"Charles Dickens and the Spirit of Christmas" Opens at the Morgan on November 3
New York, NY—It has been said that no single person is more responsible for Christmas as we know it than Charles Dickens (1812-1870). In 1843 he published A Christmas Carol, and the story and cast of characters—from Ebenezer Scrooge to Tiny Tim—immediately became part of holiday lore. Even today, almost 175 years after the debut of the book, it is unusual for a year to go by without a new stage or screen adaptation.
Beginning November 3, the Morgan Library & Museum explores the genesis, composition, publication, and contemporary reception of this beloved classic in a new exhibition entitled Charles Dickens and the Spirit of Christmas. On view through January 14, 2018, the show demonstrates how the enormous popularity of A Christmas Carol catapulted Dickens out of his study into international stardom, launching a career of public dramatic readings that the author heartily embraced. The exhibition gathers together for the first time the Morgan’s treasured, original manuscript of A Christmas Carol and the manuscripts of the four other Christmas books Dickens wrote in the years following. Complementing these works are a selection of illustrations by Dickens’s artistic collaborators, photographs, letters, tickets and printed announcements for his public performances, and even the writing desk used by the author.
“For many years now the Morgan has exhibited the manuscript of A Christmas Carol every December,” said museum director Colin B. Bailey. “Charles Dickens and the Spirit of Christmas is our most comprehensive look at the creation of this masterpiece and Dickens’s personal motivations. The success of A Christmas Carol was a turning point in the author’s career as he found himself in wide demand not only as a writer, but as a performer capable of captivating audiences with his public readings. Dickens himself, it could be said, was the most unforgettable of the countless actors who have brought the cast of A Christmas Carol to the stage.”
Christmas was Charles Dickens’s favorite holiday. Each year he celebrated exuberantly, entertaining family and friends with theatrical performances, dinners, dances, and games. For him, Christmas was a time for storytelling—particularly ghost stories—and each of his tales is based on an implicit belief in the supernatural and emphasizes the moral benefits of imagination and memory. As the author moved from his writing desk to the stage for public readings, A Christmas Carol became the most popular story in his repertoire and strongly influenced his decision to devote a considerable amount of his prodigious energy to theatrical performance up until his death in 1870. The exhibition brings together important holdings from the Morgan's permanent collection, the Charles Dickens Museum in London, the New York Public Library, and the Victoria & Albert Museum.
Why Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol
What inspired Dickens to write one of the most famous, enduring, and widely adapted stories in all of literature? First, he was in urgent need of money. His novel, Martin Chuzzlewit, brought out in monthly installments, was not selling well. The author had recently moved into a spacious London house to accommodate his growing family and his personal expenses were rising. Moreover, members of his extended family repeatedly sought him out for financial assistance.
Coupled with these personal imperatives, Dickens was conscience-stricken at the appalling condition of the urban poor. Britain’s economic depression of the early 1840s—the so-called “hungry forties”—was a time of rising unemployment and widespread malnutrition. Following his September 1843 visit to Samuel Starey’s “Ragged School” for severely deprived children living in London’s slums, Dickens contemplated writing an article that would deliver a “sledge-hammer blow” for social justice.
Instant Bestseller, Enduring Classic
A Christmas Carol appeared in bookshops on December 19, 1843 and by Christmas Eve every one of the six thousand copies of the first print run had completely sold out. Dickens declared it “a most prodigious success—the greatest, I think, I have ever achieved.” Most reviews were laudatory. In Fraser’s Magazine William Thackeray proclaimed the book “a National Benefit,” while the Sunday Times called it “sublime.” One American industrialist, after reading the story, gave his employees an extra day’s holiday. In early 1844, second and third editions of three thousand copies were printed and, as its popularity continued to grow, a total of fifteen thousand had been sold by the end of the year. Because of a plethora of pirated editions, which infuriated Dickens, he earned considerably less in the short term from his instant bestseller than he had anticipated. Nevertheless, the book would endure—it has never been out of print to this day—and has been described as the most perfect of Dickens’s work.
The Later Christmas Books
The popular and critical success of A Christmas Carol initiated the lucrative series of Christmas books that Dickens published over the next several years: The Chimes (1844), The Cricket on the Hearth (1845), The Battle of Life (1846), and The Haunted Man (1848). Each of these was written largely in response to public demand for a Christmas book unleashed by the success of A Christmas Carol, and also created the market for the later Christmas stories that Dickens wrote and published in his magazines Household Words and All the Year Round. In 1883 Vincent van Gogh wrote to his friend and fellow painter Anthon van Rappard: “This week I bought a new 6-penny edition of Christmas carol and Haunted man by Dickens . . . I find all of Dickens beautiful, but those two tales—I’ve read them almost every year since I was a boy, and they always seem new to me.”
The Public Readings—A Second Career
Starting in 1853 Dickens gave public readings of A Christmas Carol in provincial English cities to raise money for local charities. The reaction of audiences was so rapturous that in 1858, he embarked upon a series of weekly paid readings in London. He went on to tour other cities in Britain and expanded his repertoire to include scenes from The Pickwick Papers, Martin Chuzzlewit and Oliver Twist. Dickens rehearsed intensively, memorizing his texts so that he could perform rather than read them, and improvise according to his enthralled audience’s reaction. In 1866 he gave a series of thirty readings in London and elsewhere, receiving a fee of fifty pounds per night. Prior to his reading tour of the United States Dickens embarked on another tour of England and Ireland between January and May 1867, and a so-called “Farewell Tour” in 1870, by which time his fee had risen to eighty pounds. At the end of his last reading, in March 1870, he said: “From these garish lights I vanish now for evermore with a heartfelt, grateful, respectful and affectionate farewell.”
American Reading Tour, 1867-68
Dickens visited the United States twice, first traveling extensively in 1842. His experience of those travels is recorded in American Notes for General Circulation (1842) and his novel Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-44). Twenty-five years later, in 1867, he returned to the United States for an extensive—and exhausting—and exhausting reading tour. During both visits, he received an enthusiastic and extravagant welcome, as befitted the world’s first literary superstar.
He began his reading tour in Boston in December 1867 and ended in New York on April 1868 and was lionized in every city he visited. In seventy-six public readings, he performed his work for more than one hundred thousand people and earned $95,000, equivalent to approximately $1.5 million in today’s money. The tour was a critical and financial success, but it accelerated the decline of the author’s health and he died two years later.
Image: Jeremiah Gurney (1812-1895), Charles Dickens, 1867, black and white photograph, The Morgan Library & Museum, MA 7793. Purchased for The Dannie and Hettie Heineman Collection as a gift of the Heineman Foundation, 2011.