This Christmas season at the New York Public Library a number of Charles Dickens’ personal items will be on display, including his writing desk, his personal copy of “A Christmas Carol,” and his favorite letter opener! What’s the big deal about his letter opener? Well, he cut off a paw from his deceased pet cat, had it stuffed, and then attached it to the blade to serve as a custom handle. Kinda creepy, if you ask me. The librarians say it still sheds too!
Charles John Huffam Dickens (7 February 1812 – 9 June 1870) was an English writer and social critic. He created some of the world’s most well-known fictional characters and is generally regarded as the greatest novelist of the Victorian period. During his life, his works enjoyed unprecedented popularity, and by the twentieth century he was widely seen as a literary genius by critics and scholars. His novels and short stories continue to be widely popular.
Born in Portsmouth, England, Dickens was forced to leave school to work in a factory when his father was thrown into debtors’ prison. Although he had little formal education, his early impoverishment drove him to succeed. Over his career he edited a weekly journal for 20 years, wrote 15 novels, five novellas and hundreds of short stories and non-fiction articles, lectured and performed extensively, was an indefatigable letter writer, and campaigned vigorously for children’s rights, education, and other social reforms.
I need money!
Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” is a holiday favorite enjoyed around the world. He started writing his novella in September 1843, and in six short weeks he completed it! His publisher wasn’t eager to publish it due to poor profits on his previous novel. So, Dickens declined a small lump-sum payment, personally assumed the cost of publishing, and agreed to a percentage share of the profits in hopes of making more money. And, yes, the production costs proved much more than he had expected.
It hit the stores on December 19th, 1843, and was priced at five shillings (approximately $25 today). Surprisingly, the first run of 6,000 copies sold out by Christmas Eve, six days later! The book continued to sell well into the new year. However, Dickens was disappointed with the early profits. He was expecting more because he needed more – his wife was pregnant! By May 1844, a seventh edition had sold out; all in all, 24 editions ran in its original form. In time, Dickens got the money he was hoping for, critics loved and praised his rushed Christmas tale, and he and his wife eventually had ten children!
Punch Bowl Conversion!
After Dickens’ death, Scottish novelist Margaret Oliphant deplored the turkey and plum pudding aspects of the book. However, she admitted that in the days of its first publication it was regarded as “a new gospel” because it actually made people behave better!
However, there were a few critics who didn’t like it, namely the stuffy, Victorian Puritans. They waged a war on Christmas celebrations, campaigning against all merry-making and festive decorations, except for nativity scenes. And Scrooge’s “conversion experience” was especially troubling. He had been converted by spirits! Ghosts!
Decades later, G. K. Chesterton, a famed conservative Christian apologist, remarked: “It is true that the man at the Salvation Army meeting would probably be converted from the punch bowl; whereas Scrooge was converted to it!” And even more decades later, the famed evangelical author C. S. Lewis noted a marked absence “of any interest in the Incarnation. Mary, the Magi, and the Angels are replaced by ’spirits’ of his [Dickens] own invention, and the animals present are not the ox and the ass in the stable but the goose and the turkey in the poulterer’s shop.”
What do I think? I respect both men’s incredible literary works, but seriously… don’t be such a scrooge!
To this day, Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” has enjoyed continued success, not just in print, but in theatre and film too. And, his fictional “Scrooge” character has inspired many lovable pop culture characters, namely Scrooge McDuck and the Grinch. Also notable, Frank Capra’s Christmas favorite film, “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946), was based on Dickens’ storyline and characters.
All in all, Dickens’ unforgettable tale, with its lovable characters and Christmas spirits, has served to convert masses of people in every generation to a greater love and generosity, not just at Christmas-time, but all the year long. Wouldn’t you agree?