One last Dickensian post in this Yule blog.
I know I’m a Christmas obsessive, but I’m in great danger of becoming a Dickens obsessive too.
But he gave us so many Christmassy things! The new film picks up on one nickname in the later years of his life – ‘The Man Who Invented Christmas’ – and though much of that is right place/right time stuff (industrialisation, new middle class, aspiration, London as the world’s biggest and most influential city at the time…), he did one heck of a lot for the Christmas season. And it’s pretty much entirely contained in that one little novella, that you could (if you had mind to) read in one sitting. A Christmas Carol.
Yes you’re more likely to watch the Muppets’ version this year, but here are a dozen reasons why Dickens’ original is even better than you thought (and you probably thought it was quite good).
- Dickens wrote it to make a difference. After glimpsing America’s slave trade, the conditions of Cornish tin mines and the poverty of industrial Manchester, Charles decided to write a political pamphlet to enact change and encourage generosity amongst his well-to-do readers. Dickens canned that idea in favour of a Christmas ghost story, a genre that he noted had “twenty thousand times the force… [of] my first idea”.
- It put family at the heart of Christmas. …helping re-focus the season on children and family. Children’s carols, like ‘Once in Royal David’s City’, appeared in the years that followed. For Dickens’ part, he’d started painting the picture of the cosy family Christmas in his first book, The Pickwick Papers, which included a description of a perfect Christmas at Dingley Dell. Dickens adored Christmas. One of Charles’ sons wrote that “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!”
- It gave us the White Christmas. Charles’ first eight Christmases were white ones, born as he was at the end of the Little Ice Age. The Thames froze the year before and two years after his birth – the last time the tidal section would do so, giving London its last great Frost Fair, held on the river. England suffered some of its snowiest weather for 300 years. The world climate was so bleak in 1816 that it was known as “The Year Without a Summer” or rather macabrely, “Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death”. The sunless summer forced a gaggle of writers to accept Lord Byron’s challenge to write a ghostly tale instead of enjoying European sun: Mary Shelley emerged with Frankenstein; John William Polidori wrote the first vampire story. As for Dickens, when he grew up he recalled the white Christmases of his youth, and wrote it into his festive tale, published in the tenth mildest December on record… but readers his age remembered the snowy Christmases of their youth too, and nostalgia gave us the white Christmas.
- It gave us mulled wine. Alright, mulled wine was already ‘out there’. But by including one his favourites, ‘Smoking Bishop’ (made from port, red wine, citrus fruit, sugar and spice), Dickens ensured its future. As a child, Dickens enjoyed a glass or bowl of this concoction – yes it was alcoholic, but probably safer than drinking water.
- It gave us Humbug. You knew that. Bah! It also popularised ‘Merry Christmas’ as a greeting (see previous blog)… though its first reference in the book has Scrooge respond: “Every idiot who goes about with a ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart.” Humbug to that…
- Dickens self-published, in a fit of desperation. His previous book Martin Chuzzlewit, had bombed. The writer and the publisher had lost money on it. So this time, Dickens gambled on a cut of the profits being wiser than taking a lump sum. But printing costs were high, so it needed to sell well to turn a profit. No problem there – it was reprinted within a couple of weeks. Ever the perfectionist, Charles even binned the first edition with its ghastly olive endpapers, instead requesting a red cloth cover and golden pages to reflect the colours of Christmas.
- He wrote it in just six weeks. When I wrote my Christmas book Hark! The Biography of Christmas (that all these blog posts are based on), I spent eighteen months on and off, receiving strange looks in the library and in coffee shops, reading Christmas books in March, April and May. No such problem for Charles Dickens. He wrote his Christmas book entirely in November and December. Once he had the idea, it was a rush to get it out for Christmas, and it was only finalised two days before publication the week before Christmas. While creating this story, Charles walked “fifteen or twenty miles many a night when all sober folks had gone to bed”. He wrote obsessively, and while writing, “I wept and laughed, and wept again.”
- The book changed Christmas, utterly. Although Dickens was certainly a Christian (he wrote The Life of Our Lord for his children, and Tolstoy called him “that great Christian writer”), his book helped shift attention from the Nativity to charity and family. Today those who say that we shouldn’t forget “the true meaning of Christmas” often seem to mean the Dickensian Christmas: the importance of family, or the joy of giving. That said, at his time of writing, there wasn’t much attention at Christmas on the Nativity either – people were just as likely to be drunk in the streets as in church at Christmas. Some things never change…
- The book changed people. This was one of the few books to notably improve the behaviour of those who read it. One American factory-owner read it on Christmas Eve and closed his factory the next day, instead giving a turkey to each employee. Whether inspired by the book or not, four years after A Christmas Carol Queen Victoria ensured extra funds for Christmas dinners at workhouses across the country. Robert Louis Stevenson read it and commented: “I want to go out and comfort someone; I shall never listen to the nonsense they tell one about not giving money – I shall give money; not that I haven’t done so always, but I shall do it with a high hand now.”
- The book was published the same week as the first Christmas card. Just down the road too, in Sir Henry Cole’s art shop. That week, Sir Henry sold a thousand cards at a shilling each. On that day alone, A Christmas Carol sold six times as many for five times the price.
- The book made Dickens’ fortune… not by writing it – but by performing it. While plays and musicals based on the book appeared within a few weeks of publication, Dickens took a few years to bring it to the stage himself. When he did, he was pretty much the first writer to give public readings. Performing the tale and embodying the characters made him millions in today’s money. His first reading came from this book – and his last. On March 15th 1870, he gave his final performance, ending with the words: “From these garish lights, I vanish now for evermore, with a heartfelt, grateful, respectful, and affectionate farewell.” He died three months later, aged 58. Almost as he was giving his final few performances, Thomas Edison and his fellow brainboxes were working on the first sound recording devices – so tragically, we all missed out on hearing Dickens’ own recording by just a few years.
- There has been over a century of film adaptations. Ah what I’d give to hear Dickens read it himself… We’ll have to make do with Jim Carrey, Alasdair Sim and Gonzo instead. The first screen adaptation came in 1901 – and with a new film out about the making of the book this very Christmas, we can’t seem to get enough of Scrooge and co. Altogether: “Marley was dead, to begin with…”