A Christmas Carol is one of my absolute favorite books. I think everyone needs to read it. This weekend, I watched the film “The Man Who Invented Christmas” about Charles Dickens as he wrote A Christmas Carol.
As a writer, I loved its portrayal of him dealing with the interruptions of life as he wrote with a looming deadline. As an independent publisher, I could identify with his stress of paying to publish it by himself. Yes, even the great Charles Dickens couldn’t convince his publishers that a book was sellable. They had no doubt that it was a good book, just that there wasn’t a market for it. And, make no mistake, over 150 years later, publishers are still in the business of selling books. If you’re ever rejected by a publisher it probably does not mean your book is bad as much as they don’t have a ready market for it.
For Dickens, the lack of a market was a real thing. He wanted to write a Christmas book but it was an unfashionable holiday. He wanted to add ghosts to it but the Ghost of Christmas Present was jolly and happy. The perception at the time was of spooky or even evil ghosts. In the film, the illustrator flat out says he can’t draw what he can’t understand.
Another thing from the film I loved was showing how the characters showed themselves to the author.
And golly, I could relate to Dickens problems with getting the characters to do what he wanted!
I especially loved how he carried the characters around with him and now and then they would remind him that he hadn’t finished the book. Some of them were downright hostile to him. They brought up all his fears and insecurities. They dredged up his past. Of course, Dickens eventually conquers his demons and his characters. He completes the book, just in time, and the beloved classic we know is born.
However, this post isn’t about the film or Dickens. It’s about the history of A Christmas Carol. The book was published in 1843. It is a novella, which should bust any myth which says only a novel can be satisfying, critically acclaimed, or poignant. Dickens wrote the piece in six weeks. He had to pay for the publishing. Even though it has a publisher’s name on it, he essentially self-published.
The book released on December 19 and the first run of six thousand copies sold out on Christmas Eve. It was reprinted two more times before the new year. In 1844 it was printed eleven more times. It was priced at 5 shillings, which Wikipedia says would be 23 pounds in 2018 money. It was not a cheap read! Since its publication, the book has never been out of print and has been translated into several languages. It is Dickens’ most popular work in the United States and sold over two million copies in the first hundred years since its publication. I did not find a more recent computation but I would guess it would be close to three million copies sold by now.
Despite its success and the genius of the work, Dickens made only 230 pounds on the book and not the one thousand he expected from the first edition. This was due to the high publishing costs. He had very specific ideas about the illustrations, the pages the book was printed on, and the binding. In his life, Dickens was left disappointed with the book and never considered it a favorite.
The film about the process is aptly titled, because the book did change the public’s feelings about Christmas. Through Mr. Scrooge’s memories, we see how the holiday had been celebrated in his youth, seemingly forty or fifty years previously. If you aren’t good at math, that would in the early 1800ss, or about a decade before Jane Austen was publishing her works. Consider how little of an event Christmas is in her books compared the post-Dickens era. By Dickens’ day, very few celebrated it with traveling to family the way we see the Gardiners and the John Dashwoods do. Scrooge is mean and miserly and Christmas barely occurs to him at all, but Dickens wanted the readers to see themselves in the old man. He was showing that there was a bit of Scrooge in most people. The readers responded in kind. Throughout the Victorian era (Victoria inherited the crown in 1837), Christmas grew as a popular holiday and many of the traditions we celebrate today began during her reign.
I’ve always loved A Christmas Carol. However, since seeing the film, The Man Who Invented Christmas, and learning about the book’s publication history, I appreciate it all the more. Did you know any of these facts about A Christmas Carol?