The Man Who Invented Christmas (8 page)

As his letters to his friend Forster record, he also carried other memories with him as he walked the streets that night. Shortly before the trip to Manchester, he had taken a tour of a so-called ragged school in London, in the company of Baroness Angela Burdett Coutts, philanthropist and heiress to a banking fortune. He had gone to the Field Lane School in Saffron Hill, perhaps the sorriest neighborhood in London, as research for
Martin Chuzzlewit,
hoping the visit would help him in efforts to shine a light on the wretched conditions of the country’s workers and also strengthen his resolve to bring a “Sledge-hammer” down upon the rampant abuses of child labor. But
Chuzzlewit
was no longer looking like an effective vehicle with which to bring widespread attention to anything.

However, his visit to the Field Lane School—one of a number of free public schools for poor children—brought him face to face with a collection of young boys and girls who were the embodiment, in Dickens’s words, of “profound ignorance and perfect barbarism.” Most of these “students” were illiterate, all were filthy and shabbily dressed (thus the epithet “ragged”), and many resorted to thievery or prostitution in order to live.

Dickens, who entered the school in a gleaming pair of white trousers and brightly shined boots, was met by howls of derision, and a companion, Clarkson Stanfield, was so overwhelmed by the stench of the place that he fled the scene at once. But despite what he described as “a sickening atmosphere, in the midst of taint and dirt and pestilence: with all the deadly sins let loose, howling and shrieking at the doors,” Dickens remained, doggedly asking question after question until the children finally began to sense compassion in this alien creature and actually began to talk with him.

What he beheld at the Saffron Hill school was bad enough—he told Miss Burdett Coutts that “in all the strange and dreadful things I have seen in London and elsewhere,” seldom had he witnessed “anything so shocking as the dire neglect of soul and body exhibited in these children.” But the truth is that in the England of Dickens’s day, barely one child in three in the entire population attended school, and in London there were estimated to be as many as 100,000 poor children—5 percent of the city’s population—who had not so much as darkened the door of any school, “ragged” or otherwise.

His shock and dismay led Miss Burdett Coutts to pledge funds on the spot for washrooms at the Field Lane School, and also for the rental of more-commodious, well-ventilated classrooms. But Dickens well knew that they were trying to douse an inferno with a teacup. “Side by side with Crime, Disease, and Misery in England,” he would write disconsolately, “Ignorance is always brooding, and is always certain to be found.”

W
ith such thoughts, and the vision of his rapt Manchester audience, crowding his mind, Dickens strode about the drizzling streets of Manchester, debating the proper course of action. Indeed, a lesser individual might have packed it all in and fled to blessed anonymity on the Continent, where he would have found sufficient work writing travel pieces to keep a cottage heated and bread on the table while he wrote books that would be “good for” an ungrateful public, whether they liked them or not. He would not have been the first artist, or the last, to suspect that he deserved a better audience.

But Dickens was not just good at what he did; he was the very best of his time, a man whose powers had at one point delighted 100,000 of his countrymen each week. Was he really going to walk away from all that at the age of thirty-one?

What actually happened that night was extraordinary. As his letters to Forster would make clear, Dickens began to take stock of himself in a way that any accomplished and acclaimed writer would find extremely difficult, much less the most famous writer of his time. And yet he forced himself to confront hard truths. Perhaps it was not “them”—the jealous critics and the fickle readers—in whom the fault lay. Perhaps he had let his disappointment with America in particular and with human nature in general overwhelm his powers of storytelling and characterization in his recent work—perhaps he had simply taken it for granted that an adoring public would sit still for whatever he offered it.

Perhaps he could still get a point across and write a book of which he could be rightfully proud. Most important, perhaps there was a way to do so without browbeating or scolding, or mounting a soapbox. Perhaps he could get them without their knowing they were got. If he could only find the way.

And so, as he walked the streets that night, a new story began to form. His nightly walks continued, even after his return from Manchester to London, his mind still whirling…

…until bit by bit his tale took shape, and, as his friend Forster put it, with “a strange mastery it seized him.” He wept over it, laughed, and then wept again, as bits and pieces swam up before him, including the vision of two children named Ignorance and Want, those “wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable” creatures who would, with Tiny Tim and Bob Cratchit and Scrooge and Marley and all the rest, stamp themselves on Dickens’s imagination, and that of the world, forever.

7.

A
s Dickens told his friend Cornelius Felton, a professor of Greek at Harvard University, through much of October he walked “about the black streets of London, fifteen and twenty miles, many a night when all the sober folks had gone to bed,” working out in his head the story that would become
A Christmas Carol.
He had excited himself “in a most extraordinary manner in the composition,” he told Felton, even though he was also struggling to complete the ill-starred
Martin Chuzzlewit
at the same time. (Monthly installments of the latter would continue through the twentieth and final section in July of 1844.)

To his attorney Thomas Mitton he described his work schedule as “pretty tight,” but the clearer the concept of his little tale became, the more convinced Dickens became. He was so certain of the rightness of the idea, he told Mitton, that he could foresee “the immense effect I could produce” with future, full-length works centered around the same themes.

One of the chief forces driving Dickens was the press of time. Though he had long been accustomed to writing under deadline, Dickens had an added consideration in this case. Given its subject,
A Christmas Carol
would not only have to be completed within a few short weeks, but it would also have to be edited, illustrated, typeset, printed, bound, advertised, and distributed to the shops several days before the twenty-fifth of December, or the whole endeavor would have to be put on hold for an entire year.

Furthermore, Dickens found himself in quite an unusual position regarding the publication of
A Christmas Carol.
In the case of his previous books, all he had to do was write them. He often took part in the choice of illustrations and opined about the nature of the design and printing itself, but in essence, the
production
of the book, and its subsequent marketing and distribution, were the province of the publisher, which not only paid Dickens for his writings but also risked all the costs involved in readying them for sale.

When he went to Chapman and Hall full of fervor regarding his brilliant new idea, however, the publishers were depressingly unenthused. “
Chuzzlewit
had fallen short of all the expectations formed of it in regard to sale,” noted Dickens’s old friend Forster, and though the novel was, in his first biographer’s eyes, “the most masterly of his writings” to that point, “the public had rallied to it in far less number than to any of its predecessors.” Forster attributed some of the drop-off in sales to the fact that his previous two novels had been published in weekly (as opposed to monthly) installments, “for into everything in this world mere habit enters more largely than we are apt to suppose.” Nor did Forster think that Dickens’s decision to stop writing for six months while he traipsed off across an ocean had been a good idea.

“This is also to be added,” Forster pointed out, “that the excitement by which a popular reputation is kept up to the highest selling mark will always be subject to lulls too capricious for explanation.” In other words, the public could simply be fickle, without regard to any diminution of a writer’s talents. But, whatever the case, as Forster pointed out, the decline was “present, and to be dealt with accordingly.”

One way of dealing with it, as Dickens had already suggested to Hall, was to quit Chapman and Hall altogether. This Forster did not think a good idea, for he had been the one to bring Dickens into an association with Chapman and Hall to begin with. He had guided the author through his resignation as the editor of
Bentley’s Miscellany
back in 1839, and had also assisted in Chapman and Hall’s assumption of copyright of
Oliver Twist
and that book’s remaining unsold copies from Bentley. Forster believed that the consolidation of Dickens’s interests with one reputable publishing house (Chapman and Hall had also purchased the rights to
Sketches by Boz
and
The Pickwick Papers
) would allow Dickens to focus his attention more easily on his work alone.

And indeed the association between Dickens and Chapman and Hall proved a mutually beneficial one. Installments of
Pickwick
and
The Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby
(March 1838–September 1839), the follow-up to
Oliver Twist
that Dickens delivered to Chapman and Hall, rose as high as 50,000 per issue. The story of Little Nell in
The Old Curiosity Shop
pushed Dickens’s numbers into the stratosphere, beyond 100,000. And even
Barnaby Rudge
had issues that managed to top the 60,000 and 70,000 marks. But then had come
American Notes
and
Chuzzlewit,
and suddenly Chapman and Hall were watching sales hover near 20,000 and wondering what Dickens had accomplished for them lately.

But Dickens had been infuriated by the prospect previously mentioned by Hall that they might indeed reduce Dickens’s draw by the fifty pounds stipulated in his contract for
Chuzzlewit.
“I am so irritated,” Dickens had told Forster when it happened, “so rubbed in the tenderest part of my eyelids with bay-salt, that I don’t think I
can
write.”

Though Hall never acted on his suggestion that the clause
might
be enforced, the threat had festered in Dickens and prompted him to write to Forster that he dreamed of severing his ties with Chapman and Hall and simply disappearing to the Continent: “If I had money,” he told Forster, “I should unquestionably fade away from the public eye for a year, and enlarge my stock of description and observation by seeing countries new to me; which it is most necessary that I should see.”

Forster had already seen one form of that plan carried out in the disastrous furlough to America, however—and look what had come of that. Far better, he thought, to stick it out with Chapman and Hall: carry on with
Martin Chuzzlewit,
and see what they thought of
A Christmas Carol.

Alas, Chapman and Hall did not think much of the project that had inflamed their author’s vision. As Forster put it, “The communication [Dickens] had desired me to make to his printers had taken them too much by surprise to enable them to form a clear judgment respecting it.”

Uninterested in the prospect of some Christmas book dashed off on the quick, Forster reported back, Chapman and Hall “enlarged upon the great results that would follow a reissue of his [previous] writings in a cheap form” (analogous to a paperback release of a book originally published in hardcover today). In addition, the publishers told Forster, they would “invest to any desired amount in the establishment of a magazine or other periodical to be edited by him.”

All of this, said Forster, brought home an inescapable truth: “that publishers are bitter bad judges of an author, and are seldom safe persons to consult in regard to the fate or fortunes that may probably await him.” Certainly, no more forceful proof exists than what ensued between Dickens and Chapman and Hall.