Dickens Was a Scrooge Himself
(But he was Cratchit, too)
December 22, 1957
Shadows of a grim childhood, ghosts past and present, haunted Charles Dickens as he penned his immortal “A Christmas Carol.” Here’s the heartwarming, human story behind one of the world’s best-loved Christmas tales, and the strange kinship of Scrooge, Tiny Tim, Bob Cratchit and Nephew Fred to Dickens himself.
What would Christmas be without “A Christmas Carol”? In the 114 years since it was written, Charles Dickens’ magic tale of Ebenezer Scrooge and Tiny Tim has firmly established itself as part of the festive tradition. Here’s how it all came about.
On Christmas morning 1843, in a rundown factory district of London, a window suddenly flew up in the second floor flat of a drab brick building otherwise occupied only by a few scraggy offices and a wine merchant’s cellar.
What We're Reading This WeekGet recommendations for the greatest books around straight to your inbox every week.
“What’s today?” cried the lone tenant to a small boy in the street below.
“Today? Why Christmas Day.”
“Christmas day,” exulted the wan cheeked, needle-nosed old man at the window. “I haven’t missed it.”
Ebenezer Scrooge, fiction’s most famous regenerate villain, had come to terms with Christmas and had not missed it after all.
At almost the same hour on that very same morning, in a more respectable section of London known as Regent’s Park, an upstairs window flew open in the neat red-bricked dwelling that stood at 1 Devonshire Terrace. A frail, smiling young man, his eyes agleam with “a moist and oystery twinkle,” leaned out to greet the postman.
His name was Charles Dickens and he had not missed Christmas either.
The morning mail brought the jubilant news that “A Christmas Carol,” the ever delightful chronicle of Scrooge’s ghostly conversion, had sold out all 6,000 copies on its first day of publication and a second and third edition were already on the presses.
The bearer of these glad tidings was rewarded with “a glass of whisky and a cheery blessing.” The recipient rewarded himself by celebrating the remainder of the Christmas season in a bubbling, boisterous fashion that would have once again set to “winking” the amazingly agile toes of old Mr. Fezziwig.”
A Creative Peak
“Such doings,” Dickens wrote to a friend, “such dancings, such conjurings, such blindman’s bluffings, such theater-goings, such kissing out of old years and kissing in of new ones never took place in these parts before.”
Like Scrooge reborn, Dickens felt “light as a feather, happy as an angel, merry as a schoolboy, giddy as a drunken man.” At 31, with little formal schooling but with “Pickwick Papers,” “Oliver Twist,” “Nicholas Nickleby,” “Old Curiosity Shop,” and “Barnaby Ridge,” already behind him, he was at the height of his creative powers.
And although he didn’t realize it then, this versatile writer, who yearned all his life to be a great actor, had just penned a masterpiece in miniature.
“The Carol” as Dickens always referred to it, was written at white heat, in less than a month, to satisfy his creditors. He was deeply in debt. The recent American tour, with mixed memories of adoring crowds and bitter controversy, had not come up to financial expectations. He had borrowed heavily against insurance policies and taken a large advance from his publishers. His wife Kate was expecting their fifth child. He was also supporting his sister-in-law Georgina, his younger brother Frederick and his always out-of-pocket “prodigal father,” the lovable, voluble spendthrift who provided the blueprint for Wilkins Micawber in “David Copperfield.”
On top of that, sales of “Martin Chuzzlewit,” appearing in serialize form, had fallen off drastically, particularly in America, which it satirized.
Dickens had feuded fiercely with his publishers over money matters and now feared they might invoke a contract clause allowing them to take back a percentage of his advance.
A Private Venture
To get back on his feet, Dickens decided to publish “The Carol” as a private venture on a commission basis, risking all the losses in hopes of pocketing most of the profits.
The idea for a ghost story about Christmas first occurred to him in a railway carriage en route to Manchester for a speech in mid-October. The plot fascinated him, but the writing did not come easy.
The numerous strikeouts, crossovers and margin jottings in the original manuscript, now on display at Harvard’s Fogg Museum on loan from New York’s Morgan Library, indicate he worked harder on this slender volume than any previous work.
The cozy little study overlooking the pleasant brick-walled garden at Regent’s Park became a dreary dungeon of drudgery. “Men have been chained to hideous walls and other strange anchors ere now,” he once described the throes of authorship, “but few have known such suffering and bitterness at one time or another as those who have been bound to pens.”
Day after day, he paced the deep pile carpet, banging his hand nervously against his forehead, acting out each part aloud, grimacing before the ornate gilt mirror to capture the right expression.
Night after night, “when all sober folks had gone to bed,” he walked 15 to 20 miles through the dark streets of London, picking his characters out of the chilling fog, tracing Tiny Tim’s crutch marks in the unmarred snow, finding just the right gloomy building for Scrooge’s lonely digs, the melancholy tavern where he took his melancholy dinner, the slight but splendid detail about the thawed blotch of wet on the street above the baker’s oven, “where the pavement smoked as if the stones were cooking too.”
By the softly flickering light of his hearth fire, Dickens played host to his own ghosts of Christmases past, present and yet to come, intently watching the shadows of his own career march over the walls and across the ceiling in gaunt procession.
Always the Optimist
Haunted by his impoverished past, terrified by his problematic present but optimistic as always about his future, Dickens profusely poured into “The Carol” the humor, the humiliations, the craving, the deep hurts and sudden joys and triumphs of his lifetime.
In years to come, when he finally realized his acting ambitions and embarked on his fantastically successful public readings, Dickens was fond of mimicking all the voices, sound all the nuances, savoring all the delights and absurdities of every character in his little Christmas parable.
That, at least, must have come easy. For more than critics have for a long time been willing to admit, Dickens himself was the embodiment of almost every character in “The Carol.”
He was Bob Cratchit, the debt-ridden drone who could heroically submerge all his cares to nurse a sick child back to health with delightfully imaginative games and indulgent attentions.
He was nephew Fred, the happy party-giver and party-goer, leading the game of 20 Questions, proposing the toasts, laughing lustily at craggy-hearted old Scrooge but suddenly, transfixed by sentiment, feeling very sorry for him.
He was Jacob Marley, the good man of business, who realized quicker than his fictional counterpart, that “mankind was my business; the common welfare was my business.”
When the ghost of Christmas past leads Scrooge to a forlorn, neglected boy reading bya feeble fire in a dismal attic, that boy is Charles Dickens at 7, playing host to Ali Baby and Robinson Crusoe in the garret of a dingy waterfront tenement, where his family was forced to move as their fortunes sank lower.
The musty pawn shop in an obscure part of town, where Scrooge in horror sees the curtains sold from his deathbed and the shirt from his corpse, had been visited years before by young Dickens, who came to sell his own little bed a few chairs when his father went to debtors prison.
Even Fezziwig’s gay warehouse party, that precursor of all Christmas parties, may have had its origin in one of the few bright spots in his blighted childhood, the friendly law chambers of Ellis and Blackmore, where Dickens at 15 served as office boy and amused himself by dropping cherry pits out the window on passers-by.
But most of all—and some readers may shudder to hear this—Dickens was Ebenezer Scrooge, a “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner.” He drove a hard bargain with his publishers, quibbled over every cent of royalties, ran out on several contracts, fired two artists without warning and was partially responsible for the suicide of another.
Like Scrooge, he was capable of the extremes of benevolence and malevolence. A soft touch for panhandlers, especially down-at-the-heels actors, he kept a close eye and a tight hand on family budgets and made scenes over hotel bills. A fond and affectionate father, he was a vain tyrant of a husband who, at 46, ruthlessly left the wife who had given him 10 children to have an affair with an 18-year-old actress. He never saw Kate again and was livid when any of the children went to see her.
Lived for Applause
Gregarious, extroverted, egocentric, childish to the point of absurdity, he had all the actor’s vices and none of the writer’s. He lived for applause, cultivated the crowd, made a fetish of never reading his critics.
While Scrooge was being haunted by the ghost of his business partner, Jacob Marley, Dickens was being visited by the ghost of his alter ego, Ebenezer Scrooge.
And Scrooge’s Christmas conversion, duly ratified over a bowl of smoking bishop, may have symbolized Dickens’ own resolution to reform. If so, the spell quickly wore off. Within a month, he was at the throat of his publishers again, accusing them of jacking up the tests because “The Carol” did not immediately materialize into the financial success he envisioned from the postman’s report on Christmas morning. It had sold well, but Dickens’ insistence on color plates and a fancy binding, while keeping the price at five shillings, had eaten into his profits.
A Rare Tome
But “The Carol” was—and still is—an immensely popular success, one of those rare, happy, hallowed books that seem destined to pass on from generation to generation of enchanted readers, while successive waves of critics attempt unsuccessfully to pick it apart.
“Who can listen to objections regarding such a book as this?” asked William Makepeace Thackeray almost as soon as it appeared. “It seems to me a national benefit, and to every man and woman who reads it a personal kindness.”
And from the opening line, “Marley was dead: to begin with,” who can resist reading on to the final line of Scrooge’s Christmas conversion? “…it was always said of him that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless us, Every One!”
Excerpt from Mulligan’s Christmas Stew: A Tasty Serving of Holiday Stories by Hugh Mulligan – Used by permission of Rosetta Books/The Associated Press
Featured Image: Dawn Hudson/Shutterstock.com; Author photo: (AP/file 1991)