A Stake of Holly Through His Heart: Charles Dickens's "A Christmas Carol"

175 years ago today, on December 19, 1843, Charles Dickens kinda-sorta-in-a-way-I-guess self-published "A Christmas Carol."

Charles Dickens, 1858.


So here's the deal.

Charles Dickens was an ardent advocate, but frequently suffered from The Borings.

After reading his friend's expose on the working conditions of children in the springtime of 1843. Therein, it was detailed that girls sewed for 16 hours a day and took shelter just above the factory floor, and young boys pushed coal carts through choked, lightless corridors for 12 or more hours. They suffered; they were ill. They often died.

Dickens himself had been forced to leave school and work in a bootblack factory at only 12 years old, after his father was thrown into the Marshalsea debtors' prison in London in 1824.

It was a nightmare he carried with him--and often incorporated into his writing--for the rest of his life.

Illustration of Charles Dickens at a child at the Warrens Blacking Factory. Published in "The Leisure Hour," 1904.


Dickens had also visited America in 1842--and he really, really hated it.

In fact, he only traveled to the Northern states, too enraged and appalled by slavery to dignify the South with even the thought of a visit.

But despite the nightmare of American manners, or lack there of, he took a great interest in industrial cities and working conditions of the poor; he even visited The Five Points. Yes, the "Gangs of New York" Five Points.

When Dickens got back, he wrote a series called "American Notes" about how awful America was--to Americans' great offense--and also a novel. This book bombed so badly, he ended up having to pay his publisher.

Dickens also famously visited and later wrote about the Field Lane Ragged School for children, which directly influenced another of his most famous novels: Oliver Twist.

But regarding Dickens' advocacy: what to do with this horrific child labor?

Not unlike arguments made today by certain parties, many argued that sure, it was awfully sad, but honestly, they were poor because they were lazy, and to help them would only encourage them to continue to be lazy; it was best to turn them away to prevent enabling their needy poverty. Or, you know, if you fed them, it would lead to an increased population of poor, malnourished malcontents.

So the solution was, sure, there was technically help to be found in the form of workhouses, but if you went there, you were separated from your family, made to live in squalor, and were barely fed.

Essentially, they created refuge, but refuge that was intentionally horrific in order to dissuade those same needy people from seeking it out.

Dickens wanted to write a pamphlet to enlighten the masses. But he realized that doing so would compel very few, and would make exactly no one want to listen to him.

Instead, he decided, he needed a narrative, and a character made of spite and redemption, to be his vessel.

Charles Dickens, 1858.


Dickens then received an invitation to speak at a benefit for the Manchester Athaeneum on October 5, 1843. The Athaeneum was an organization that sought to educate and bring culture to the working class which otherwise would not have the opportunity... kind of a 19th-century TED Talk.

Dickens then began formulating this narrative: a parable, written specifically to coincide with the redemptive powers of Christmas.

And in just six weeks, he'd written "A Christmas Carol."

Handwritten title page.


Tiny Tim was originally "Little Fred" and then "Tiny Mick."

Dickens had two younger brothers named Fred (Frederick and Alfred, ok?) but they were not the inspiration for Tim, although the name Fred stuck with the novel in character of Scrooge's nephew.

It seems that Tiny Tim was based on Dickens' own nephew, Henry Burnett, Jr., the ailing little boy of Dickens' sister, Fanny. Henry had "tuberculosis of the bone" or renal tubular acidosis. He died in 1849, just shy of 10 years old and only a year after his own mother, Fanny.

A sketch of Charles Dickens in 1842, with a small portrait of his sister Fanny in the lower left corner.


It's been speculated that the character of Tiny Tim did have RTA, or rickets, given that he uses a crutch and leg braces, and that his health rebounds due to Scrooge's loving intervention and belief in good health being found in one's diet. This is most likely because certain foods, such as citrus, would have aided in RTA, whereas medicinal approaches of the time would have exacerbated the symptoms.

As for Scrooge, a lot of theorizing's been done about the character who even today personifies the reformative potential of the human spirit.

"Marley's Ghost" by John Leech as published in "A Christmas Carol," 1843. Courtesy of the British Library.


From the character being based on Dickens's polarizing feelings about his own daddy, to Scottish mealman Ebenezer Scroggie, speculation abounds.

It's hardly necessary speculation, though. Dickens eventually wrote in his letters that his inspiration was the notorious English eccentric and penny-pincher John Elwes, a politician who died in 1789 and was known for every ridiculous and miserly trick pre-Eve Scrooge pulls.

And more.

John Elwes, 1700s.


Seriously. Dude was insane.

Anyway. Dickens's publisher, Chapman & Hall, gave him hell over the whole thing; do recall that his last effort had been a bust.

Dickens finally came to an agreement with them that he would pay for production, which he would be reimbursed for via the profits if "A Christmas Carol" sold well, a fact of which he had no doubt.

So Chapman & Hall bungled the book by producing it with supremely ugly olive-colored endpapers, which Dickens hated.

They updated to yellow endpapers, but those didn't suit the title page, which subsequently had to be reworked.

The Frontispiece of "A Christmas Carol," 1843.


The final product was bound in red with gilt edges, and cost a handsome 5 shillings.

I've read that's equivalent to £23/$29 today--pretty expensive for such a small book, at least by modern standards.

In total, six thousand copies were finished only two days before the release. And they immediately sold the hell out.

Chapman & Hall released two more editions prior to the new year and by the end of 1844, thirteen editions existed in total.

Charles Dickens has often been credited as the Inventor of Modern Christmas.

His novel appeared to turn the holiday into a one-day family feast, instead of the manorial Twelvetide of celebrations long past. Because those had been left behind in the wake of poverty and cruel industrialism.

But even with workhouses and child labor in the world and Twelvetide an ancient and unobtainabld memory, people could still have at least a single day of Christmas.

In fact, "A Christmas Carol" was a lauded as a "sledgehammer to the ills of Industrialism."

"Scrooge Extinguishes the First of the Three Spirits."


It was in Dickens' Christmas that the world discovered the warm and humble spirit of celebrating with the nuclear family, in one's own parlor.

Dickens turned Christmas from a jolly festival to an almost sanctified act of familial love. That, married with Dickens's depictions of new-fangled Christmas trees, as well as carolers and the sumptuous Christmas-Day turkey, was instrumental in the concept of the Christmas so dear (and Dickensian) to us today.

Christmas thusly became a holiday of togetherness and forgiveness.

In addition, the greeting "Merry Christmas" had been around for centuries, but Dickens is credited with its universal popularity due to its use in "A Christmas Carol."

An illustration of a reformed Scrooge and shocked Bob Cratchit, by John Leech, "A Christmas Caro," 1843.


Fun side story: On New Year's Eve, 1867, a 32-year-old writer sat in Steinway Hall in New York City.

He was fresh from a trip to the Holy Land, that he had by his own wit and charm gotten his employer, the Alta California newspaper in San Francisco, to bankroll.

And now, he was seeing in the New Year by listening to Charles Dickens read "A Christmas Carol" on his second book tour in America.

Illustration of people buying tickets for Dickens's reading at Steinway Hall in New York City, published in Harper's Weekly in December 1867. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.


Later, in his review, he wrote that Dickens was a poor reader--that he didn't anunciate or emphasize correctly, and that he was difficult to hear. But the latter may have been because the reviewer's seat was barely adequate, being midway up the rows.

"Charles Dickens as he appears when reading" at Steinway Hall in New York City, illustrated by Charles A. Barry published in Harper's Weekly in December 1867. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.


Which is funny, because The New York Times had just published the following review on December 10th.

"When he came to the introduction of characters and to dialogue, the reading changed to acting, and Mr. Dickens here showed a remarkable and peculiar power. Old Scrooge seemed present; every muscle of his face, and every tone of his harsh and domineering voice revealed his character."

Despite his opinions on Dickens' lackluster delivery, he was still in awe of the human-sized giant who stood on the stage before him, talking like a person does, in real time.

"But that queer old head took on a sort of beauty, bye and bye, and a fascinating interest, as I thought of the wonderful mechanism within it, the complex but exquisitely adjusted machinery that could create men and women, and put the breath of life into them and alter all their ways and actions, elevate them, degrade them, murder them, marry them, conduct them through good and evil, through joy and sorrow, on their long march from the cradle to the grave, and never lose its godship over them, never make a mistake! I almost imagined I could see the wheels and pulleys work. This was Dickens — Dickens. There was no question about that, and yet it was not right easy to realize it."

That was a big night for him. He was not only was he seeing Dickens--CHARLES DICKENS--reading his Christmas classic aloud on New Year's Eve. He was also on a first date with a pretty girl named Olivia, who would become his wife.

And it's even more astonishing when you find out that this awestruck, clever writer would become his own legend, the Americanest writerly counterpart to the Britishest Dickens.

Yes, that young writer in the audience was Mark Twain.

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