March 18, 2018

Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

When Charles Dickens read an 1843 parliamentary report on the realities of child labour in the factories of Victorian England, he wrote to one of the commissioners. His plan, he informed the commissioner, was to publish a pamphlet entitled, "An Appeal to the People of England, on behalf of the Poor Man's Child." A few days later he wrote the commissioner again to say that he had other plans: "I am not at liberty to explain them any further, just now; but rest assured that when you know them, and see what I do, and where, and how, you will certainly feel that a Sledge hammer has come down with twenty times the force -- twenty thousand times the force -- I could exert by following out my first idea."

Dickens's "sledge hammer" blow for the poor turned out to be A Christmas Carol, written in a six-week rush and published at his own expense, on December 17th, 1843. It was one of many public and private efforts by Dickens to bring about social reform: prison visits, charity drives, promotion of the so-called "Ragged Schools" for the poor, cash for a fired worker, or a child's education. His disgust with the blinkered conceit of the privileged classes was genuine and lifelong. In this letter he rails at the "sleek, slobbering, bow-paunched, over-fed, apoplectic, snorting cattle" with whom he was forced to eat a charity dinner; in that, he predicts dire consequences for their "stupendous ignorance of what is passing out of doors."

Some in the upper classes were like-minded; some went as far as they dared to mock Dickens and the "cult of benevolence" with which they associated him. They dubbed him "Mr. Popular Sentiment," and scoffed at the naive politics of his novels, calling them the "gospel of geniality.'

Still, they bought his gilt-edged, hand-illustrated Christmas Book. The initial, 6000 copies of A Christmas Carol sold out the first day, and Dickens had high hopes that his blow for the poor might also do something for his own poverty. He was bitterly disappointed: high production costs ate up most of his expected profit, and then legal fees to contest a pirated edition of the book left him in debt.

Picture of the first edition cover of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens; British Literature / English Literature
It was not as literature but as theatre that the Carol would eventually bring Dickens new fame and much wealth. Dickens loved the theatre, and to perform: his children tell of watching him test the dialogue of his novels aloud in front of the mirror, and of the room in their house that he had converted to a theatre for the staging of family plays. Many of the poor people he was trying to reach could not afford the book; some could not read. When he hit upon the idea of doing a charity reading of the Carol, a decade after its initial publication, Dickens might have wondered what had taken him so long.

At his charity readings, Dickens would often direct that cheaper seats be set aside for the poor. He viewed the readings as his gift to the working classes, and his message to their employers. What he wanted, he said, was "a little fireside chat for four thousand," an embodiment of his cross-class, Christmas ideal of "conviviality" and good will. When he found at a reading in Bradford that chairs had been set up on stage for the mayor and local dignitaries, he insisted on their removal; when Queen Victoria asked for a private reading at Buckingham Palace, he refused. They required, he politely explained to Her Highness, "a mixed audience."

Dickens toured his one-man show in and out of season, across England and America, for fifteen years. His performances became polished, professional, and very lucrative, but newspaper reviews and private letters abound with descriptions of how moving they were. Dickens wrote that each time he read the line, "...and to Tiny Tim who did NOT die..." and the hall erupted in "a most prodigious shout and role of thunder," he was also near tears.

His last reading of A Christmas Carol was three months before he died. A huge crowd had filled St. James Hall, and another stood in the street just to see him enter. He was ill and weak, but the usual red geranium was in the evening coat. The audience applauded before, during and after; with his final bow, he said that he hoped to keep writing, "...but from these garish lights I vanish now for evermore, with a heartfelt, grateful, respectful, and affectionate farewell." And this time, wrote his son, he did cry -- to "a storm of cheering as I have never seen equalled in my life."

There is no doubt that Dickens could be sentimental; nor that he loved the spotlight; nor that, once in it, his greatest passion was to share it with those whom he felt had been unjustly consigned to shadow.

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