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Dickens' Yuletide earnings

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An employee at Sotheby's holds an 1843 first edition of the classic A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.

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An employee at Sotheby's holds an 1843 first edition of the classic A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.

You know it is Christmas time when you can watch the 1951 film, A Christmas Carol starring Alastair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge on television. Sim's metamorphosis in the movie -- with the help of the three ghosts of Christmas -- from "a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner" to a reborn, compassionate soul and saviour of Tiny Tim was a spot-on portrayal that Charles Dickens would have no doubt applauded.

Dickens thought highly of his talents, but even he would be astounded that A Christmas Carol, the novella he published in December 1843 when he was 31, has taken on a life of its own. Besides the version with Sim, there have been more than 200 radio, theatre, musical, film and television adaptations of the poignant ghost story.

It long has been assumed the major inspiration for A Christmas Carol was the plight of the workers, children and the impoverished in 19th century industrial England. As a youngster, Dickens worked in a shoe polish factory after his father was imprisoned for debt. An earlier variation of the Carol appeared in The Pickwick Papers, which Dickens began serializing in 1836.

Recent research, however, by Natalie McKnight of Boston University and graduate student Chelsea Bray, suggests Dickens might have borrowed several of the key ideas -- among them, the ghosts, spirits and Scrooge's redemption -- from a self-published literary magazine with contributions by factory girls in Lowell, Mass., he picked up during his visit to the mill town on his 1842 North American tour.

"I do think some people just like to think there was this traditional genius... a lone man getting divine inspiration from the muses," McKnight said in a recent interview with the Sentinel and Enterprise of Fitchburg, Md., "But in this case, the muses were working 12 hours a day in a factory."

The women's magazine was called The Offering. In one story, A Visit from Hope, the researchers point out, a spirit shows up at night by the fire exactly as Jacob Marley showed up in Scrooge's house. And, in another, Memory and Hope, the featured character, who sounds a lot like Scrooge, promises to be a better person. In this tale, McKnight and Bray say, the language used resembles Dickens's prose at the end of A Christmas Carol in which Scrooge swears to be a good friend, master "and as good a man as the old city knew."

McKnight and Bray are writing a chapter for a new book about Dickens in Massachusetts, though Dickens scholars remain skeptical about the connection.

Dickens himself claimed the idea for A Christmas Carol came to him after he had delivered a speech in early October 1843 at a meeting of the Manchester Athenaeum, an adult education institute for workers. Beyond any literary aspirations, he was confident publishing a popular holiday ghost story was a smart way to supplement his income.

Unhappy with his publishers, Chapman & Hall, he decided to finance the publication of the novella himself with the intention of keeping the bulk of the profits. After receiving several positive pre-publication reviews, his anticipation was high. Indeed, A Christmas Carol was a huge hit and the talk of London. The reviews were stellar and the first 6,000 copies were sold (for five shillings each) within a few weeks.

But Dickens made one serious miscalculation: The binding and gilt design he had chosen for the book were expensive, as was the colouring for illustrations by John Leech of Punch magazine. He had expected to make about £1,000 (approximately £88,000 today) and was shocked when he saw the accounts some months later. Much to his chagrin, all he had earned on the first 6,000 copies was £230 after the publisher's deductions.

To make matters worse, he became embroiled in a lawsuit against Parley's Illuminated Library for publishing a plagiarized version of the story. The company declared bankruptcy before the matter was settled and he was stuck with legal fees of £700. (It would have galled Dickens that in 2009 Christie's Auctions in New York sold a pre-publication copy of the book he inscribed for $295,500.)

A Christmas Carol might have been a financial disappointment for Dickens, but it further solidified his fame, gave the world an enduring cast of unforgettable characters and linked him forever with the celebration of (a secular) Christmas.


Allan Levine is a Winnipeg historian and writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 21, 2013 A17

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