The Advent Calendar of Literature: Day 15

Yesterday’s Christmas fact concerned the original draft of A Christmas Carol, Dickens’s most popular Christmas book. Today’s piece of Christmas literary trivia concerns the impact of this novella – and why its enormous success still left its author in financial trouble.

Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in six weeks during October and November 1843, and it appeared just in time for Christmas, on 19 December. He wrote at such speed partly to get the book out before Christmas, but also because Dickens wanted to draw attention to the plight of the poor in Britain at the time.

Dickens himself was experiencing financial problems of sorts (though hardly on the same scale): his latest novel Martin Chuzzlewit was doing badly, with sales having dropped to around 20,000 per instalment, compared with the sales of The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge, his previous novels, which had sold up to three times that number. With an increasingly large family to support, he needed to recover his literary career.

Thankfully, A Christmas Carol had an immediate effect. Thomas Carlyle, the Scottish historian (whom Dickens greatly admired), went straight out and bought himself a turkey after reading A Christmas Carol. The term ‘Scrooge’ has entered the language – and the Oxford English Dictionary – as shorthand for a tight-fisted and miserable person.

Dickens’s rival, William Makepeace Thackeray, called the book ‘a national benefit’, while fellow novelist Margaret Oliphant said that although it was ‘the apotheosis of turkey and plum pudding’, it ‘moved us all in those days as if it had been a new gospel’. The book was more or less single-handedly responsible for the tradition of the Christmas Eve ghost story, which remains with us to this day.

Despite all this, however, and despite selling 6,000 copies by Christmas Eve – five days after it was published – the book did little to solve Dickens’s financial problems.

This was because the author insisted on a book jacket design that was costly to produce but made cheaply available to the public – so that the book could reach the largest number of people possible. So the book sold for five shillings a copy, and made Dickens very little money. But it would, nevertheless, help to heal his ailing career and ensure that his popularity would endure: over 170 years after its initial publication, it remains probably Dickens’s best-known story.

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