Being a Story of How Charles Dickens Plagiarized Himself, Got Out of Debt, and Created the Most Famous Christmas Story Outside the Gospel of Luke
Also an ego trip for yours truly, this being probably my alltime favorite of the blog posts I've written in the last three years. Originally posted at Fairweather on November 26, 2007, and again on December 6, 2008, it's getting yet another run here. And thank you for your indulgence.
In October 1843 Charles Dickens was in a bind. Married since 1836, he was already the father of four children and his wife was pregnant with a fifth. His latest novel, Martin Chuzzlewit--published in installments, as were his previous ones--was not doing well. Worse yet, he was in debt. As a twelve year old, Dickens had seen his father imprisoned for debt, one of the more charming conventions of European history. He was damned if he would expose his family to that shame and horror. He needed to write a "potboiler" to raise cash, and he needed to write it fast.
Sometime during that dreary October, he had an idea for a story of a miserly old bachelor whose whole character would change after visits from a series of ghosts associated with the Christmas season. Eventually he would call that old buzzard Ebenezer Scrooge, and the little book that told his story was given the name A Christmas Carol in Prose: Being, a Ghost Story of Christmas.
Dickens was, in fact, recycling material he had already covered. In his first great work, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club , he used the theme in a story within a story, told by Mr. Wardle of Dingley Dell. Later extracted from the main narrative of The Pickwick Papers and anthologized as "The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton," it treats of one Gabriel Grubb, a drunken curmudgeonly sexton who is spending Christmas Eve digging a grave instead of joining in the jollities of the season. He is dragged off by goblins, and changes in character after a series of visions shown him by the Goblin King convince him he lives in a wonderful world after all.
Dickens would enlarge upon that theme. He would replace the visions with actual visits from the ghost of Scrooge's dead business partner, Jacob Marley, and the spirits of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come. He threw in a grossly sentimental subplot (also used in passing in "The Goblins Who Stole a Sexton") about a sickly poor child--Tiny Tim Cratchit--of the sort Victorians adored and wept over. He wrote in a frenzy; he told a friend that he laughed and cried, cried and laughed, throughout the composition. And he delivered it to his publisher in less than six weeks, with very few if any rewrites.
Dickens distributed advance copies of his little "Ghost of an idea" on December 17, 1843; the original printing of six thousand copies sold out within three days of its official December 19 release date. It never looked back; it has never gone out of print. It has been done as a one act play, a musical, and in any number of movies, the earliest being a 1908 production by Thomas Edison. Ebenezer Scrooge even lent his name to a Bill Monroe instrumental on Monroe's 1981 Master of Bluegrass LP.
With A Christmas Carol, Dickens established the tradition of ghost stories being written, read and told at the Christmas season. Until his death in 1870, he produced a number of so-called Christmas annuals consisting of ghost stories written by himself and other Victorian writers. The tradition survived into the 20th century.
And by the way, he was able to pay off the debt that plagued him into writing A Christmas Carol, and was from then on well to do. He was able to leave both his wife, from whom he was formally separated in 1858, and his mistress, an actress whom he met in 1857, independently wealthy to the ends of their lives.
And as Tiny Tim observed, God bless us, every one.
6 years ago