Christmas wasn’t always the best of times. Thankfully it underwent a joyful revival during the mid-1800s. Charles Dickens spread A Christmas Carol spirit as one of the leading yuletide trendsetters, . His novella was an instant success. A born entertainer, he later performed his story 127 times in Europe and America. Tickets were in such high demand he became the Victorian equivalent of a pop star swarmed by fans. He might not have single-handedly saved Christmas, but he definitely restored its heartbeat.
A Christmas Carol recounts the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, a heartless miser. In the night, he’s visited by the ghost of his former business partner Jacob Marley and the spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come.
Through Scrooge’s eyes, audiences glimpse the misery of poverty–and hopefully catch a glimpse of themselves in Scrooge. Terrified by his visions, Scrooge becomes a kinder, more generous person. Dickens leaves us with belief in the possibility of redemption.
Clearly, the message of A Christmas Carol spirit tapped universal truths. The world has always been cold, dark and inhumane for the poor. Charles Dickens was personally aware of this, having come from a family that once fell on hard times. Throughout his life he did much to help the poor, particularly children.
Dickens started writing his novella in October of 1843. It was published six weeks later on December 19. Six thousand copies hit the market and by Christmas Eve, the first edition sold out. The story was adapted for multiple stage productions shortly after. The book has been in print ever since.
Following are Five Tidbits to share over a cup of eggnog with family, friends and the Scrooges in your life.
He was already a highly successful writer by the time he wrote his most popular novella. Even so, he was under financial pressures. His wife was pregnant with their fifth child. His most recent book was not the financial success he needed. And at 31, he feared his career was already fading.
Dickens saw a social trend afoot in Britain. Christmas was undergoing a revival toward fun and festivities. Remembering the Christmas Carol Spirit from his childhood, he tapped into the mid-Victorian zeitgeist. He had already written four successful short stories about Christmas. The time was ripe for more.
In addition to his personal needs, Dickens was on a social mission. In his book, The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits, Les Standiford writes that Dickens felt an urgent need to shed light on the enormous gap between the rich and poor. After a visit to the grim industrial town of Manchester and a government report on the abuse of child laborers in mines and factories he vowed to write a pamphlet to reveal the dreadful conditions of the working poor.
Instead, he wrote about a selfish, uncaring, successful businessman who was transformed by the Christmas Carol spirit. The story ushered in festive foods, decorations, carols and gifts. It also inspired people to make donations to the poor.
Many yuletide traditions rooted in ancient celebrations had been lost in 17th century England. When the Puritans rebelled against King Charles I it became a somber time for piety and reflection. The day meant business as usual for most people. Shops stayed open. Laborers worked as they did on every other day. That included children.
Several American colonies followed suit. Some effectively outlawed Christmas celebrations. Massachusetts Bay Colony even fined people caught in the act of joyous celebration.
Queen Victoria did much to transform the Christmas holiday. In 1848, the Royal Family was seen gathered around a decorated Christmas tree in an engraving published in the Illustrated London News.
Prince Albert was born in Germany where evergreen trees were traditionally brought into the home and decorated with toys, candles, sweets and fruits. Presents were placed under the tree at Christmas instead of the New Year. Albert brought his love of the custom to their marriage and to England.
From childhood Dickens loved the stage. Through the 1840s and 1850s he performed in amateur shows. If he had not attained early success as a writer he probably would have continued with a career on the stage.
With the great success of A Christmas Carol, he started a series of public readings of his works. Initially, he performed for charity to an audience of approximately 2,000.
In 1858 he began performing for profit. Authors were known to give lectures and read their work in public venues. But no one had gone to his level. Through the 1860s he toured throughout Britain, making more money than he did from his books. But he always ensured that low-priced seats were available for the working-class.
He went on a highly lucrative reading tour in America from December to April of 1867.
The performances initially included A Christmas Carol, The Chimes, and Cricket on the Hearth. He later incorporated scenes from his other popular books, often tailoring the selection to his audience. He sometimes improvised during performances.
He tweaked his narrative with ongoing performances. In the margins of his reading copies he wrote copious directions to himself. Over time he shortened stage time by tightening text and cutting sections. Three-hour performances ultimately were edited to ninety minutes.
He didn’t use props or costumes. Instead he populated the stage with changes in voice for each character, facial expressions and gestures. Author and personal friend Thomas Carlyle said Dickens was like an entire theater company living under one hat.
As the tours expanded Dickens brought up to six people on the road. Among them were his manager, valet and few others who did accounting, and odd jobs. They also managed his props. Among them were a personalized reading desk with a read reading stand, a deep red curtain backdrop, carpet and gas lights for dramatic effect. Screens were situated behind him to project his voice.
The New York Public Library’s Berg Collection holds the largest surviving number of Dickens’s original prompt copies. It holds readings from these manuscripts during the holiday season. According to Kenneth Benson:
Each prompt-copy–more working manuscript than crib–served as a canvas for Dickens’s brilliance as both editor and performer, the pages heavily marked up with carefully worked-out cues and stage directions, which he would eventually have memorized to perfection, as indeed he would individual readings in their entirety. There are as well numerous cuts, revisions, comments, editorial symbols, and transitional or “bridge” passages inserted in manuscript, reflecting the continuous “sculpting” of the readings as Dickens polished and tightened them so that each would achieve its maximum effect in performance.
Neil Gaiman reads from Charles Dickens’s prompt copy via nypl.org.
His tour schedules were grueling with performances generally sold-out. In New York, scalpers took full advantage of his Christmas Carol Spirit. Frenzied crowds of fans mobbed him everywhere he went, in Europe and America. Most critics were kind, even if Mark Twain was not impressed. People were even known to swoon during his performances.
After a performance on the evening of December 2, 1867, A Boston paper printed a typical review:
“Mr. Charles Dickens opened his peculiar entertainment in Tremont Temple … before as large an audience as could be comfortably crowded into that hall, in which all the poets, philosophers, sages and historians of this city and vicinity were mingled like plums in a Christmas pudding … The entertainment is unlike anything we have ever seen in this country. It is rather a dramatic recitation than a reading, references to the book being very infrequent, and all the parts being recited with appropriate voice and action … The audience last evening were in the best of spirits from the start … and the first mention of well-known characters–especially Pickwick, Sergeant Buzfuz, and inimitable Sam Weller–was received with tempests of applause…”
According to the New York Public Library:
So successful were the first New York readings that it was announced that a second course of tickets would go on sale at Steinway Hall at 9 a.m., on December 11. However, as Harper’s reported, “the throng of purchasers began to assemble at ten o’clock on the night before, and at least 150 persons waited in the line or queue all night. When the sale began not less than five hundred persons, including two women, were in the line.”
Like so many beloved performers, the toll of his compulsive energy fin, ally took its toll on his health. He gave his last performance on March 15, 1870. He died on June 9 of that same year, at the age of 58.
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