1843 was not a good year for Charles Dickens. He had published two books Barnaby Rudge and Martin Chuzzlewit Both had very low sales. All of his work, up to that time had done very well on both sides of the Atlantic. The Pickwick papers, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby and The Old Curiosity Shop, had all been received with great fervor.
The Old Curiosity Shop, for example had sold over 100,000 copies. This may sound like a small number by today’s standards, but when you consider that literacy numbers of the 1800s, Dickens was selling to about a quarter of the reading public. Then there were the copies that were lent out so the total number of readers may have been much higher. The Old Curiosity Shop was so popular on both sides of the Atlantic, that when the main character, Little Nell, fell ill in one installment, there were people waiting on the docks in New York for the next installment and yelling to the sailors asking if Little Nell had lived.
It is important to note here how novels were published in the 1800s. Instead of the whole book being published at one time, novels were published by the chapter in magazines. After the book had ended, the whole book would then be published in a three volume set. If a book starts slow and then gains readership as it goes, the publisher makes money. If the book starts slow and numbers bought stayed to a minimum, this indeed, was a problem. And this was the problem Charles Dickens faced at the end of 1843.
Dickens, like many of us today, liked to spend beyond his means. He owed 3000 pounds to his publisher and with the last two books having done badly, the publisher was ready to drop Dickens salary in order to repay the debt. If the publisher decided they wanted payment in full Dickens would be bankrupt. Dickens was at his wits end. He believed his genius had left him and he would not write well again, but a miracle was about to take place.
Dickens was to speak in Manchester in April of that year. He was there to help raise funds for a theater which was very important for Manchester. The city was one of the worst in England, some even calling it the Gateway to hell. Educational levels were low and many were poor. The Athenaeum, the theater, was the cultural center of the city and the only place that both the working man and the upper class could get a small amount of art and beauty that is important to all people.
Dickens topic that night was on the need for more education and to help relieve the distress of the poor. His talk did very well and the Athenaeum was saved. The lecture Dickens gave though would begin to wake something up in his mind. He began to think of Ignorance and want and slowly a story began to take shape in his head and A Christmas Carol was conceived.
The author came home very excited and began to write in earnest. His children, friends and household staff could hear him both weeping and laughing as he wrote and he would take long walks at night to think more about the project. It took a total of 6 weeks for A Christmas Carol to be written and Dickens was very pleased with the outcome, however his publishers were not, and they were leery about publishing the work. Dickens believed so much in the book that he decided to publish it himself.
A Christmas Carol, he decided, would be printed, not in installment form, but in a single volume which he designed himself. The cover was red, the title embossed in gold and the illustrations, which were created by John Leech, were to be in color. He made the price affordable and released the book on December 17, 1843. It took at exactly four days for the book to sell out.
Dickens was ecstatic. He gave parties for Christmas and New Years to celebrate his success. All the reviews that came in were glowing. He felt more himself again and back on track with his career.
Dickens hoped to bring in 1000 pounds in profits from his book, and the book came close to that at 992 pounds. However, Dickens did not calculate the expense of publishing the book on his own and his total profit from the initial printing was a meager 137 pounds. That however was not the end of the story. The book would continue to sell throughout the year of 1844 and in the end sold 15,000 copies with a total profit of 792 pounds, and would continue to sell to this very day with new editions coming out almost yearly.
Charles Dickens was a new man. His genius had returned and his best work would come after A Christmas Carol. David Copperfield, Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities were soon to make Dickens the most popular author of his time.
The story of A Christmas Carol is known to most. Scrooge the miserly old man, whose heart is filled with anger, is visited by three spirits who, in showing him his past, his present and his possible future, change him into a generous and loving human being. The story would impact society in many positive ways. One industrialist upon reading the book immediately went out and bought all of his employees a turkeys, as Scrooge did for his Clerk, a practice that some employers still use today. A factory owner proclaimed, after his reading of the novel, that his shop would be forever closed on Christmas day.
Acts of Charity began to abound during the Holiday Season as people began to, as Dickens wrote, “ open their shut up hearts freely and to think of people below them as really fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race creatures bound on other journeys.”
Dickens would go on to write 4 other Christmas books and in 1874 Robert Louis Stevenson, the author of Treasure Island, would say of all of them, “I feel so good after them and would do anything, yes, and shall do anything to make it a little better for people.”
But that was not the only impact that A Christmas Carol would have. In writing A Christmas Carol Dickens would give the public a revisionist’s view of Christmas. In other words he wrote how he would like to see Christmas celebrated and not as it actually was celebrated.
Christmas had gone out of favor in both England and The United States. While Cromwell reigned in England Christmas was banned, and in America, when the puritans landed at Plymouth Rock, Christmas was outlawed and a person could be fined for celebrating the day in anyway. Though these laws were repealed, Christmas was never celebrated as it had been previously.
Dickens family, though, enjoyed the celebration of Christmas. The games they played and the food they enjoyed were all part of Dickens Carol. Dickens, by himself, basically began the Christmas holiday as we know it today. In England, for example, the goose was the traditional meal for Christmas. But with Scrooge giving his poor clerk Bob Crachitt a turkey for the holiday, the sales of geese went down and the sales of turkeys went up, so much so that the turkey supply in England ran out.
There is also no knowing how many productions in total of A Christmas Carol have been presented on stage, on television or in movies. One estimated number from 1950 to 1980 is about 255 and that is only professional productions and not those done in churches and schools. This would have pleased Dickens as he loved writing and performing in amateur theatricals.
A Christmas Carol is a book, but also so much more. It has the power of changing our hearts and also in changing our world and has done so. Even the name Scrooge is more than just a name as it has come to be the very essence of what it means to be a miser or a nasty person in general especially around the holidays.
A Christmas Carol has affected all of society and will probably do so for many years, if not centuries to come. As Dickens ended his novel so I will end this article, “And it was always said of Scrooge that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed that knowledge. May that be said of us, and all of us! And as Tiny Tim observed “God bless us everyone!”