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The get-rich-quick scheme called A Christmas Carol

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« on: December 24, 2007, 07:30:17 pm »

The get-rich-quick scheme called A Christmas Carol
Last Updated: 12:01am GMT 14/12/2007

Declan Kiely on Ebenezer Scrooge, Dickens’s own Christmas miracle

It's October 1843 and Dickens is facing financial ruin. His latest work Martin Chuzzlewit is selling poorly; his fifth child has just been born; and he's £270 in debt to his solicitor, at a time when gentlemen lived handsomely off £100 per year.

His father John was sent to prison in the 1820s for accruing massive debts, an event that forced Charles into child-labour at a shoe-blacking factory, and he's terrified of going the same way. He desperately needs a 'get rich quick' scheme.

That scheme would be A Christmas Carol. At the Morgan Library in New York, where I'm Literary curator, we house its original manuscript. It was composed in a six-week flurry of activity in late 1843, and what's remarkable about Carol is that Dickens appears to have made no working notes, no plans, no earlier drafts - certainly none survive.

All that exists in Dickens' hand is the manuscript. Which is highly unusual because he invariably wrote elaborate plot summaries for each novel, to keep track of the innumerable characters and plot-lines he introduced. But Carol was different. He didn't have time for any of that, or for one of his typically vast, sweeping Nicholas Nickleby-style novels, with which he'd made his name. He needed to dash off something short. So he returned to a minor character from 1836-7's The Pickwick Papers, Gabriel Grubb, an old misanthropic gravedigger.

Grubb was in no way integral to the plot (he's just the subject of one of five digressive ghost stories told by Pickwick and his friends), but Dickens - for the sake of speed and minimal effort - decided to expand his story into a novella.

Grubb, an Ebenezer Scrooge prototype, is captured by goblins, who torture him with poignant scenes of poverty and human suffering, before he's reformed into a better man.

With this basic plot in mind, Dickens promptly started work on A Christmas Carol in mid-October 1843. But he added even more pressure to himself by choosing a yuletide theme: it meant he needed to send his new work to the printers by late November, to give them enough time to ensure a timely, seasonal publication, just before Christmas.

The only thing in Dickens's favour, in the race against time, was that he was used to working to tight deadlines, as his writing had (at least until Carol) always appeared in monthly instalments.

It was still panic stations, though. And the manuscript reflects that. Where usually writers like Dickens or Balzac made all sorts of additions to their manuscripts, with new jottings ballooning out at the side or top of the page, in Carol there are none. In fact, in a bid to keep everything concise and punchy, the author's only changes are cuts, edits and the occasional struck-out passage.

These could be smallish (like replacing 'And when he then awoke, Scrooge…' to 'Awaking, Scrooge …') or far bigger. For instance, on the book's very first page, four paragraphs in, Marley's dead, and Dickens makes a parallel between him and Hamlet's father in Shakespeare: for Hamlet also begins with a middle-aged man's ghost appearing after dark.

Originally Dickens had used this to go off on a long, tangent about the ghost's role in Hamlet; but, on reading it back, he drew a large box around the passage and struck a long line through it, leaving only the brief parallel we read today. Concision became his byword, even though Dickens is famous for those amusing tangential asides that apparently add little to the plot: he really had to rein in his impulse to digress.

On the whole, though, he made very few edits - the manuscript copy is, in many parts, spotless. He seems to have had a full vision of where his characters and plot were going, right from the start. The final page, for instance, contains barely one change. It's highly impressive: he produced one of the all-time classic books, at pretty much the first sitting and in next-to-no time.

He ended up with a 68-page manuscript, writing on only one side of the paper. We keep it inside a glass case, which is displayed every Christmas, and a different page is exhibited each year - we've thought about opening the case and changing the page on a daily basis, but decided that would cause wear and tear. So, as things stand, it'd take a visitor 68 years to see every page in the book!

It was acquired by the Library's patron, the omnivorous collector JP Morgan, in 1890s and was passed on to the American nation after his death in 1913, along with the rest of his collection. Such a philanthropic act seems befitting of Carol, as it itself was a very socially conscious, socially critical book: as Bleak House, Oliver Twist and many of Dickens's works were, of course.

The 1840s was known, because of bad harvests and rocketing food prices, as the 'Hungry Forties', and Dickens was deeply affected by the poverty he saw around him. He intended A Christmas Carol as a simple, "sledgehammer" depiction of the poor's plight.

He certainly struck a chord with the English nation. The 6000 first-edition copies, published on 17th December 1843, had sold out by Christmas Eve. The next eight editions all sold out fast too.

It reminded everyone of the necessity of charitable giving and humanitarian acts - especially at Christmas - and reinforced what we call today the traditional Christmas values, centring on family, warmth and unselfishness.

The book was also, like all Dickens's work, hugely popular in USA. Americans could appreciate his larger-than-life characters, like Scrooge, as anyone can. Plusthey could easily empathise with his tales of the dark side of urban living, in sprawling cities like Chicago and New York Dickens was a victim of his own success in America. No copyright law existed there in the 1840s, so to meet the huge demand for Carol in the era before mass book-production, piracy was rife.

The text was commonly reprinted without Dickens's name attached, which meant no royalties. Piracy was common, if to a lesser extent, in England too. Illicit books were the fake Chinese Rolex watches of their day. And this meant that, despite runaway sales, Dickens actually made less from Carol (£230) than he owed his solicitor. He was to have financial troubles all his life. And in later years, he supplemented his authorly income by going on exhausting reading and lecture tours of America, which ultimately killed him off.

As a gesture of appeasement, he gifted the manuscript, now all elaborately bound-up, to his solicitor, who soon sold it on. It passed through many traders' hands before Morgan, a Dickens addict, acquired it for more than £600 (equivalent of £150,000 today) and gave it a permanent home in his library. How Dickens himself could have done with such money throughout his life…

Declan Kiely is Literary Curator at The Morgan Library and Museum, New York;jsessionid=KUN50CMNOJPOJQFIQMFSFF4AVCBQ0IV0?xml=/arts/2007/12/14/bokiely.xml 
« Last Edit: December 24, 2007, 07:31:14 pm by Valkyrie » Report Spam   Logged

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