Tonight I’m officially launching Hark! The Biography of Christmas in London’s glittering just-to-the-east-of-West End. I’ve particularly chosen the nearest bookshop to Dickens’ house and museum – because where better than within sight of “the man who invented Christmas”…
If you’ve not been to his house/museum, I thoroughly recommend it. I pondered it as a venue for the launch itself – though sole hire was a little pricey for little ol’ me, so the Blackwells/Caffe Nero a couple of streets away seemed as good a place as any.
In tribute to, as Tolstoy called him, “that great Christian writer” (even though, yes, Chuck D’s version of Christmas almost pushed out the Christian Christmas – with values of charity, family and snow dominating most festive households), here’s a sample from the book that’s all Dickensian, like. Through the book I’ve pinpointed the 12 dates of Christmas becoming more like our current Christmas, so…
…On our ninth date of Christmas… (London, 19 December 1843)
As Mr Dickens steps into the London street, he can almost feel the snow beneath him – except this year he’ll have to imagine it. Sadly the weather has not played snowball with his wintry novella; London’s Christmas 1843 is the tenth mildest December on record. Still, the seven-degree day means that the streets are busier, and more are out seeking his book on its day of release. Perhaps as they read they’ll hark back to white Christmases of yesteryear – after last year’s even warmer winter, those wintry days may be behind us for good. Thankfully for us, Charles’ first eight Christmases were white ones, so for him and his generation, that’s what a Christmas should be, even if they’ve become rarer as he’s grown older.
The writer cannot help but smile as he hears a boy advertise his wares: that he has stock of Mr Dickens’ latest work, A Christmas Carol. He’s well-known but his star has been fading a little – perhaps he spent a little too long touring America. The written works too may not have quite delivered as promised. The recent Martin Chuzzlewit left Dickens and his publisher out of pocket after sales failed to match the success of Oliver Twist.
So Dickens is self-publishing this new book, hoping that a cut of the profits will prove wiser than taking a lump sum. Those printing costs have been high though, so this book needs to sell well to turn a profit. The look of this edition appeals to Charles, ever the perfectionist: the red cloth cover and golden pages reflect the colours of Christmas – far better than the ghastly olive endpapers originally printed. It was only finalised two days ago.
Many are parting with their five shillings for a copy. Profiteering aside, Charles’ travelling has given him a new perspective on his career – more cultural commentator than writer-for-pleasure – and this is the first major publication since adopting this new role. He has campaigned against slavery in the United States, and following trips to Cornish tin mines and impoverished industrial Manchester, he has been determined to make a difference. In particular, Charles wishes to provoke his middle- and upper-class readers into action by highlighting the social injustices under their noses. After a faltering start turned this passion into a political pamphlet, Dickens has instead opted for a Christmas ghost story, a genre with “twenty thousand times the force… [of] my first idea”.
Christmas is a family occasion for Charles, and he’s looking forward to the two official days off next week with his four young children, wife Kate, and Kate’s sister Georgina who lives with them to support the house. What better time to commune with the family than Christmas, when the children can enjoy a parlour game or be baffled by his latest magic trick? One of Charles’ sons will later write that he adored this “really jovial time… my father was always at his best, a splendid host, bright and jolly as a boy and throwing his heart and soul into everything that was going on… And then the dance! There was no stopping him!”
He passes house after house, where later carollers will doubtless be reviving their tradition of singing for money. Charles smirks: he has a carol of his own. His novella is fully titled A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost-Story of Christmas. He’s no composer or lyricist, but was keen to add his voice to the carol renaissance of late, and he’s even written “staves” (or stanzas) instead of chapters.
The tale of Ebenezer Scrooge’s transformation from miser to philanthropist is a deliberate morality lesson of warmth amid snow, of hot turkey and family cheer. There are glimpses of a middle-class Christmas with party games like Snap Dragon and Blind Man’s Buff, as well as a barely struggling working-class dinner with a roast goose and Christmas pudding. There’s even mention of a mulled wine called “Smoking Bishop”, made from port, red wine, citrus fruit, sugar, and spice. Dickens enjoyed a glass or bowl of Bishop at the upper-middle-class Christmases of his youth, even as a child; after all, alcoholic punch is a safer bet than drinking water.
The book features nostalgic trips to past Christmases – essential in this fast-moving world of railways and factories – as well as a timely reminder to be truly present at our family festivities. There are, of course, ghosts; perhaps the Christmas ghost story will become a trend. Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Present is based on the Roman god Saturn, figurehead of their Saturnalia festival.
Dickens is fond of pacing these streets. While creating this story, he walked “fifteen or twenty miles many a night when all sober folks had gone to bed”. He wrote obsessively, starting just two months ago, and while writing, “I wept and laughed, and wept again.” Six weeks later the book was complete, with the last pages finished in early December. Already he is mulling discussions for New Year stage adaptations – several different productions will crop up within the month, with his backing or not.
Charles is recognised by one well-wisher out delivering an envelope via the new “Penny Post” system, established just three years ago. Perhaps one day Charles’ books may be delivered by similar means – though surely not for a penny. Dickens wonders if that envelope contains one of the brand new Christmas cards, on sale just a few streets away in Sir Henry Cole’s art shop. Time will tell if the enterprising experiment works. By Christmas, Sir Henry will sell 1,000 at a shilling each, while today alone, A Christmas Carol will sell six times as many for five times the price. Selling out in a day, more books will be printed to keep up with Christmas demand.
For now, Charles enjoys his walk through London. Next week he will take his young family through these streets to the toy shop in Holborn, for their annual custom of choosing one present each. Hopefully the book will sell well – Kate has a fifth child on the way. If he were visited by a Ghost of Christmas Future, he could be told that within a few years they’ll have ten children.
As for the book, its influence will be immediate. Within a few months, The Gentleman’s Magazine will attribute a boom in charitable giving to A Christmas Carol. One American factory-owner reads it on Christmas Eve and closes his factory the next day, instead giving a turkey to each employee. Vanity Fair author William Makepeace Thackeray says of the book: “A Scotch philosopher, who nationally does not keep Christmas Day, on reading the book, sent out for a turkey, and asked two friends to dinner – and that is a fact.”
I adore A Christmas Carol. I know it’s early in the season, but plan to read that between now and Christmas. Oh, and plan to read this.