Dickens' ghosts are still with us

Owchar is deputy book editor of The Times.

Loud, jubilant and festive, Mr. Fezziwig's ball in "A Christmas Carol" -- which took place when Ebenezer Scrooge was young and might have avoided a bitter life -- kindled warm feelings in English readers and their American counterparts for what Christmas should be. That's what Les Standiford claims in a book just right for this time of year, "The Man Who Invented Christmas."

As the book's subtitle indicates, the 1843 story and all its aspects -- not just Scrooge and Fezziwig, but also Tiny Tim, Bob Cratchit (his sweet father), the merry ghost of Christmas Present, wassail bowls, plum puddings and holly sprigs -- worked a transformative effect on readers' hearts and, most important, on Charles Dickens himself.

"I was so closely occupied with my little 'Carol,' " Dickens recalled, "that I never left home before the owls went out; and led quite a solitary life."

Such dedication! Wait, let's not get too romantic about this. Dickens immersed himself in the writing only partly because he was swept away by his invention. He needed money. Fast. It's hard to believe that such a wildly successful novelist was in trouble, but Standiford's brisk narrative depicts Dickens in crisis around the time of "Carol." At 31, though he had successful books behind him -- among them "Sketches by Boz," "The Pickwick Papers" and "Oliver Twist" -- fresher works like "Barnaby Rudge" and "Martin Chuzzlewit" were dark, morose and failed to draw the sales that enabled his family to live in high London style at Devonshire Terrace. Worse than that, the novelist's pay was docked by his publishers for the resulting lower readership! Can you imagine Dan Brown having his pay deducted if his follow-up to "The Da Vinci Code" turns out to be a flop?

Bitter at his treatment -- they wouldn't do this to Walter Scott! -- and anxious about debts, Dickens was still much sought-after to lend his name to causes. Standiford tells how the seed of "Carol" was sown during Dickens' appearance to raise funds for the philanthropic Manchester Athenaeum. In telling the audience that humanity must bestow mercy on its weaker members, Dickens found his theme for "Carol." Soon after, the story shaped in his mind of a miser, a suffering child and supernatural intervention leading to a vision of the way humans should treat one another.

As Standiford tells us, the joy and anticipation Dickens felt were soon dampened by the publishing costs (he bore most of them), court battles against pirated editions, his ordeals with theatrical productions and -- so modern-sounding -- the pressure to deliver a sequel. (Dickens, in fact, would write four more Christmas books, though none would match "Carol's" popularity.) Don't despair, though: He had "Great Expectations" and "A Tale of Two Cities" ahead.

Standiford's good at finding the small detail, the bit of color that a substantial Dickens biography might overlook. He catalogs how Scrooge has become "common cultural property" and how "Carol" is so thoroughly embedded in our collective mind that, were all copies destroyed, the story "could be written again."

Turkeys, however, are probably not among the enthusiastic. It's no wonder. The traditional bird on English tables was the goose, Standiford informs us, until Scrooge's gesture of sending a turkey to the Cratchits "sent the nation's goose-raising industry to near ruin." Poor things.

--

nick.owchar@latimes.com

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
61°