By Jeff Westover
Life and times were hard in London of 1824.
For one boy in particular, the second of seven children, life was especially difficult. At the age of twelve, his father was tossed into a debtor’s prison, leaving an already poor family utterly destitute. The entire family moved into the prison with the boy’s father. And the boy set out to work — twelve hours a day, as was common for child laborers in London in the early 19th century — in a shoe polish factory.
He was not poorly treated there. Fortunate that was for him, for such was common of child laborers too. But he experienced enduring shame over his family’s condition. Their poverty, their shabby dwelling and his mother’s insistence that he continue working through his youth built such resentment that it hardened his heart even still as an old man late in life.
No, this is not the history of one Ebeneezer Scrooge. This is the beginning of the story of the man who invented Scrooge — and who may have been more like Scrooge than most ever really knew.
~ Prelude to A Christmas Carol ~
Charles Dickens was born in Portsmouth, England on February 7, 1812. His father, supporting such a large family, had difficulty avoiding debt and his challenges shaped the impressions of young Charles. His early life was one of drudgery and despair. He was made to scrape and struggle at a young age to provide.
In 1827, at the age of 15, he worked professionally as a solicitor’s clerk. During his tenure there he learned shorthand and, being bright, became a reporter. His talents grew to include drawing. By 1833 he worked to submit stories and sketches to newspapers under the pen name “Boz”. By 1837 Sketches by Boz and The Pickwick Papers made him famous and financially stable.
From there he delved into works of fiction that have long since become classics. His stories were ripe with tales of the harsh treatment of the poor and the woes of ignorance. Through words and art, he told the story of 19th century English poverty and the realities of child labor as such as he endured.
~ A Christmas Carol ~
In the fall of 1844 Dickens took up a project that consumed him. Fresh off a tour of London’s Ragged Schools, Dickens felt he had found the inspiration to wholly address the issues of Want and Ignorance among the poor. These schools were privately funded charitable organizations who took in the poorest of London’s poor children. And it was a visit that both disturbed and moved Charles Dickens.
In just six short weeks that brisk autumn, Charles brooded over a story with a Christmas setting. A ghost story that had him alternately weeping and laughing as he turned the tale over and over in his head while walking the dark streets of the city late at night. He worked during this inspired time both night and day.
The story contained elements drawn from his own angst known in poverty. The home of Bob Cratchit was inspired by his own boyhood home. His own brother was known as “Tiny Fred” and the character of Cratchit’s beloved son Tiny Tim has some basis in the real life handicapped nephew of Charles Dickens. The central character of Scrooge gained many of his worst characteristics from Dickens himself, who was known to be miserly and obsessed with the creation of wealth.
Dickens was so sure of the success of the story that he insisted on illustrations and a quality binding for the first edition. The first run of 6,000 copies was released on December 19, 1843 — and sold out in only five days.
By Spring of 1844, the book was enjoying it’s sixth edition. Letters came from all sides to Dickens, claiming the book was almost as important as the Bible in the family home. Many wrote to say it was kept in a special place, and read aloud as entertainment for their families.
By 1853, Dickens himself was performing readings of A Christmas Carol. Reportedly, his renditions of the tale were particularly well presented and known for their dramatic flare. Dickens had re-edited his own personal copy of the book, adding emphasis and deleting redundant detail for the sake of performance. He was able to deliver the reading in just two hours.
For a time, his life was anchored by readings of A Christmas Carol. While many times he drew huge crowds for the benefit of charities, he made a respectable living as a reader of his own works. By 1865, he was reading A Christmas Carol in the United States. By then his fame and that of the tale preceded him. The two dollar tickets drew lines of more than half a mile on the night before opening and were later scalped on the streets of Boston for an unheard of sum of twenty-six dollars the next day.
He toured to Washington, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. In New York, more than 5,000 turned out to purchase tickets on a bitterly cold evening.
By the Spring of 1870, Dickens grew weak from performing. It was widely noted at the time that the exhausting effort he put into the readings of the story caused him to collapse backstage during intermissions, doctors waiting on him to check his vital signs and tend to his needs. On March 15th of that year he had a particularly difficult time and he returned for a final round of applause to tearfully announce to the audience that they had witnessed his final performance.
Within three months, Dickens was dead. He was buried in Westminster Abbey next to George Frideric Handel — another name made famous by Christmas. (He was the composer of Messiah).
~ The Revival of Christmas ~
The profound effect of this one work on Dicken’s own life cannot be denied. Neither should it be minimized for the effect A Christmas Carol had upon the entire world. At the time of Dicken’s birth, Christmas was not a roundly celebrated holiday. Certainly it was nothing as we know it today.
In fact, Christmas in London of the 1820s might not have even been a day off for most working folks. Christmas was still derided by a puritanical generation who claimed it had roots in pagan rituals. While the crossover to mainstream observance had taken place as churches invoked the name of Christ upon the pagan festivals of winter, open societal acceptance of the same was slow in coming.
Until Dickens released his book.
The images conjured up in A Christmas Carol were as endearing to the generations who loved the story then as they do now. References to the Christmas tree, the merry dress of the Ghost of Christmas Present, of families engaged in frivolous holiday games and the gathering around the table for the Christmas feast were all inspired by what Charles Dickens wrote and by how he himself approached the holiday of Christmas.
A son of Charles Dickens once said: “Christmas was a great time, a really jovial time, and my father was always at his best, a splendid host, bright and jolly as a boy and throwing his heart and soul into everything that was going on…. And then the dance! There was no stopping him!”
Indeed, as Scrooge’s redeeming transformation warms the hearts of readers everywhere, one cannot help but wonder if his story isn’t more closely aligned with that of his inventor. Charles Dickens seemed to relish in Christmas. And so do we with each passing season as his work is celebrated on screen and in print — even now, some 160 plus years since it was first published.