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I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach. Oh, tell me I may sponge away the writing on this stone!”
— A Christmas Carol, 1843
A Ghost Story About Publishing
By the time he wrote A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens was desperate for a publishing success.
His first serialized novels, which included Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby, had been critical and commercial hits. Yet, several duds followed: Barnaby Rudge, American Notes, and Martin Chuzzlewit. He’d become Bob Cratchit faced with the equivalent of Ebenezer Scrooge:
The door of Scrooge’s counting-house was open that he might keep his eye upon his clerk, who in a dismal little cell beyond, a sort of tank, was copying letters. Scrooge had a very small fire, but the clerk’s fire was so very much smaller that it looked like one coal.”
In the fall of 1843, Dickens was 31 years old and in debt. His wife Catherine was pregnant with their fifth child. His publisher, Chapman & Hall, had lost so much confidence in its one-time star performer that Dickens felt he had no choice but to publish A Christmas Carol on his own.
He covered the costs of illustration, production, and publicity, eking out a finished product within six weeks. Chapman & Hall agreed to print the novella in exchange for a percentage of sales, but A Christmas Carol was essentially a “vanity publishing” project, as at least one recent author has called it. Today, the irony is lost on no one, from critics to Hollywood directors to kids who can hear Tiny Tim chirping “God bless Us, Every One!” on their iPods.
Perhaps because Dickens had his own money on the line with A Christmas Carol—and was highly motivated to avoid a repeat of his father’s stay in debtor’s prison—he leaned hard on the melodramatic storytelling and colorful characters that first made him popular.
The first edition appeared on bookshop shelves on December 19, 1843, and sold out by Christmas Eve. By the end of 1843, Carol was already in its third printing.
But Dickens had miscalculated the costs of publishing it, especially with the expensive hand-colored illustrations in the first edition. (Chapman & Hall may well have fudged his accounts; the publisher took control when the book became a runaway success.) Instead of hitting his hoped-for £1,000 profit to cover his debts, Dickens netted only £137.
As quoted in the 2008 book The Man Who Invented Christmas, Dickens reported how unhappy he was that Carol’s initial “great success should occasion me such intolerable anxiety and disappointment.” You could say his Marley’s Ghost was flipping a warning at all publishing Scrooges, past and present:
‘Business!’ cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. ‘Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business…. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!’”
By the following year, Dickens had sold 15,000 copies and cleared £726 in sales. (MeasuringWorth.com estimates that, by today’s standards, £726 = $90,000.) Still, it wasn’t until much later—when Dickens published many other successful novels the traditional way and could fill auditoriums for readings—that his gamble paid off.
While many of his appearances were done for charity, he received honoraria for others. His 100-plus public readings were so lucrative that when Dickens died in 1870, they comprised more than half his estate.
From the first, copycats couldn’t resist the temptation to plagiarize or pirate A Christmas Carol. In 1844, Dickens went to court over the most egregious example, A Christmas Ghost Story by one Henry Hewitt. (It retained the same characters and setting.) The publishers of A Christmas Ghost Story, Lee & Haddock, cheekily argued that Hewitt’s version improved on Dickens’s work and that Dickens should be grateful his “defects and inconsistencies” had been cleaned up.
The judge who heard the motion in the Court of Chancery ruled in Dickens’s favor, but it was a Pyrrhic victory: Not only did he have to pay his own litigation costs but also those of the defendant after Lee & Haddock claimed bankruptcy. (The only benefit to Dickens was indirect: the Court of Chancery figures prominently in his greatest novel, Bleak House.)
Dickens wrote other Christmas-themed stories: The Chimes (1844), The Cricket on the Hearth (1845), The Battle of Life (1846), and The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain (1848). While even harsh critics like William Thackeray had responded positively to A Christmas Carol, they lambasted his subsequent holiday tales. These works were commercial successes, but by 1849, Dickens had decided that the best way to connect with his readers around Christmas was to give public readings of Carol.
In The Man Who Invented Christmas, author Les Standiford details how much “my little Carol,” in Dickens’s words, inspired the secular Christmas traditions we know today. Standiford writes: “[Dickens] 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.”
A Christmas Carol isn’t the only reason we decorate trees and bake cookies and give lots of gifts, but as Dickens wrote in his 1843 preface:
I HAVE endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly….”
— by Wendy Glaas and Martha Nichols
- A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas by Charles Dickens, with illustrations by John Leech, originally published by the author and Chapman & Hall, 1843.
- The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits by Les Standiford (Crown, 2008).
- “Jonathan Yardley on ‘The Man Who Invented Christmas’” by Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post, November 30, 2008.
- “The Man Who Invented Christmas” by Marjorie Kehe, Christian Science Monitor, December 23, 2008.
- “Charles Dickens’s 1844 Copyright Suit” by Kate Sutherland, law.art.culture: an Osgoode blog, Osgoode Hall Law School-York University, February 6, 2011.
- “Charles Dickens Bibliography,” Golden Books Group.
- Charles Dickens Online: The Works and Life of Charles Dickens.