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Jonathan Yardley on 'The Man Who Invented Christmas'

Dickens was facing financial ruin when he imagined Ebenezer Scrooge.

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By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, November 30, 2008; Page BW15

THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS

How Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits

This Story

By Les Standiford

Crown. 241 pp. $19.95

In October 1843 Charles Dickens's "once unequaled popularity was at a nadir, his critical reputation in a shambles, his bank account overdrawn," Les Standiford writes. His first five books -- Sketches by Boz, The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby and The Old Curiosity Shop -- had made him "perhaps the world's first true celebrity of the popular arts" and "far and away his country's best-selling author, acclaimed as much for his themes -- the misery of the poor and the presumption and posturing of the rich -- as for his spellbinding powers as a storyteller." Yet as he sat on a stage in Manchester, preparing to give a speech to raise funds for the local Athenaeum, "the industrial capital's primary beacon of arts and enlightenment," he was deeply worried about "how rapidly -- and how unaccountably -- his good fortune had fled."

Those first five brilliant successes had been followed by three disappointments. The first was Barnaby Rudge, an ill-advised attempt at a historical novel, which sold respectably but considerably less well than its predecessors. The second was American Notes, the result of a trip he had made to the United States, one that was meant to increase his American readership and gain publicity in England. But the book was poorly received by British reviewers and readers, and the novel he was publishing in serial in 1843, Martin Chuzzlewit, was doing no better. He needed something to reverse his slide but seems to have had no idea what it might be. He was only 31 years old, but he had a large family to feed as well as other pressing financial obligations, and he feared that he was sliding toward oblivion.

However improbably, he found what he was looking for that October night in Manchester. After delivering his remarks, he walked the city's streets, thinking about his career. He "began to take stock of himself in a way that any accomplished and acclaimed writer would find extremely difficult, much less the most famous writer of his time." As he subsequently told his close friend, advisor and future biographer John Forster, perhaps he had begun to take his public for granted. He needed to return to plain storytelling, "without browbeating or scolding, or mounting a soapbox," as had been his tendency of late:

"And so, as he walked the streets that night, a new story began to form. His nightly walks continued, even after his return from Manchester to London, his mind still whirling . . . until bit by bit his tale took shape, and, as his friend Forster put it, with 'a strange mastery it seized him.' He wept over it, laughed, and then wept again, as bits and pieces swam up before him, including the vision of two children named Ignorance and Want, those 'wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable' creatures who would, with Tiny Tim and Bob Cratchit and Scrooge and Marley and all the rest, stamp themselves on Dickens's imagination, and that of the world, forever."

Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in a fever; it took him only six weeks to complete the 30,000-word manuscript. "I was so closely occupied with my little Carol (the idea of which had just occurred to me)," he told a friend, "that I never left home before the owls went out; and led quite a solitary life." It was the shortest book he had written -- the others were issued in multiple serials and then published as three-volume books known as "triple deckers" -- and the biggest financial gamble of his life. His publisher, Chapman and Hall, expressed little enthusiasm for the book, so Dickens decided to have the firm bring it out "for publication on his own account." All the risk would be his own: "He would be responsible for the costs of the book's production, which would be deducted from its sales. He would also oversee the book's design, hire its illustrator, and consult on its advertising. In essence, his publishers -- which would receive a fixed commission tied to sales -- had become merely his printer. In contemporary terms, then, A Christmas Carol was to be an exercise in vanity publishing."

The book has for so long been a central part of the Christmas season, and even more central to popular images of the Victorian British Christmas, that it is useful to be reminded by Standiford of one important thing: In 1843 Christmas was not even remotely similar to what it became and what we know now. Dickens himself "had always been greatly enamored of the holiday," but to the public at large it was a minor blip on the calendar:

"There were no Christmas cards in 1843 England, no Christmas trees at royal residences or White Houses, no Christmas turkeys, no department-store Santa or his million clones, no outpouring of 'Yuletide greetings,' no weeklong cessation of business affairs through the New Year, no orgy of gift-giving, no ubiquitous public display of nativity scenes (or court fights regarding them), no holiday lighting extravaganzas, and no plethora of midnight services celebrating the birth of a savior. In fact, despite all of Dickens's enthusiasms, the holiday was a relatively minor affair that ranked far below Easter, causing little more stir than Memorial Day or St. George's Day does today. In the eyes of the relatively enlightened Anglican Church, moreover, the entire enterprise of celebrating Christmas smacked vaguely of paganism, and were there Puritans still around, acknowledging the holiday might have landed one in the stocks."

Totally -- and correctly -- contradicting the title of The Man Who Invented Christmas, which probably is the invention of someone in his publisher's marketing department, Standiford says that "no individual can claim credit for the creation of Christmas, of course -- except, perhaps, the figure that the day is named for." No, Dickens did not "invent" Christmas. But he "played a major role in transforming a celebration dating back to pre-Christian times, revitalizing forgotten customs and introducing new ones that now define the holiday," including the turkey as the centerpiece of the day's feast. He gave us "a secular counterpoint to the story of the Nativity," and "complemented the glorification of the nativity of Christ with a specific set of practices derived from Christ's example: charity and compassion in the form of educational opportunity, humane working conditions, and a decent life for all. Just as vital as the celebration of the birth of a holy savior into a human family was the glorification and defense of the family unit itself."

Financial reward from A Christmas Carol came more slowly to Dickens than he had hoped -- Chapman and Hall, in the grand tradition of publishing, seems to have cooked the books against him -- but popular success was immediate and immensely gratifying, taking the book into its third printing before the end of 1843. Writing about himself in the third person, Dickens told a friend: "By every post, all manner of strangers write all manner of letters to him about their homes and hearths, and how this same Carol is read aloud there and kept on a very little shelf by itself. Indeed it is the greatest success as I am told, that this ruffian and rascal has ever achieved."

In the United States pirated editions of the book were quickly issued, including one from the ostensibly reputable Harper and Brothers, which infuriated Dickens, a passionate advocate of international copyright. A bogus edition appeared in England as well, but there he won his legal case against the offending opportunist. There also were dozens of unauthorized stage adaptations, but by and large he was less concerned about them. The practice was widespread, and the dramatizations provided free publicity for the book. In the 20th century "at least twenty-eight film adaptations" have been made, "the very best" having been released in 1951, starring Alastair Sim as Scrooge. And the beat goes on:

"According to a count made in the late 1980s, at least 225 live stagings, films, radio dramas, and television plays based on Dickens's 'little Carol' had been produced after 1950, and that number does not take into account the untold number of amateur and regional productions staged every year. Not only has A Christmas Carol become the most 'adapted' of all the author's works, but it would be hard to name any other work of fiction that has thereby become so ubiquitous a part of Western popular culture."

Standiford's account of A Christmas Carol relies almost entirely on secondary sources and probably will be dismissed by Dickensians as adding nothing new to our understanding of the writer, but it is a nice addition to the literature of Christmas. A small addition, to be sure, but then so was A Christmas Carol. ยท

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com.


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