In late September, 1843, Charles Dickens was sent a recently-published report on child labour in Britain. It enraged him. He set about writing a response; six weeks later, he was finished. It was published on December 19 and was an instant success. On Christmas Day alone, it sold 6,000 copies.
Dickens’s response to that child labour report was A Christmas Carol. But it could have been so different. His first idea was to write a pamphlet, to be titled, An Appeal to the People of England, on Behalf of the Poor Man’s Child. It seems fair to speculate that that wouldn’t have had quite the same appeal.
A Christmas Carol was first adapted for the stage just months later and has, at Christmas, rarely been off it since: this Christmas sees two new Irish adaptations (details below).
Dickens has been credited with “inventing” the modern Christmas: festive traditions had waned in Britain under the forces of industrialism and urbanism; they revived from the early 1840s on (the first Christmas card was reportedly sent the same year, 1843), thanks, apparently, to Dickens’s inspiration.
For all its success, the Carol didn’t make Dickens much money. It was quickly pirated and Dickens sued. (The bootleg-publisher claimed he had improved it, partly by adding a 60-line song for Tiny Tim.) Dickens won, but the publisher declared bankruptcy, and the legal costs were three times what Dickens had made on the book in the first place. (The anecdotes here are from Simon Callow’s vibrant and entertaining new biography of Dickens – an excellent stocking filler.)
In his mid 40s, partly to cover further losses, Dickens discovered a new way of reaching audiences and making money: public readings. With A Christmas Carol to the fore of his repertoire, he embarked on a series of ambitious tours. He was received with adulation and his performances were legendary. In Dublin, he played at the Rotunda Rooms on Parnell Square. There were queues down O’Connell Street. Mounted police were called out to control the crowd.
He wrote to a friend: “All the way from the hotel to the Rotunda I had to contend against the stream of people who were turned away. When I got there, they had broken the glass in the pay-box, and were offering £5 freely for a stall.”
In a letter home, he fondly parodied the Dublin accent: “I wish you and the dear girls could have seen the people look at me in the street; or heard them ask me to ‘do me the honour to shake hands Misther Dickens, and God bless you sir, for the light you’ve been in me house sir this many a year.’” (These quotes are from Jim Cooke’s essay, Charles Dickens: A Dublin Chronicler, in the journal Dublin Historical Record.)
Yet Dickens had embarked on his first tour in the wake of a disintegrating home life. He had long fallen out of love with his wife, Catherine, and was now infatuated with an 18 year old actress, Ellen Ternan. He ordered a bracelet inscribed to her, but the jeweller sent it by mistake to his wife.
“The domestic unhappiness remains so strong upon me that I can’t write,” he wrote to a friend. “I have now no relief but in action. I am become incapable of rest.”
Rest was eventually forced upon him. His final visit to Dublin was in January 1869, but he later abandoned that tour due to ill health. He gave a short series of farewell readings in London. After the final one, he addressed the audience. “From these garish lights I vanish now for evermore,” he said. He died in June 1870, at 58.
That combination of artistic genius, commercial innovation and a wayward personal life recalls another cultural legend who spent some time in Dublin, Orson Welles. Welles adapted and starred in A Christmas Carol on live American radio in 1938, and AboutFACE Ireland has dramatised Welles dramatising Dickens: Orson Welles’ Christmas Carol plays at Marlay House in Dublin next Saturday and Sunday at 3pm. (See www.aboutfaceireland.com.) And at the Ark, actors Aaron Monaghan and Bryan Burroughs have produced a 45-minute version for the over-eights, playing today and next Saturday at various times. (See www.ark.ie.) Merry Christmas.