A self-published masterpiece: A Christmas Carol

Text: Solveig Hansen, 2016

Happy Anniversary, A Christmas Carol!

On December 19, 1843, Charles Dickens launched A Christmas Carol. He wrote it in six weeks and published it at his how expense. By Christmas Eve, he had sold 6,000 copies. Price: 5 shilling, which equals 22 pounds in 2016.

If Ebenezer “Bah! Humbug” Scrooge – “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner” – can change, then there is hope for all of us. We like to hear that, and maybe that’s one of the reasons why the book has never gone out of print in the 173 years since it was published.

A Christmas Carol is a tale of human transformation, but at the same time a sharp social commentary mirroring the conditions of the poor at the time, a theme common to many of Dickens’ novels, including David Copperfield, his most autobiographical work. His appeal to help the poor stems from his own childhood. After his father went to debtors’ prison, young Charles was sent to a shoe-blacking factory to work.

Dickens made Christmas more Christmassy and invoked the holiday spirit in the readers: A factory owner closed the factory on Christmas Day and sent a turkey to each of his employees. An actor raised 20,000 pounds to the poor by reading the tale aloud in public. In the trenches of World War I, a captain read the tale to the troops. The Queen of Norway sent gifts to disabled children in London, signed “With Tiny Tim’s Love.”

It’s a spooky tale too, for the younger ones. Who knows how many nightmares have been caused by Jacob Marley’s ghost, most notably as seen in the 1951 film adaptation, starring Alastair Sim as Scrooge. In Muppet Christmas Carol, Rizzo the Rat shivers and says, “That’s scary stuff.” He presents the story together with Gonzo, who plays Dickens. “Should we be worried about the kids in the audience?” “No, it’s all right,” Gonzo answers, “this is culture.” However, when the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come enters the stage, the two of them are too frightened to stay, and leave, not to be seen again until the end of the movie.

Despite its theme, A Christmas Carol started out as a commercial project, Monica Dickens, the great-granddaughter of the master, told the Cape Cod radio station 99.9 the Q in 1984, when she was asked to read the story. She read it the Dickensian way, the way her grandfather had heard it told by his father, Charles Dickens. Dickens was loaded down with debts due to bad luck with his publishers, and a family that always borrowed money from him. With Christmas only a couple of months away, he decided to write a Christmas story to earn some money quickly. In the course of the writing, he got so caught up in the story that he forgot all about the money and finished the project in a “white heat of enthusiasm.”

Although a success, Dickens didn’t make much money from the tale. As a result of a feud with his publishers over the slim earnings on his previous book, he opted for a percentage of the profits from the tale rather than a lump-sum payment, thereby hoping to increase his share of the earnings, and published it at his own expense. The production costs were high, with the book’s extravagant 3-colored illustrations and gold leaf on the edges of the paper. He only earned about 1000 pounds, according to Monica Dickens.

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Dickens gave perhaps 150 public readings of the story in a more abbreviated form. He hand-edited the text to make it more reading-friendly:

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In 2014, British author Neil Gaiman, dressed up like Dickens, complete with goatee, gave a memorable reciting of A Christmas Carol from a reading copy edited by Dickens. The event took place at the New York Public Library. Here it is. (The reading of the story starts about 9:25 into the broadcast.)

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