Dickens Museum Presents Beautiful Christmas Books

Credit: Maggs Bros. Ltd.

An 1897 edition of Washington Irving's Sketchbook, bound by Sangorski and Sutcliffe.

Charles Dickens has become synonymous with Christmas, but a new exhibition at his Victorian house museum in London shows that his relationship with the festive season was not all sweetness and light.

Beautiful Books: Dickens and the Business of Christmas has a fine display of his books, including a rare ‘trial’ edition of A Christmas Carol with illustrations by John Leech predating the December 19, 1843 first edition, one of which is also here, inscribed by Dickens to his friend William Macready. In addition, museumgoers can gaze upon first editions of his other Christmas stories, including The Chimes (1844), The Cricket on the Hearth (1845), Battle of Life (1846), and The Haunted Man (1848), all cloth bound with gilt edges, decorative endpapers, and vignette title pages. There are also some interesting preliminary pencil sketches by Leech for A Christmas Carol, as well as a woodblock of "Fezziwig’s Ball" by Hablot Knight Browne, made for the 1852 edition.

Courtesy of the Charles Dickens Museum

On the “business” end of things, the exhibition features a letter from Dickens to his printers, Bradbury & Evans, in 1851 complaining about a typographical mistake in the annual Christmas issue of Household Words (“I declare before God that your men are enough to drive me mad!”) and another to his friend and editor William Henry Wills in 1868 complaining that the literary Christmas market has been saturated. “While A Christmas Carol celebrates the importance of family, loved ones, and generosity of spirit,” said Charles Dickens Museum director Dr. Cindy Sughrue, “it was part of a massive commercial Christmas explosion, a dichotomy which would come to irritate Dickens later in his life.”

An extra yuletide treat on show is the world’s first printed Christmas card and its proof copy from 1843, and—apropos to Fine Books readers—various copies of classic titles such as Pride and Prejudice in 1890s editions magnificently bound specially to be given as gifts to the wives of workers at antiquarian booksellers Maggs Bros.

The exhibition runs through April 19, 2020, in collaboration with Maggs, San Francisco’s Brick Row Book Shop, and London’s St. Bride Library.