Published 175 years ago this month, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was an instant bestseller, followed by countless print, stage and screen productions. Victorians called it “a new gospel,” and reading or watching it became really a sacred ritual for many, without which the Christmas season cannot materialize.
But where does this famous story come from?
In the fall of 1843 Charles Dickens was already a famous writer, despite being only 31 years old. He had published the stories “The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick and Oliver Twist”, both of which were published in chapters, with tens of thousands of copies each. The latest episode story, however, titled “Martin Chuzzlewit”, was not achieving the desired success, and even the publishers Chapman & Hall reduced the author’s salary of 50 pounds.
Dickens was also a busy family man, with a wife and four children to support and a fifth on the way. He had also completed a one-year trip to the United States, and expenses had accumulated over time, becoming almost unsustainable. In the fall of 1843 he then thought of a short story to revive his financial fortunes, a story that was completed at the beginning of December of that year and quickly sent to the press.
Dickens first conceived of his project as a pamphlet, which he planned on calling, “An Appeal to the People of England on behalf of the Poor Man’s Child.” But in less than a week of thinking about it, he decided instead to write a story, with a main character of pitiable depth.
All we know, that “A Christmas Carol” got a resounding success.
The 6,000 copies published by Chapman & Hall were sold out, and by December 24th there was no longer a book available in all of England! The 6,000 books are significant above all because this was a deluxe edition, with a red velvet cover and cardboard, with a price certainly not as the serialization of written fiction.
And you? Do you remember the story?
Ebenezer Scrooge is an old man with a stone heart. Immensely rich, he exploits his employee Bob Cratchit until his physical and psychological forces are exhausted, paying him a pittance. Bob has numerous children, which he can not provide because of the thin wages. In the picture, John Elwes, the miser who is believed to have inspired the figure of Ebenezer Scrooge, but stay tuned, this is another story:
During Christmas Eve, the old Scrooge is invited to dinner by his nephew, Fred, but he answers with a dry refusal. Two benefactors ask for a donation for the poor, but Scrooge of course hunts them badly.
In the evening, only in the solitude of his home, Scrooge receives a visit to the spirit of Jacob Marley, his business partner who died 7 years earlier. He reveals to him that he is stuck on the earth, forced to drag himself along with chains and coffers of gold, condemned to an eternity of suffering and loneliness. Marley cautions Scrooge about his behavior, and advises him to repent while he is still in time, announcing the visit of 3 spirits.
The first of these is the spirit of the past Christmas, which shows the elderly man how happy and carefree his youth were. Ebenezer travels in time to see moments of his happy relationship with his sister, Fanny, who embraces him and brings him home after having made him welcome by his father, and during a party organized by his old owner, Mr. Fezziwig, who he treats like a son. They also see his old girlfriend, Belle, who left him when he realized that he will never love her as much as he loves his money, and who now has a big and happy family with many children. Belle, at that moment, makes a sarcastic comment on the elderly Scrooge, who has not even gone to say goodbye to his life partner Jacob Marley. Scrooge does not resist remorse and extinguishes the ghost, candle of the past, awakening in his bed.
The ghost of the present Christmas is similar to a Santa Claus, and emanates happiness from all the pores. The spirit leads him to see the Christmas dinners of people close to the old Scrooge. The first family is that of poor Bob Cratchit, who is spending a happy, even if miserable, Christmas. Tiny Tim, cripple and a sick, is happy too, even if he does not receive the necessary care because of the need of the head of the family. The spirit explicitly tells Scrooge that Tim will die in a short time if he does not receive the necessary care, and when the old man is desperate, the ghost reminds him of the words he had addressed to the two benefactors who had asked him for money. “Decrease the surplus population.”
The two then visit several people who are spending Christmas immersed in affection, even if surrounded by poverty. They also visit their nephew, Fred, who still has an affectionate thought for his uncle, toasting his health with the guests.
The last scene takes place on a bell tower, in which the spirit collapses dying. He reveals two horrifying children, who represent the condemnations to which the poor are destined by the ruling class. Before the twelfth stroke of midnight, with the spirit almost dying, Scrooge asks if the two children have a place to take shelter, and they are the ones to answer them. One of the child turns into an adult who ends up being arrested and imprisoned, while the other ends up being a prostitute and is locked in an asylum, where she will rot for the rest of her life. Terrified, Scrooge assists in dissolving into the dust the spirits, and then finds himself in the middle of the fog, completely alone.
The spirit of the future Christmas is very high and skeletal, explicit metaphor of death. He does not speak and indicates only with his finger, made of bones. The old Scrooge see the Christmas of 1844, when a group of people laugh in front of an old, recently dead tyrant. Scrooge’s maid, Mrs. Dillber, along with other servants, share the goods that they managed to snatch from Ebenezer’s house, selling them to a junk dealer and laughing for the master’s death.
The scene then moves to the Cratchit house, where Bob and his wife let themselves go to a cry desperate for the death of little Tim, who died because of the lack of medicine that his father can not afford. The spirit then leads Ebenezer to the cemetery, where they find Fred watching his grave. He is not sorry for the death of his relative; on the contrary, he is modestly pleased because he knows that he will now inherit his money.
Scrooge faces his grave but opens up a chasm, in which falling he sees the flames of hell and the faces of the damned. Ebenezer asks for forgiveness from God and the spirit, sincerely repenting for his own behavior.
Christmas morning, 1843. Ebenezer Scrooge wakes up in his own bed, alive and well. Resentful of his behavior, he sends Cratchit a huge Christmas turkey, and goes to eat with his nephew Fred, with whom he spends a wonderful Christmas. Then he gives a large sum of money to the two men in search of benefactors and greets each passerby with affection. The following morning, he greets poor Bob Cratchit with the usual rigor, warning him not to show up late at the office. When he seems to be about to fire him, Scrooge smiles at 32 teeth, telling Cratchit that he wants to be a member. The story ends with Ebenezer and Bob, both happy for Tiny Tim, finally restored to treatment received.
Dickens set out to write his pamphlet-turned-book, having just read government report on child labor in the United Kingdom. The report took the form of a compilation of interviews with children compiled by a journalist friend of Dickens that detailed their crushing labors.
The situation of Victorian children/workers was dramatic. Dickens himself had been repeatedly shocked by the living conditions of younger workers, and which the author had already dealt with in Oliver Twist.
Dickens read the testimony of girls who sewed dresses for the expanding market of middle class consumers: they regularly worked 16 hours a day, six days a week. He read of 8-year-old children who dragged coal carts through tiny subterranean passages over a standard 11-hour workday.
This new, brutal reality of child labor was the result of revolutionary changes in British society.
To worsen the situation was added the “new poor law”, a law of 1834 that should have guaranteed the poorest and weakest but that was the picklock used by the ruling class to dispose of low-cost slave labor.
More and more, employers thought of their workers as tools as interchangeable, and workers were becoming like commodities: not individual humans, but mere resources.
Popular theories about how or whether to help the poor often made things worse. The first was the widespread sense that poor people tended to be so because they were lazy and immoral, and that helping them would only encourage their malingering. The workhouses were seen as the perfect solution, where families were split up, food was minimal and work painful. Those who are badly off, says the unreformed Scrooge, must go there.
In the workhouses of these modern slaves were being hosted entire families, with wages that were insufficient to hope to succeed, sooner or later, to change their situation for the better. The workhouses were basically slave shelters, forced to work for 16 hours and to reach the physical and mental limit. The parents of the children, forced by a reality of ignorance and misery at work in the factories, exploited as much as possible the children, hoping to survive in the least painful way possible.
In the labor houses, they ate three times a day a soup, an onion twice a week and a loaf of bread on Sundays.
Dickens had experienced poverty: when he was 12, he had been sent to work in a shoe polish factory by his parents. His father had ended up in Marshalsea prison for debts, and Charles had been employed as a slave in Camden Town, then in a distant suburb of London. Poor Charles, who until then had lived a happy childhood, felt oppressed and humiliated by the new social condition, catapulted into a reality that did not belong to him (and that does not belong to any child).
The story of the Cratchit family in “A Christmas Carol” is often interpreted as an autobiographical account of the family of John Dickens, a good but powerless father who can not support the more normal needs of his children.
In September 1843, Dickens visited Samuel Starey’s Field Land Ragged School, where were taught some lessons at the most disadvantaged children in London’s slums. Deeply disturbed by the London society, as greedy and insensitive as it was unjust, he expressed his idea of the state as “a wicked and negligent parent to the poorest,” as Michael Slater wrote in his biography of the author.
Dickens wrote “A Christmas Carol” in just six weeks, working from 9:00 am to 2:00 pm every day, making long walks of 24/32 kilometers as a brainstorming to think about new ideas. The manuscript was cast in black ink and a quill pen, without diagrams or drafts, but only with numerous corrections on the margins.
With the Christmas deadline looming, Dickens outlined his characters without long reflections, but expressing his feelings sincerely, thus realizing a truly autobiographical account. At the end of the writing, “A Christmas Carol” was 68 pages long, something that today would be called a long story, and sent it to the publisher on December 2, ready for reading and buying on December 19, 1843.
The book found an overflowing success, selling over 6,000 copies in just 5 days. Dickens was naturally happy with the reviews, and said: “the most prodigious success, the greatest, I believe, that has ever reached”. Unfortunately, the sales did not bring the money hoped for in the coffers of the author, and the cause was Dickens himself.
The author took every detail of the press into his own hands and insisted on an expensive and prestigious edition, with salmon-colored paper and finely decorated engravings. However, the book was a low selling price for the value of the printed object: only 5 Penny!
That is equivalent to 23 pounds in today, a price too modest for such a prestigious edition. Since this edition, despite the resounding success, Dickens got only 230 pounds, the equivalent of about 21 thousand pounds today, just over 23 thousand euros.
Throughout 1844 the book was reprinted in 11 other editions, some unauthorized with the printers pursued by the author, 733 pounds, a considerable sum but totally disregarding the expectations of its author. Dickens himself is sure: “What a marvelous thing, such a great success that causes me such anguish and disappointment so intolerable”.
Over the years the story has been published in editions composed of new Christmas fairy tales by the same Dickens, who earned his works thanks to theatrical performances and subsequent editions and collections.
Below the trailer of the 2009 movie by Walt Disney with Jim Carrey, entitled “A Christmas Carol”.