Dickens had a poor return on his festive novel but it brought joy..

For Dickens, the child should be at the centre of the Christmas celebrations... Colette Sheridan calls on people to rediscover their inner child this festive period
Dickens had a poor return on his festive novel but it brought joy..

THERE’S a bit of a Scrooge in all of us, as we can’t quite help counting the cost of Christmas.

That would, of course, be the cost of the perfect Christmas to which many people aspire. Getting it just right involves visiting garden centres for the perfect tree onto which we put white lights (for those with taste) or flashy multi-coloured lights (for lovers of kitsch).

Then there’s the presents for our loved ones that are a reflection of our own aesthetic. That those classy dusty pink suede gloves that you bought for a friend might end up at the back of a wardrobe isn’t the issue. What’s at stake is your unique taste and all the aspiration that involves.

Having to borrow money for Christmas kind of takes the joy out of it. I’m not sure if Charles Dickens had to go to a money lender to give his family the kind of Christmas he wished for them. But he was sorely disappointed with the poor return on his hugely popular morality tale, A Christmas Carol.

It was the subject of a discussion with Melvyn Bragg and some academics on BBC Radio 4 last week. Dickens wrote the festive novel in 1843 when he was still a young man, aged 31. He had been successfully publishing fiction for ten years, but his book Martin Chuzzlewit had not been well received and sales were flagging.

However, with A Christmas Carol, the omens were good. It came out in December and sold 6,000 copies just before Christmas Eve. That was a lot of product shifted in those days, and would satisfy an Irish author these days for sales in Ireland.

But the novel didn’t make much money for the Victorian writer.

It was beautifully - and expensively - produced, with a red cover, classic embossed golden writing on the cover and illustrated inside. But Dickens only made £137 out of it, a lot less than what he was expecting.

It would be unfair to call the writer a Scrooge, counting the money with great disappointment. Dickens was very concerned about money and why wouldn’t he be with four children and a fifth on the way at the time of publication of A Christmas Carol.

His miserly character, Scrooge, clearly helped sales of the book - but not cash arising from it. Which might seem fitting.

But it was unfortunate for the writer, who was worldly enough to worry about such things.

You can be a great writer, but if the ledger books don’t show a profit, then a bit of re-evaluation about your work might be necessary. Unless you’re James Joyce, to whom the world owed a living, it seems.

In the popularity stakes, Dickens seemed to have hit a winning formula with A Christmas Carol. By February, 1844, two months after the book came out, there were eight theatrical productions based on it. Some of these adaptations threw in more low-life Cockney characters to make the drama more colourful and appealing.

Dickens seems to have enjoyed the dramatisations. I don’t know if he made anything in royalties from them; probably not, given his poor mouth about the novel.

But there was an appetite for A Christmas Carol. A lot of early19th century writing about Christmas recalled rural Christmases with manor houses and baronial feasts. Dickens made Christmas an urban celebration as well, with a family gathered around a table weighed down with seasonal food.

It was, as one of the contributors to the programme said, a re-invention of this time of warmth in what were seen as increasingly darkening times.

A Christmas Carol came out less than ten years before the new Poor Law had been passed. The urban poor were a very visible phenomenon. Dickens may have tapped into an attempt to create the notion that there might be room for more humane relationships in a world increasingly defined by consumerism; accumulating and spending, as if life depended on it.

Christianity is important to Dickens’s tale. While the writer wore his Christianity lightly in the course of his life, it was nonetheless important to him. In his will, he advised his children to adhere to the New Testament, but only in its broader spirit.

In A Christmas Carol, there are themes of charity, compassion and selflessness. It’s all packaged in an accessible way for the Victorian era.

The importance of the child is vital. For Dickens, the child should be at the centre of the Christmas celebrations.

And, indeed, it’s a time for adults to rediscover their inner child and to temporarily forget their usual cares.

Let’s hope Dickens was able to afford a goose for his brood for the Christmas that his wonderful novel was published.

Christmas is an occasion when we can justifiably push the boat out.

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