I saw Dickens in Kilkenny. He put on a magical performance of ‘A Christmas Carol’, playing all the parts. He excelled as that miserable, mean-spirited creature we know as Ebenezer Scrooge, who was the unlikely hero in one of the world’s best loved Christmas books. What is even more unbelievable is that the book was born out of desperation.
The year was 1843 and Charles Dickens had already written a string of best sellers including ‘Oliver Twist’ and ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’. Each one was a winner with the public who, in their droves, rushed to newspaper stands to grasp the latest instalment of his current story. Dickens was on a winning streak. The sales of his books had given him and his family the opportunity to live well. On the strength of all this success he self-financed a speaking tour in the United States. This was when things started to go horribly wrong.
The tour of America cost much more than he had estimated, the sales of his most recent book, ‘Martin Chuzzlewit’, had slumped and Dickens’ wife had expensive tastes. To put it bluntly, his finances were in tatters, he already had four children and his wife was pregnant again. Life at that moment was not looking good for the Dickens family.
Here was the man who had provided the world with the some of the most memorable characters in fiction. His books had been serialised in a variety of newspapers and Dickens ensured that each chapter ended on a cliff-hanger. You could say that he paved the way for today’s serialisation of soap operas on radio and television.
But now he had reached a low point. His popularity was waning. The crowds who eagerly awaited the next instalment of his latest story were dwindling and he was desperate.
He needed to write something good and sell it quickly.
We must remember that Dickens was living at a time when Christmas was not quite celebrated like it is now. Many factories still remained open on Christmas Day. As far as some employers were concerned it was a working day just like any other. Charles Dickens had already written heart-rending stories about the poor and destitute of London.
Now he put all his talents into creating a Christmas story which would show that goodness and kindness could still win out over despair and misery.
From October to November 1843, over a six week period, he put the story together. He wrapped the story around the miserable creature known as Scrooge. When he had it finished he knew he had a winner, but his publisher would not touch it. Money had already been lost on the sale of his last book and so this slim volume didn’t stand a chance. At least that was what the publisher thought.
So Dickens had no choice but to publish it himself. He scraped together what money he could and managed to pay the renowned illustrator John Leech to provide the drawings for the book. Leech had already created drawings for Dickens’ previous novels. This was indeed a do-or-die effort. Apart from his few remaining pounds, shillings and pence he had nothing left to lose. So instead of producing a shoddy version of the book, he decided that this was going to be an all or nothing affair. So he arranged for the most lavish production possible, with the best binding, gilt edged pages and illustrations which were hand coloured. No money was spared. On this last ditch effort his literary career, his finances and his wife’s lavish lifestyle would either sink or swim.
Dickens set the sale price of the book as low and as affordable as possible. Despite the fact that the book sold reasonably well in the first few weeks after publication, profits were small. But the sales continued to increase and Dickens’ reputation was thankfully saved.
He had a firm hold on the literary world again and he also created the pattern for celebrating Christmas festivities. Dickens practically invented the Christmas we know today. And John Leech, who created the wonderful drawings in the book, laid the template for the decorations and tinsels and glittering lights we see all around us at this time of year.
If Charles Dickens’ fortunes had not taken the nose dive that nearly destroyed him, we would have been the all the poorer for that. There would have been no need for him to desperately create what ultimately became a best-seller. ‘A Christmas Carol’ would never have been written. That old rascal Ebenezer Scrooge, who learned that goodness is what matters, would not have become a changed man.
And I would never have had the opportunity to see Gerald Dickens, the great-great grandson of Charles, bring Ebenezer Scrooge back to life on a stage in Kilkenny.