The week Charles Dickens changed Christmas

    London, 14 December 1843


    The morning dawned full of promise for Charles John Dickens. At the ripe old age of 31, he was making his first foray into the frightening but potentially lucrative world of self-publishing. He was excited, even celebratory over his new work which today would finally be born and hopefully net him the princely sum of 1,000 pounds sterling.


    He hastened across the Strand, one of the busiest streets in London, on his way to the print shop of Edward Chapman and William Hall. Preliminary proof copies of his five stave novella A Christmas Carol, awaited his inspection. With his blessing the print run of 6,000 copies that he was financing out of what little funds remained to his name would proceed forthwith. Time was running short to have the printing and finishing completed the week before Christmas in time for holiday readers and perhaps more importantly, holiday buyers.

    Charles Dickens, 1842. by Francis Alexander

    Though Charles longed for financial success, it was the content of his new manuscript that most raised his spirits. He had spent six weeks weeping, laughing and weeping yet again as he scribbled the story out on sixty-eight pages of his leather notebook using black India ink and a fresh quill. At night he took long walks through the darkest streets of London setting the scenes of the story in his head.


    The tale flowed from his mind to his hand quickly and he found himself making only a few scratched out corrections. He had no outline and produced only one draft before handing his notebook over to be set into lead type.


    Charles had burned with outrage against the rich men he had seen in Manchester and London over the past few months. He thoroughly despised these “sleek, slobbering, bow-paunched, overfed, apoplectic snorting cattle” who built their wealth on the backs of child-labourers, and the starvation of families who powered, but did not share in the wealth of Britain’s prosperity. The sight of families starving in the streets of Manchester and in the slums of London was something he could not easily vanquish from his thoughts. His anger spilled nightly onto the pages of his notebook as he completed the story.

    He had no outline for the story that filled his head and produced only one draft

    He hoped his simple tale of one old man’s conversion from greed to generosity, following him from covetousness to compassion, might strike a “sledgehammer blow” on behalf of the poor with “twenty-thousand times the force” of any government pamphlet. He promised this in so many words to his old friend Douglas Jerrold. Today he hoped it would become reality.


    Despite his honourable intentions, Charles really needed to see a profit - quickly. His very pregnant wife Catherine was doing her heroic best to look after three young children with another due within a month. He knew it was not easy for her as they weathered the feast and famine income cycle he realized as an author.


    This morning he hurried past the poulterer and the fruiterer, their shops overflowing with treasures he could only dream about. He was in debt. His bank account overdrawn and Christmas might prove a very hungry time if this new venture floundered.


    Dickens handwritten manuscript A Christmas Carol

    As he reached the shop, Charles grew anxious to see the first copies of his little book. His orders to Mr. Chapman and Mr. Hall had been precise: fancy binding stamped in gold letters on both spine and front cover, gilded edge on the paper all around, four full-page hand-coloured etchings and four woodcuts, all by drawn by his good friend John Leech. And of course, half-title and title pages in bright green and red with hand-coloured green endpapers to match.


    The weather that morning was unusually warm for London in December, well above freezing, and almost balmy. Perhaps it was an omen that a book set on a cold Christmas Eve in the same city might fail to live up to his lofty expectations.


    “Gads!” he exclaimed with alarm as he surveyed the drab title page. It had turned out as a dull olive colour. The shop’s proprietors, William and Edward watched sternly, but said nothing as he continued his examination. They had expressed no faith in this project, but since Charles was paying the printing costs, he could do as he saw fit.


    “No, no,” Charles said as he turned the pages, reading passages, shaking his head and finally thumbing all the way though to the book. “This will certainly not suffice,” he added, growing even more alarmed as he touched the end pages and noticed the green tint smudged off on his fingers.


    Finally, he put the book down, glanced up at the sooty ceiling of the print shop and released the deep sigh of disappointment that been building up inside him.


    “Gentlemen, although I appreciate your efforts, we have much work to do,” he began. “We will start with the cover page which we need to change to red and blue. And I also noticed some text that needs to be reset. And the green endpapers are chalky. Can we fix that?”


    William Hall raised an eyebrows at his business partner Edward sitting on a stool. Then turned to Charles. “And those colour plates? Are you certain they add sufficient value to justify such expense? Four plates will add significant cost.”


    Charles snorted with indignation. “As you are forcing me to provide for all the costs, Mr. Hall, I’m unclear as to what motivates your concern? Of course we will keep the four plates, exactly as Mr. Leech sketched them.”

    Scrooge's third Visitor by John Leech

    Edward Chapman finished an entry on his ledger. Without looking up, still holding his quill he asked. “And what price do you propose we charge? From what I calculate - printing, paper, drawings, engravings, steel plates, paper for plates, colouring, binding, incidentals, our fee, and advertising - I believe ten shillings should cover all your costs and net your a tidy profit.”


    “No, sir, I think not,” Charles responded. “I promised Catherine a beautiful little gift book. One that would open hearts to make the world richer for those who have nothing. I do not want to set a price that impedes a wide readership.”


    Edward climbed off his stool and took a stride towards Charles. His displeasure was evident. “Mr. Dickens, while you may be in the business of running a charity, we are men of business. It is not our mission to change the world.”


    Charles smiled. “Five shillings, Mr. Chapman. That is the price you shall charge for my book. You will be paid, I assure you. And you and your business associate will regret your lack of faith in me. Your narrow focus will not serve you well in Christmases yet to come.”


    William held a hand up. “You are paying all the costs so we shan’t argue further, Mr. Dickens. Give us your alterations to the text. We will have them have the type set and make the other changes you request. But I must ask, one last time. Are you quite certain of a run of 6,000 copies? It seems overly optimistic.”


    Charles had faith in his story, though he doubted his own business acumen. However, he had told Catherine he would print six thousand copies and that is what he would do.


    “Yes, Mr. Chapman. Six thousand. And you shall be sold out by Christmas Eve!”


    Title page of the first edition of A Christmas Carol


    And the numbers are in…


    Charles Dickens was right. All 6,000 copies of that first printing of A Christmas Carol sold out by Christmas Eve of 1843. Today, an original copy from that run is worth at $25,000 USD with some copies in good condition fetching as much as $35,000.


    Dickens’ ‘beautiful’ little book has never been out of print. In the first six months of 1844 it was reprinted eight times. By the end of the year, it had also been adapted for the stage with eight productions playing in London.


    But despite the success of the book, Charles' goal of netting £1000 pounds from the first run fell well short. Because he insisted on colour plates, elaborate finishes and stood firm on a selling price of only 5 shillings, his payment for the first printing amounted to a meager £230. Even after one year of robust sales he realized a profit of only £744.


    Print was only the beginning


    Of course A Christmas Carol eventually became a play and then a film. The first movie version was produced in 1901, and others followed in 1908, 1910, 1913 and every few years afterwards. The most critically acclaimed version remains the 1951 black & white classic with Alastair Sim as Scrooge.


    Other adaptations continued with everything from the Muppets to the Flinstones to Bill Murray’s 1988 comedic transgression Scrooged. And at least a dozen new movie versions were produced over the last 30 years.


    From Broadway shows to stage plays, mimes, radio plays, TV and film productions, A Christmas Carol along with its themes, characters and expressions are now rooted deeply in Western culture and our celebration of Christmas.

    Mervyn Johns as Bob Cratchit with Alastair Sim as Scrooge in the 1951 classic "Scrooge"

    As for Charles Dickens’ self-publishing career, it was a bust. He did switch to Bradbury and Evans, publishing rivals of Chapman and Hall, the London publishers who had so little faith in his little book. After that experience though, he left the world of self-publishing to concentrate on creating some of the most loved books of the English language.


    Interesting though, A Christmas Carol remains his most popular work and every Christmas we have the chance to relive Charles’ inspiration one more time.