to his friend the philanthropist Angela Burdett Coutts in September 1843:
My heart so sinks within me when I go into these scenes that I almost lose the hope of ever seeing them changed. Whether this effort will succeed, it is quite impossible to say. But that it is a great one, beginning at the right end, among thousands of immortal creatures, who cannot, in their present state, be held accountable for what they do, it is as impossible to doubt. That it is much too squalid and terrible to meet with any wide encouragement, I greatly fear. There is a kind of delicacy which is not at all shocked by the existence of such things, but is excessively shocked to know of them; and I am afraid it will shut its eye on Ragged Schools until the Ragged Scholars are perfect in their learning out of doors. (Dickens, Letters, 564)
Writing here of the ragged schools for paupers, Dickens highlights the lack of public concern with the plight of the very poor. He notes that it is poverty that creates crime and points out that well-intentioned members of the public seem unable to engage with or empathize with the plight of these impoverished children. Here Dickens astutely observes that unless someone intervenes, the ragged scholars will grow up into ignorant, resentful adults, who will force themselves into the public consciousness through misdemeanours for which they cannot be held responsible.
Dickens very cleverly transposed his experiences at the ragged school into A Christmas Carol by aligning the covetous, selfish Scrooge with those who are happy to go on ignoring the needs of the underclass. Very early on in the story, Scrooge responds to a plea for charity by asking whether prisons and workhouses are still in operation, thereby pointing to the way in which poverty has been criminalized in nineteenth-century England. The workhouses were institutions set up in response to the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, which centralized relief aid for the poor, stigmatised poverty, and separated entire families. They were run by the parish and were often places of terror to the very poor, who lived in fear of being forced to resort to the austere charity of the state, in particular the work houses’ harsh discipline and meager diet.
In A Christmas Carol, Dickens hits out at the ideology behind the workhouses, the so-called “utilitarian” philosophy espoused by the political economist, Jeremy Bentham. Bentham believed that society should be governed according to the “greatest happiness of the greatest number” and he particularly favored a non-interventionist approach to government. Dickens was appalled by Bentham’s ideas, believing that they undermined a shared humanity and a collective responsibility for the underclass. The story of Scrooge shows a man’s development from selfish isolation to a life of sharing and community. While Scrooge is visited by three ghosts who help him to understand who he is and who he might become, the most haunting images of the story are those of misery and destitution. The “meager, ragged, scowling, wolfish” figures of Want and Ignorance represent not merely a supernatural vision, but rather a large section of Victorian society in dire need of assistance from men and women like Dickens’ first readers. Dickens’ friend John Forster commented in his biography on the “great public and private service … positive, earnest, practical good” (Forster, 206) achieved by A Christmas Carol and later Christmas stories like The Chimes (1844) and The Cricket on the Hearth (1845), thus pointing to the story’s practical role in bringing about social reform.
When Dickens died in June 1870, a young costermonger’s assistant is alleged to have asked, “Mr. Dickens dead? Then will Father Christmas die as well?” Whether or not this story is true, the fact that the anecdote has been passed down from generation to generation points to the inextricable links between Dickens and the holiday season. Christmas celebrations feature prominently in a large number of Dickens’ novels, including the Christmas high-jinks at Dingley Dell in The Pickwick Papers, the interrupted Christmas lunch in Great Expectations (1861), and the large number of Christmas books and stories which succeeded the Carol, as Dickens sought to build on his initial success. At a time when Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, had introduced the Christmas tree to Britain from Germany and the first Christmas cards had been produced, Dickens tapped into a type of Christmas revival. Undoubtedly, some of society’s renewed interest in Christmas was commercial, but as Dickens’ popularity shows, it was also connected to a re-thinking of this religious holiday as a time for families to celebrate through eating, drinking, dancing, and giving gifts. Dickens loved these aspects of Christmas, often identifying the season with “the hearth” as a symbol of the domesticity that he valued so highly. However, he also wanted to use the festival to remind people of their responsibilities towards those who were less fortunate. In this respect, he successfully combined the spiritual, social, and commercial elements that we understand to be part of Christmas today.
According to Forster, Dickens “identified himself with Christmas fancies” (Forster, 206), and the many volumes of letters Dickens left behind show that he loved the celebrations and rituals associated with Christmas. “What Christmas Is, as We Grow Older,” an article Dickens wrote for Household Words in 1851, sheds some light on the mixture of gravity and excitement with which Dickens approached December the twenty-fifth. The piece offers a blend of nostalgia for the “bright visionary Christmases” of the past, remembrance of those whose deaths mean that they are no longer able to join the revelry, while calling for a “spirit of active usefulness, perseverance, cheerful discharge of duty, kindness, and forbearance.” In the earlier work, A Christmas Carol, Dickens makes Ebenezer Scrooge the embodiment of a similar message after he has been terrified into reform by the three ghosts. The “new” Scrooge combines jollity with an earnest desire to do good in society, thus he famously sends the needy Cratchit family “the prize turkey.” Yet he also—and more importantly—learns to keep the Christmas season and to allow the spirit of giving to spill out into his everyday life.
The subject of movies, musicals, and cartoons, Dickens’ story of a miser who learns the error of his ways is, for many readers, as important a part of their Christmas ritual as pudding and presents. Whether we are moved by the sentimental portrait of the Cratchits or cheered by the joyful abandon of Mr. Fezziwig’s ball, Dickens’ vision of Christmas is an enduring one that plays on our nostalgic yearning for the Christmases of our childhood and brings us back to the novel year after year.
Grace Moore teaches at the University of Melbourne, Australia. She has published widely on nineteenth-century literature and culture and neo-Victorianism. She is the author of Dickens and Empire (Ashgate, 2004), which was short-listed for the New South Wales Premier’s Biennial Award for Literary Scholarship (2006), and the co-editor of Victorian Crime, Madness and Sensation (Ashgate, 2004).