Thursday, December 17, 2009

Notes For December 17th, 2009


This Day In Writing History

On December 17th, 1843, A Christmas Carol, the legendary novella by Charles Dickens, was published in London, England. (Sometimes the publication date is mistakenly listed as December 19th.) Dickens began writing the book in October of 1843 and completed it in six weeks, with the final pages written during the first week of December.

After feuding with his publisher over the small amount of money he'd earned for his novel Martin Chuzzlewit, Dickens declined a lump-sum payment for A Christmas Carol and chose to take royalties instead. The novella's first edition run of 6,000 copies sold out by Christmas Eve, but because of high production costs, Dickens only earned £230 and not the £1,000 he expected - and needed badly, as his wife had become pregnant again.

Although it didn't earn him as much as he'd hoped, A Christmas Carol proved to be a huge critical success, something Dickens also needed badly, after the failure of Martin Chuzzlewit. The holiday classic continued to sell well, and soon, the author saw more of a profit. In January of 1844, less than a month after its first edition release, A Christmas Carol appeared in a pirated edition, published by Parley's Illuminated Library. Dickens sued them and won, but the company just declared bankruptcy, leaving him without compensation and owing £700 in legal expenses.

To fight future piracy, Dickens periodically tweaked his manuscript for A Christmas Carol and republished it in revised editions, something many writers did back during the times of inadequate or nonexistent protection from copyright law. The piracy of A Christmas Carol was still a big disappointment for Dickens, as he felt a special affection for the novella's lessons in love and generosity that he wanted to teach the world.

Dickens based A Christmas Carol on both his own experiences and American writer Washington Irving's tales of the traditional old English Christmas and its customs. In 1824, when Dickens was twelve years old, his prosperous, middle class father's mismanagement of his money led to financial ruin. Unable to pay his creditors, he was arrested for debt. The Dickens family was sent to debtor's prison - except for the precocious, intellectual Charles, who was forced to leave school, pawn his collection of books, and go to work in a factory to pay off his father's debts.

In early 1843, Dickens toured the Cornish tin mines and saw children working in appalling conditions. He also visited one of several London schools that had been set up to educate the city's large population of half-starved, illiterate street children. Remembering his own horrific experiences as a child laborer, Dickens researched the effect of the Industrial Revolution on poor children. He gave a speech at the Manchester Athenaeum urging employers and workers to work together to fight illiteracy.

Dickens wrote and planned to publish a low-cost political pamphlet, An Appeal to the People of England, on Behalf of the Poor Man's Child, but changed his mind and put off the publication. Instead, he tried to inspire compassion for the poor through his beloved novella, A Christmas Carol. Its main character, Ebenezer Scrooge, had been partly based on Dickens' own attitude as a child before his family's financial ruin. As a young boy, he'd had a strong sense of intellectual and class superiority. When he was forced to work alongside other poor children (and adults), his initial humiliation was transformed into a deep, lifelong compassion for the poor.

A Christmas Carol opens on Christmas Eve, seven years after the death of Ebenezer Scrooge's business partner, Jacob Marley. Scrooge is a greedy and heartless moneylender and landlord who overworks and grossly underpays his loyal, hardworking clerk, Bob Cratchit. Scrooge hates Christmas, dismissing the holiday as humbug. After grudgingly allowing Cratchit to take Christmas Day off, Scrooge leaves for home. The ghost of Jacob Marley appears and haunts him. Tormented and wrapped in heavy chains built link by link by his sins, Marley warns Scrooge that he will suffer the same fate if he doesn't change his ways. He tells Scrooge that three more spirits will haunt him.

The Ghost of Christmas Past brings Scrooge back to his past, a time when he cared about people and loved Christmas - before tragedy and greed warped him. The Ghost of Christmas Present exposes Scrooge to the plight of the poor - especially that of Bob Cratchit and his family, who are struggling to survive on the slave wages that Scrooge pays him. He also shows Scrooge how his nephew Fred - the son of his beloved sister who died in childbirth - still loves him despite the fact that Scrooge disowned him.

The Ghost of Christmas Future proves to be the scariest spirit, tormenting Scrooge with a vision of the death of Tiny Tim - Bob Cratchit's crippled and sick little son - which could have been prevented. He also shows Scrooge a vision of his own death, where nobody mourns him. Scrooge repents and awakens on Christmas morning with joy in his heart, vowing to be kind and to keep the spirit of the holiday with him always.

Needless to say, A Christmas Carol became hugely popular, a classic reread every year at Christmastime. Dickens' readers begged him to write another holiday story, so from 1844-48, Dickens published some Christmas-themed short stories. They sold well, but the critics trashed them. By 1849, Dickens decided that he was done writing Christmas stories, but he wanted to reach out to people with his "Carol philosophy." So, he began performing public readings of A Christmas Carol during the holiday season.

Dickens' first public reading of A Christmas Carol took place in 1853. It was an unabridged reading; for later performances, Dickens prepared an abridged text to read. He would perform 127 public readings of his holiday novella. His last performance was in 1870 - the year of his death. In 1867, Dickens performed a reading in Boston on Christmas Eve. One of the spectators, a factory owner named Fairbanks, was so moved that he experienced a Scrooge-like transformation and sent every one of his employees a turkey.

A Christmas Carol would be adapted numerous times for the stage, screen, radio, and television. The first stage play adaptation opened on February 5th, 1844 - less than two months after the novella was published - and became a hit. Of the many film adaptations, the best known and best loved version is the 1951 British production starring Alistair Sim as Scrooge. Disney recently released a 3D animated adaptation starring the voice of Jim Carrey. The very name Scrooge would enter the English lexicon as a synonym for the word miser.

A Christmas Carol remains one of the all-time greatest works of English literature and a treasured holiday classic.


Quote Of The Day

"It is a fair, even-handed, noble adjustment of things, that while there is infection and disease in sorrow, there is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good-humour." - Charles Dickens


Vanguard Video

Today's video features a reading from Charles Dickens' classic novella, A Christmas Carol. Enjoy!

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