What a joy to hear Lucinda Hawksley speak about her great-great-great-grandfather so close to Christmas. This year marks the 175th anniversary of ‘A Christmas Carol’, one of the most famous novellas of all time. And yet, at the time it was published, Dickens’ star was on the wane and Christmas itself under attack by both church and public for becoming too commercialised. ‘A Christmas Carol’ provided a renaissance for both the author and the festive season.
According to Hawskley – a most engaging speaker who has just published a book on this very subject – to understand Dickens’ reasons for writing ‘A Christmas Carol’ we need to consider key events in Dickens’ childhood which shaped both his writing and the course of his life. Elements of his childhood were very happy: his parents, John and Elizabeth, were a true love match and theirs was a contented home. But John Dickens, a navy clerk, was hopeless with money and, having moved his family from Kent to Camden Town, managed to land himself in Marshalsea Debtors Prison.
Dickens would be haunted by his memories of this time for the remainder of his life. Aged just 11, he was removed from his Kent boarding school and sent to work at Warren’s Blacking Factory on the Strand, a “rat-infested and dirty” place in which Dickens toiled six days a week. This new source of income, however, was not sufficient to support his mother and siblings who, in due course, followed John Dickens into Marshalsea – with the exception of Charles and his older sister, Fanny, a promising student at the Royal Academy of Music.
Eventually, John Dickens paid off his debts, the family left Marshalsea and Dickens returned to school: this time in Hampstead. He loathed this new establishment, due to its “cruel” headmaster, although he enjoyed a strong camaraderie with his fellow students. But Dickens never forgot his experiences in Camden Town – and it’s no coincidence that the Cratchits’ fictional home is based there.
Hawksley described to us in glorious detail the Dickens family’s first debt-free Christmas. It was a time of huge celebration and became the first in a series of renowned Christmas parties, all based around music (one such festive shindig was even cancelled due to a missing piano).
Dickens’ subsequent marriage to Catherine Hogarth and swift rise to fame as an author have been well-documented and in 1842 the couple spent six months touring America and Canada. However, by 1843, things were changing. Dickens had experienced a couple of flops, in response publishing a travelogue, ‘American Notes’. This went down like a lead balloon with the British public, unused to such travel musings and wanting another blockbuster novel. ‘Martin Chuzzlewit’, published in instalments like its predecessors, was equally badly-received.
In the meantime, Britain was in the grip of an economic crisis, with Ireland suffering from the Potato Famine. Already shocked at the British government’s inability to respond and by his visit to the tin mines in Cornwall, in October 1843 Dickens travelled to Manchester, which had been further demoralised by the Industrial Revolution. Horrified by the poverty all around him, Dickens delivered an impassioned speech at the Manchester Athenaeum which made the headlines of every single British newspaper.
Back in London and further shaken by his visits to the capital’s Ragged Schools, where he’d seen young children embroiled in crime, including prostitution, Dickens decided to act. ‘A Christmas Carol’ was written within six weeks, the character of Tiny Tim based on Dickens’ disabled nephew, Henry Burnett – Fanny’s oldest child.
It seems preposterous now that Dickens had to pay himself for the hand-tinted illustrations by John Leech and that his publishers refused to support any publicity for the book, but this was the plight in which an “overdrawn and terrified” Dickens found himself. On 19th December 1843, 6,000 copies of ‘A Christmas Carol’ were published, each an individual work of art and costing the not-inconsiderable sum of five shillings. Dickens’ plea for social equality was aimed firmly at the rich.
By Christmas Eve, all copies had been sold; ‘A Christmas Carol’ was on its third print run by the New Year. By 1844, the first of numerous theatrical productions was underway.
So famous has ‘A Christmas Carol’ become that we forget that Dickens wrote four other Christmas stories, each more popular than the previous one. The last of these, ‘The Haunted Man’, was published in 1848, following which Dickens began writing Christmas-themed short stories.
Successful again, Dickens’ personal life, however, was in turmoil. He and Catherine had endured an excruciating separation (initiated by Dickens) which the author was desperate to keep secret from his adoring public – in particular, his affair with the actress Ellen Ternan. Hawksley believes that these woes caused Dickens to have a nervous breakdown.
He and Ellen remained together, and Dickens’ rift with his children eventually healed, but his personal unhappiness continued. When Dickens visited America for a second time, in November 1867, he was advised not to take Ellen with him, even though he and Catherine had now been separated for ten years. In failing health, and missing his lover and his children desperately, Dickens experienced an unhappy six-month-long tour.
There was one bright note. Dickens’ reading of ‘A Christmas Carol’ in Boston on Christmas Eve so moved one member of the audience, a Chicago-based factory owner, that he returned home determined to improve conditions for his own workers – henceforth giving them time off at Christmas and a turkey each.
For Dickens, Christmas Day 1867 was a miserable affair, spent on a train travelling between cities. He was, though, slightly cheered by the ministrations of Annie Fields, his publisher’s wife, who decorated his hotel room with Christmas decorations and cooked him a traditional Christmas meal.
Lucinda Hawksley believes ‘A Christmas Carol’ to be Charles Dickens’ “protest song” and argues, with justification, that the novella has stood the test of time. For the author, however, it became something of a poisoned chalice: forever synonymous with Christmas, and under constant pressure from a demanding public, Dickens found himself caught up in an endless cycle of writing and touring. Following his return from America he would live for just three more years, his health crumbling away as he endured a series of strokes and the ongoing torment of keeping his relationship with Ellen secret. Charles Dickens died, aged just 58, in June 1870.