Commentary / World

There's more to Charles Dickens' festive fare than just 'A Christmas Carol'

by Justin Fox

Bloomberg

Charles Dickens wrote “A Christmas Carol” in 1843 in part because he was appalled at the living conditions of England’s urban poor, especially after a visit that September to a so-called Ragged School for London slum children. But he also wrote it because he needed money. His sixth novel, “Martin Chuzzlewit,” was not selling well, relatives were hitting him up for loans, and he was having trouble making the rent payments on the big London house he had moved his family into a few years earlier.

The book took Dickens only six weeks to finish, and the money flowed soon after. “A Christmas Carol in Prose: Being a Ghost Story of Christmas” was published Dec. 17, and its first print run of 6,000 copies had sold out by Christmas Eve. Within weeks there were eight different stage adaptations playing in London. Seven were unauthorized, though, and pirated editions of the book circulated widely as well. “A Christmas Carol” was a hit, and it enabled Dickens to pay his bills, but it wasn’t quite the cash cow it would be in an age of strictly enforced copyright laws.

So the next year, Dickens tried to recapture the magic with another Christmas novella, “The Chimes: A Goblin Story of Some Bells That Rang an Old Year Out and a New Year In.” In 1845 he wrote another, “The Cricket on the Hearth: A Fairy Tale of Home,” and in 1846 yet another, “The Battle of Life: A Love Story.” After a one-year break came 1848’s “The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain.”

As business propositions, the books were successes: Each appears to have sold as many or more copies in its first year as “A Christmas Carol.” Still, the critics at least began to tire of the things, with “The Haunted Man” inspiring this jibe:

“Let us now have a few more returns of Christmas, and Mr. Dickens will have destroyed his reputation as a tale-writer. We earnestly recommend him to quit the twenty-fifth of December, and take to the first of April.”

Dickens took the hint, and he got busy writing “David Copperfield.” The Christmas books stopped, although Dickens soon started a magazine, first called Household Words and then All the Year Round, that put out a special Christmas issue every year. He also found another way to capitalize on that “Christmas Carol” magic by giving dramatic readings of the book. The first few times he did this the proceeds went to charity, but starting in 1858 Dickens turned to readings as both an income stream and a creative outlet. His carefully rehearsed presentations of “A Christmas Carol,” the other Christmas books and passages from his longer novels became, writes actor/historian Simon Callow, “the great theatrical sensation of the day, both in Britain and in the United States of America.”

“A Christmas Carol” has remained a multimedia sensation, with readings, plays and even musical renditions staged every holiday season, and a pretty good movie on its origins, “The Man Who Invented Christmas,” was released last year. The other Christmas books, meanwhile, have faded as close to oblivion as the English-speaking world’s continuing Dickens obsession will allow. I had never heard of them until last January, when I stumbled upon an about-to-close exhibit on “Charles Dickens and the Spirit of Christmas” at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York. That exhibit, which included the original manuscripts of all five books, was the source of most of the information above. It also inspired me to read the four books that came out after “A Christmas Carol.”

The experience was not quite as rewarding as reading Dickens usually is. As University of Sussex English scholar Cedric Watts delicately puts it in the introduction to the Wordsworth Classics edition of the Christmas books, “The very unevenness of this collection makes it a testing ground for the appreciation of Dickens’s skills as a writer.” It certainly makes one appreciate the pace, clarity and balance of humor, pathos and dread in “A Christmas Carol.” That book crackles from its opening sentence of “Marley was dead, to begin with.” Its follow-up, “The Chimes,” has a first sentence that goes on for 83 words.

Three of the four successor books feature supernatural interventions and at least a dollop of social commentary, with the gentlemen and politicians who keep saying awful things about and to poor people in “The Chimes” arguably coming off even worse than Ebenezer Scrooge. None has nearly as much to do with Christmas as “A Christmas Carol,” with New Year’s the key holiday in “The Chimes” and “Cricket on the Hearth” and the Christmas dinner at the end of “The Haunted Man” feeling like something of an afterthought. My favorite was “The Battle of Life,” which lacks ghosts, social commentary and all but the faintest link to the holidays (or to battles, for that matter), but it does have appealing characters who are given space to develop, plus a plot twist that you can see coming from a mile away but remains just enough out of focus until the end that it still surprises and satisfies. It gets some of the worst reviews of the lot, though, so maybe you shouldn’t trust me on that.

Declan Kiely, who organized last year’s exhibit at the Morgan Library and is now director of special collections and exhibitions at the New York Public Library, likes “The Chimes” the best of the post-“Carol” books but on the whole doesn’t think the short-novel format really suited Dickens’s talents. Much better are the subsequent magazine stories, he said in an email, citing “The Signal-Man,” from the 1866 Christmas issue of All the Year Round. I had also come across an endorsement of Christmas 1867’s “No Thoroughfare,” co-authored with mystery-novel pioneer Wilkie Collins. So I read those two as well. (Do I have a great job, or what?)

“The Signal-Man” is a fine little ghost story (Kiely also recommends the BBC adaptation starring Denholm Elliott) but doesn’t even seem to take place in winter. “No Thoroughfare” is a crazy, wonderful, nearly book-length page-turner — a thriller, love story and mistaken-identity caper all in one. Collins and Dickens also wrote it as a play. It does feature a New Year’s dinner, but its denouement comes in springtime and there’s little of that seasonal Dickens feel.

That seasonal feel has something to do with holly and plum pudding and roasted goose and such, but it is also related to Dickens’ mining in the Christmas books of what he once called “a vein of glowing, hearty, generous, mirthful, beaming reference in everything to Home and Fireside.” And while that might come across as sappy at other times of the year, on a cold December evening it can feel just right. So at least be aware that, if “A Christmas Carol” isn’t enough for you, there is more along that general line available.

If you’re in New York, you should also be aware that the original manuscript of “A Christmas Carol,” which banker and collector John Pierpont Morgan Sr. acquired in the late 1800s, is on display at the Morgan Library as it is every holiday season, and that the New York Public Library has on display a sampling of Christmas-related Dickensiana, including the author’s reading-copies of “A Christmas Carol,” “The Cricket on the Hearth” and “The Chimes,” with his performance notes in the margins.

Justin Fox, a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business, was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”

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