by Geva Alder Copyright 1993

One hundred fifty years ago on December 17, an event occurred that changed the face of Christmas: Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol in Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas" was published in London. The book was bound in russet cloth and with a design in gilt on both the spine and the front cover; the edges were trimmed and gilded. Four full page hand-coloured illustrations shared space with four woodcut vignettes. It sold for five shillings - an extremely low price for a book of such high quality production. Six thousand copies were sold out on Christmas Day, a tribute to the fame of the thirty-one year old author who had written the book in only six weeks.

Charles John Huffam Dickens was born in Portsmouth, England on Friday, February 7, 1812, the second child and first son of John and Elizabeth Dickens. Contrary to widely held opinion, Dickens' early childhood was not one of miserable city poverty. His father was well employed in the Paymaster Department of the Royal Navy, and although he was not a capable money manager, his family lived a pastoral middle-class life in the small seaside town until Charles was ten. They owned, and apparently read, the standard books of the time, and sent young Charles to Chatham School. The area was pleasantly rural, and Charles played in the fields of England when away from his studies.

The move to London (the father was summoned to Somerset House by the Navy) marked the beginning of the end of this peaceful life. The family's financial position became sad, then serious, and John Dickens was imprisoned for bad debt when Charles was 12. Twelve was the working age for a lad who lacked financial backing, and Charles found employment sticking labels on bottles of shoe-blacking. He was separated from the rest of his family, and endured a few months of agonizing existence which later became the basis for several novels. His knowledge of the rats and slums and sorrows of poverty was come by first hand. John Dickens' time in Marshalsea debtor's prison turned his talented son into an angry social activist.

At 15 he found work as a copying-clerk in a law office and taught himself shorthand in order to became a reporter. His speed and accuracy earned him a fine reputation prior to his attempting authorship. He received no remuneration for the publication of his first nine stories, but the reviews were encouraging.

1836 was an important year for Dickens: "The Pickwick Papers" was published in serial form and he married Catherine Hogarth, a marriage which eventually produced ten children. Victoria, then 18 years old, was crowned Queen of England the following year, and married Albert in 1840. The "Victorian Age" was ready to begin.

Dickens wrote "A Christmas Carol" in the autumn of 1843, primarily to increase his income which had suffered from the declining sales of "Martin Chuzzlewit." Although "Carol" was instantly popular, Dickens' insistence on selling a quality product for low price caused the expected profits to be disappointing.

The genre of the Christmas book was not new in 1843, either in England or in America. England had enjoyed a series of "Christmas Annuals", the first American Christmas book was published in 1821, and Washington Irving's "The Sketchbook" had celebrated the English Christmas of long ago in 1820. "A Christmas Carol" was, however, far superior to those previous offerings in its frank display of prevailing social conditions, rather than seasonal froth.

Dickens was a short, olive-complexioned, slender man and theatrically flamboyant - even gaudy - in dress. Sometimes bearded, he wore his hair longer than was the fashion and was thought handsome. He enjoyed performing and once attempted to become a stage comedian - not truly a respectable profession in Victoria's England. He was a good magician, a competent hypnotist, and acted in a number of amateur theatricals. Self-centered and temperamental, his attitude could turn belligerent (Washington Irving finally broke off a long friendship) and a list of those with whom he argued is impressive. Had he lived today, he might have been described as radical, rowdy, hot-headed, even bizarre. He might even have sported a punk hairstyle.

His theatrical yearnings were fulfilled when he embarked in 1853 on a course of public readings from his works, starting with "Carol". His fear of poverty was quelled by the great financial success of these appearances, and the increased fame was welcome also. However, the necessary weeks of travel, including an exhausting trip to America, caused an immense strain on his shaky health.

In 1858 he divorced his wife of 22 years. Victoria's England viewed divorces as horrible scandal - never as a friendly parting of the ways. Catherine was denied the chance to witness her daughter's wedding as most of their children remained with Charles for greater financial security. She also lost her social friends, for no decent Victorian woman would receive a divorced woman into her home or even greet her on the street! Dickens seemed unconcerned about the straits in which he left her, and she continued until her death in isolation and reduced circumstances.

He, on the other hand, was at last able to spend more time with Ellen Tiernan, a young actress with whom he had become involved. This irregular and secretive relationship continued until his death.

Although "A Christmas Carol" is indisputably his most famous work, he felt that David Copperfield was his best. Of the Christmas books, he felt that "The Chimes" (1844) was much superior to "A Christmas Carol", but "Cricket on the Hearth" (1845) was the biggest popular success. "The Battle of Life" (1846) sold well but was not greatly enjoyed, and "The Haunted Man" (1848) was not a commercial success, and was the last of the Christmas books, although yearly short stories were published in the Christmas editions of his periodical, "All the Year Round."

During the last year of his life, he was received at Buckingham Palace by request of Queen Victoria, but was not offered a knighthood or peerage. Their conversation was pleasant, and it was said that Her Majesty enjoyed his books.

In his fifty-eighth year the stresses that he had imposed on himself caused a massive stroke from which he never regained consciousness. He died at his beloved home, Gad's Hill Place, in the late afternoon of Wednesday, June 9, 1870. Although he had wished to be buried on the grounds, the wishes of the nation entombed him in Westminster Abbey, the coffin covered with his favourite flower, scarlet geraniums.

One last story was published after his death: "The Life of Our Lord." The secret or hidden manuscript was not published until 1931 when all of Dickens' children had died. It had been started in 1846 during a year's sojourn in Switzerland but not finished for three years. Written for his children alone, it was never intended for publication, but was a charming postscript to the history of one of the greatest English writers.

The handwritten manuscript of "A Christmas Carol" is in the Pierpont Morgan library in New York. Dickens had it bound and presented it to his solicitor, Thomas Mitton, who sold it five years after Dickens' death. It then passed through several hands before coming to America. Morgan enjoyed having his secretary read the story aloud from the manuscript on Christmas mornings.

So, finally, is Dickens the inventor of our Victorian Christmas? It is surely coincidental that the first Christmas card was sent in 1843, and that the German custom of decorating Christmas trees spread so quickly throughout England. It was also in 1843 that Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were pictured with their children around a decorated table tree. Perhaps the times were right for an expansion of the celebration; Dickens could have known nothing of the celebration we now describe as Victorian. Certainly he humanized the holiday and took it from the private parties of Royalty into the sphere of the common man's pleasures. Perhaps it would all have come to pass without Dickens' writings, but the warm spirit which he gave the holiday doubtless increased the speed of change. GA Copyright 1993

Good Books:

"The Annotated Christmas Carol" by C. Dickens with notes by Michael Hearn. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1976.
"Dickens of London" by Wolf Mankowitz. New York: MacMillan Publishing Co., 1976. 
"Dickens" by Peter Ackroyd. New York: Harper Collins, 1990.


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