Authors: Les Standiford
Informed of his publishers’ response, Dickens was resolute. “Don’t be startled by the novelty and extent of my project,” he wrote back to Forster. “Both startled
at first; but I am well assured of its wisdom and necessity.”
“Look upon my project
as a settled thing,
” he told his friend, dismissing the notion of launching a new magazine as an enormous drain on his energy. And he believed that publication of a cheap edition of his work would devalue what they already had achieved: “it would damage me and damage the property,
In the end, Dickens did a remarkable thing for a writer of his stature. Bowing to Forster’s advice, he stopped short of breaking off with his publishers altogether, but he was not about to abandon an idea on which he had now irrevocably settled.
If Chapman and Hall would not agree to publish
A Christmas Carol
under normal terms, then he would entrust it to them “for publication on his own account.” He would be responsible for the costs of the book’s production, which would be deducted from its sales. He would also oversee the book’s design, hire its illustrator, and consult on its advertising. In essence, his publishers—which would receive a fixed commission tied to sales—had become merely his printer. In contemporary terms, then,
A Christmas Carol
was to be an exercise in vanity publishing.
It was the turning point of Dickens’s career, Forster says, “and the issue, though not immediately, ultimately justified him.” Meanwhile, “Let disappointments or annoyances beset him as they might, once heartily in his work and all was forgotten.” Thoughts of moving to a “cheap and delightful climate, in Normandy or Brittany” were set aside. Dickens had six weeks in which to write and produce
A Christmas Carol
(and there were at least two installments of
due as well).
“I was most horribly put out for a little while,” Dickens wrote to Forster, “but having eased my mind by that note to you, and taken a turn or two up and down the room, I went at it again, and soon got so interested that I blazed away till late last night; only stopping ten minutes for dinner.”
f course, as he was writing, Dickens—especially given his recent experience—could not be certain of the reception for his new project. He could only follow his instincts and hope that he was right.
So he pressed on with the writing of it, though he was sometimes resentful of his other obligations, including that ill-received novel he was committed to. On November 10, he wrote to Forster, “I have been all day in
agonies—conceiving only. I hope to bring forth tomorrow.” But from there he went on to the object closer to his heart: “Will you come here at six? I want to say a word or two about the cover of the
and the advertising, and to consult you on a nice point in the tale. It will come wonderfully I think.”
It might be helpful to interject a note here on typical publishing practice of the day. Although publishers, including Chapman and Hall, certainly made the decisions about what they were and were not interested in publishing (and indeed often approached authors rather than the other way around), once an agreement was struck, relatively little editing of a submitted manuscript went on inside the publishing house. That chore was left largely to the writer, though sometimes an “adviser” or unofficial editor such as Forster might take a hand in the process.
As a glance at the substantially marked-up original manuscript of
A Christmas Carol
in the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York bears out, Dickens was careful and demanding of himself. And once such a manuscript was submitted to the publisher, it would become a poor printer’s task to decipher the ink-blotted annotations of the author and create page proofs.
In Dickens’s case, both he and Forster would receive copies of the proofs for final review. Forster’s emendations were usually limited to minor matters of grammar and punctuation, though he occasionally gave more substantive advice. He wrote, in fact, that he had been the one to suggest one of the most powerful developments in
The Old Curiosity Shop.
Of Little Nell, Forster explained, Dickens “had not thought of killing her.”
In any case, Forster, for his part, was glad to see Dickens so galvanized over his new project. “My reluctance to any present change in his publishing arrangements,” his adviser says in
“was connected with the little story, which amid all his troubles and ‘Chuzzlewit agonies,’ he was steadily carrying to its close; and which remains a splendid proof of the consciousness of power felt by him, and of his confidence that it had never been greater than when his readers were thus falling off from him.”
With such dogged certainty guiding him, Dickens plunged ahead on what he was calling
A Christmas Carol in Prose: Being a Ghost Story of Christmas.
And as he wrote, he also planned for what would become of all that writing.
For an illustrator, Dickens sought out John Leech, a popular cartoonist for
whom Dickens had met shortly after the suicide of Seymour, his original collaborator on
The Pickwick Papers.
Leech, only nineteen at the time, was one of a number of illustrators who sought to replace Seymour, but Dickens wrote back to Leech that while the sample of work that he had submitted was “extremely well received, and executed,” unfortunately Chapman and Hall had already chosen another artist.
In the meantime, however, Leech had begun to make a name for himself. In 1840 he placed a series of etchings in
(his mother was a relative of Richard Bentley), and in 1841 he began to publish his work in
The magazine, which began publication in July of that year, with Mark Lemon its editor, Douglas Jerrold its most acerbic writer, and Leech its principal graphic artist, was the
of its day, attracting Dickens’s favor for its irreverent and often radical stance on social issues.
As Ackroyd notes, the stance adopted by the creators of
as well as by Dickens himself, was a curious blend of conservatism and liberalism. Though they supported such causes as relief for the poor and an end to restrictive tariffs that favored the vested interests, Dickens and others like him had no use for revolt or violence as suggested by supporters of Marx and Engels. Even those who had turned to crime as a way out of their unfortunate circumstances did not get much sympathy from Dickens, who once said of a “model prison” movement in England that, sadly, imprisoned criminals looked to be gaining a “manifest advantage” in their living conditions over those who were simply poor and ended up in harsh workhouses.
When Leech, who had recently won a contract to illustrate a novel for the popular writer Robert Smith Surtees, approached Dickens in late 1842 to be considered as the illustrator for
Dickens wrote back an encouraging letter: “If it can possibly be arranged, consistently with that regard that I feel bound to pay to Mr. Browne [who assumed that Chapman and Hall would continue to use him on the monthly publications as they had for
The Old Curiosity Shop
], I shall be truly happy to avail myself of your genius in my forthcoming Monthly Work.”
Chapman and Hall, however, prevailed in their preference for Browne (or “Phiz,” as he often signed his work), and once again Dickens had to turn Leech down, but he did so in a most considerate way.
“I have never forgotten having seen you some years ago or ceased to watch your progress with much interest and satisfaction,” Dickens wrote. “I congratulate you heartily on your success and myself on having had my eye upon the means by which you have obtained it.”
Less than a year later, and aware that Leech had been awarded the design of a Christmas novel titled
The Wassail Bowl,
by his friend Albert Smith, Dickens decided that the time had come. Dickens wanted four woodcuts and four hand-colored etchings to be included in
A Christmas Carol,
and Leech would be the man to do them.
As for the design of the book, Dickens decided that it should be bound in red cloth, with the title stamped in gold on the cover, and the edges of the book papers trimmed in gold as well. In addition, he fixed the price at five shillings, a relative bargain at a time when a modestly packaged three-volume novel might sell for thirty-one shillings (a pound and a half). As a further guide, one might consider that monthly issues of a Dickens novel sold for a single shilling—though the whole would come to twenty shillings in the end, at least it was being purchased on the installment plan. By contrast,
character Bob Cratchit’s weekly salary (typical of the time) was fifteen shillings a week, with which he managed to support a wife and six children. Even at five shillings, then, it was not as if an average workingman could snatch up a copy of the new Dickens work without a second thought.
Still, Dickens placed faith not only in his concept but in the knowledge that there was nothing on the publishing scene quite equivalent to his book. In his book
The Annotated Christmas Carol,
Michael Patrick Hearn points out that most of the Yule-themed publishing of the time consisted of richly decorated volumes that celebrated such verities as love and goodwill, lacking any direct reference to the holiday itself.
In Dickens’s mind he had all that was necessary for a grand success, then—one that, as he confided to friends, might earn him as much as a quick £1,000, not an insignificant sum for a man who had been making £200 a month for installments of
“I plunged headlong into a little scheme,” he told Macvey Napier, editor of the
and after setting “an artist at work upon it,” put everything else out of his mind, “For carrying out the notion I speak of, and being punctual with
will occupy every moment of my working time, up to the Christmas Holidays.”
For all his calculations regarding the undertaking, Dickens was apparently consumed by the emotional power of his own creation. “I was very much affected by the little Book myself,” he told the journalist and songwriter Charles Mackay. “In various ways, as I wrote it; and had an interest in the idea, which made me reluctant to lay it aside for a moment.”
His zeal led him to decline social outings with friends such as the illustrator George Cruickshank, to whom he wrote on November 25, “I am afraid I may not be in the way tomorrow; and therefore write to you. For I am finishing a little Book for Christmas, and contemplate a Bolt, to do so in peace. As soon as I have done, I will let you know, and then I hope we shall take a glass of Grog together: for I have not seen you since I was grey.”
Likewise he put off a late-November meeting with his lawyer Thomas Mitton, promising, “On Monday Evening I will come to you. Your note found me in the full passion of a roaring Christmas scene.” (He perhaps meant the Cratchit family feast, though the most “roaring” of the scenes in the book describes Fezziwigs’ Christmas party early on, where “There were more dances, and there were forfeits, and more dances, and there was cake, and was negus [wine punch], and there was a great piece of Cold Roast, and there was a great piece of Cold Boiled, and there were mince-pies, and plenty of beer.” And there was also Mrs. Fezziwig being twirled around and around in dance by Mr. Fezziwig, whose stockinged calves “shone in every part of the dance like moons.”)
On November 25, he also wrote to his friend Marion Ely, offering similar apologies for his conduct as a correspondent: “Forgive my not having answered your kind note; but I have been working from morning until night upon my little Christmas Book; and have really had no time to think of anything but that.” To his fellow novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton (whose novel
started with the now-famous line “It was a dark and stormy night”) he would confide, “I was so closely occupied with my little
(the idea of which had just occurred to me), that I never left home before the owls went out; and led quite a solitary life.”
Driven by such singlemindedness, Dickens completed work on the manuscript in late November, scarcely six weeks after he had begun. And though it was a demanding stretch,
A Christmas Carol
did not total a quarter of the word count of his earlier, twenty-installment works. Furthermore, Dickens had enjoyed the luxury of completing a project as a whole for the first time. There were no installments, no intrusions by the critics as he went along, and—for all his cares and pressures—far fewer interruptions by outsiders (the “persons from Porlock,” as Coleridge termed the unwanted intruders upon an artist’s den.)
Dickens made a few last, judicious edits, including those in the first sentence of the last succinct paragraph, where he transformed a weak “He never had any further intercourse with spirits,” into the authoritative prose that marks the whole, saying of Scrooge, “He had no further intercourse with spirits.” And with that work done, Dickens scrawled an emphatic “The End” and added three pairs of double underscores for emphasis.
Then he went to work on actually producing the book itself. He sat with Leech, examining preliminary drawings of each of the illustrations, and noting at one point that Leech had erroneously colored the robes of the Ghost of Christmas Present red. Dickens tactfully asked that the artist change them to green, as was clearly stated in the text.
When Leech, himself a painstaking worker, worried that the craftsmen who had colored in the etchings had been a bit too exuberant, Dickens, who was well pleased by what his illustrator had accomplished, tried to put him at ease. “You unconsciously exaggerate the evil done by the colourers,” Dickens told Leech. “You can’t think how much better they will look in a neat book, than you suppose.”