God bless us, every one! It's the holiday season, and 179 years ago this month -- on December 19, 1843 -- Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol, creating the classic story of Christmas redemption, helping to set a Victorian-era template for the holiday that lives on today, and establishing countless now-unavoidable tropes of the season, from the miser named Scrooge to the importance of generosity and compassion to even phrases like "bah humbug" and that blessing to all of us.
Dickens had long before become a highly successful writer. In 1836, he'd begun publishing a series of humorous short stories, first called Sketches by Boz and later The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club. His popularity grew as the stories progressed: For the first installment, 400 copies were printed; for the 15th, 40,000. In 1837, they were collected as a book, and Dickens became a best-selling author. He followed that triumph with two more: Oliver Twist, published in 1838, and Nicholas Nickleby, published in 1839.
But in 1843, Dickens was in a financial bind. His expenses were increasing -- he and his wife, Catherine Hogarth, were expecting their fifth child (ultimately, there would be nine) -- and his latest serialized novel, The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit, had been a commercial disappointment. He knew a successful Christmas story could be the windfall he needed.
The idea that eventually became A Christmas Carol didn't start out as that uplifting Christmas story. Rather, Dickens, whose work often included social commentary, had read a government report the spring of 1843 on child labor in a rapidly industrializing England. In his own childhood, his father had been sent to a debtors' prison and young Charles had been forced to work in a factory. In this new report, composed from interviews with the child workers, Dickens learned of girls who spent 16 hours a day sewing dresses and boys who spent 11 hours a day carrying coal through basements. As home-based manufacturing gave way to massive, urban factories, Dickens saw the working class -- and especially children -- turning into mere cogs in the industrial process. He planned to write a crusading pamphlet, to be titled "An Appeal to the People of England on Behalf of the Poor Man's Child."
In October of 1843, he traveled to Manchester, an industrial city in England's north, to give a talk on the importance of education for poor children. He was joined on stage by the politicians Richard Cobden and Benjamin Disraeli, who would later serve as prime minister. And that trip inspired him to shine a light on the plight of England's poor, not with an enraged essay but instead with a short novel.
Dickens still understood the business of publishing. His Christmas book needed to be ready in time for Christmas, and so he wrote A Christmas Carol in only six weeks. It was published a week before Christmas, and its initial run of 6,000 copies sold out immediately. He wanted the book -- formally titled A Christmas Carol, in Prose: Being a Ghost Story of Christmas -- to land a "sledge hammer" blow, standing up for the new working class, rejecting the new, mechanized view of work, and arguing that employers are responsible for the well-being of their workers. In that, he succeeded.
But he didn't have the financial success he'd sought. While the book sold well, the lush presentation he insisted upon, with rich red bindings, color illustrations, and gold-edged pages, cut into profits. And the subsequent Christmas books he wrote never gained such great stature.
But A Christmas Carol did. By the next year, there had been 13 printings. In 1853, Dickens started doing public readings. By 1870, he'd done so 127 times. Today, it's been made into movies and TV shows, plays and operas. And after almost 180 years, it has never gone out of print.
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