Charles Dickens and the origins of A Christmas Carol

“Marley was dead: to begin with.” It’s as good a first line for a ghost story as you could imagine. But where did A Christmas Carol begin for its author, Charles Dickens?

The answer seems to be the second report of the Children’s Employment Commission, published at the end of February 1843. On 6 March, Dickens wrote to Dr Southwood Smith, one of the four commissioners, proposing to write a pamphlet “on behalf of the Poor Man’s Child” inspired by the report. Four days later, he had changed his mind. “Reasons have presented themselves for deferring the publication of that pamphlet until the end of the year,” he wrote again to Smith. “Rest assured that when you… see what I do, and where, and how, you will certainly feel that a Sledge hammer has come down with twenty times the force – twenty thousand times the force – I could exert by following out my first idea.”

Then on 14 September, Dickens visited the Ragged School for destitute children, a new institution, just off Saffron Hill in the City. “The school is held in three most wretched rooms on the first floor of a rotten house,” he wrote two days later to a wealthy philanthropist. “I have very seldom seen, in all the strange and dreadful things I have seen in London and elsewhere, anything so shocking as the dire neglect of soul and body exhibited in these children.”

He knew more needed to be done, and that the plight of the poor must be shown to those many with “a kind of delicacy which is not at all shocked by the existence of such things, but is excessively shocked to know of them”.

Four weeks later he started writing A Christmas Carol – remarkably while he was already committed to “pegging away, tooth and nail” at Martin Chuzzlewit, then being serialised monthly. “To keep the Chuzzlewit going, and do this little book, the Carol in the odd times between two parts of it, was, as you may suppose, pretty tight work,” he later wrote.

Appropriately enough for a book so obsessed with nocturnal visions, Dickens himself became obsessed with it. He described how it took him over, writing about himself in the third person: “Over… Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens wept, and laughed, and wept again, and excited himself in a most extraordinary degree, in the composition; and thinking whereof, he walked about the black streets of London, fifteen and twenty miles, many a night when all the sober folks had gone to bed.”

He finished writing it on 2 December 1843, and it was published on the 19th. Expressing a sentiment familiar to many writers, Dickens was aghast at how little promotion his publishers undertook. In particular, its publication was only advertised in one of the monthlies. Nevertheless, the first edition of 6,000 copies sold out by Christmas Eve. By 2 January, a second edition of 3,000 had been issued.

“Hurrah, say I,” Dickens wrote.

This piece first appeared in the December 2021 issue of History Today.

Like this? You can read more Months Past posts here.

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