The Literary Salon – The Man Who Invented Christmas

A Christmas Carol is one of my favorite books of all time.   I love it for it’s perfect plot, it’s memorable characters and it’s simple message of hope and redemption.  If you want to know the story behind the writing of this Christmas classic then this months Literary Salon selection may be for you.    

The Man Who Invented Christmas Book

I first wrote about Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol in a Dec 2017 blog where there is a link to the 68 page handwritten manuscript on view each year at the Morgan Library in New York.   It’s interesting to see how many revisions he made to the original.   Can you imagine Tiny Tim being called Tiny Fred?  This year it is open to the page with the famous description of the foggy London street and the introduction of Scrooge in his counting-house.   

Last year I blogged about A Christmas Carol as Applied to Modern Life as it struck me how many of the descriptions and themes are still applicable today.   

But back to how the story came about, for don’t we always want to know where other writers get their muse.   

The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday SpiritsThe Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits by Les Standiford

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The ultimate Christmas gift for the Dickens fan, this little book makes a great stocking stuffer!

The Publisher’s Blurb:   

As uplifting as the tale of Scrooge itself, this is the story of how one writer and one book revived the signal holiday of the Western world.   Just before Christmas in 1843, a debt-ridden and dispirited Charles Dickens wrote a small book he hoped would keep his creditors at bay. His publisher turned it down, so Dickens used what little money he had to put out A Christmas Carol himself. He worried it might be the end of his career as a novelist.  The book immediately caused a sensation. And it breathed new life into a holiday that had fallen into disfavor, undermined by lingering Puritanism and the cold modernity of the Industrial Revolution. It was a harsh and dreary age, in desperate need of spiritual renewal, ready to embrace a book that ended with blessings for one and all.   With warmth, wit, and an infusion of Christmas cheer, Les Standiford whisks us back to Victorian England, its most beloved storyteller, and the birth of the Christmas we know best. The Man Who Invented Christmas is a rich and satisfying read for Scrooges and sentimentalists alike.

Why I Liked It:   

I first read Dickens in the summer of 67 when the musical Oliver came out, and believe me, at the age of eleven it was a struggle.   He was so wordy if I hadn’t already known the plot from the movie it’s unlikely I would ever have attempted it, but I was madly in love with my first crush, the Artful Dodger (as played by Jack Wild who sadly later died from throat cancer) and so I persisted.    I fared better in high school when I enjoyed reading A Tale of Two Cities for a book report.   A Christmas Carol is a mere novella in comparison, at barely a hundred pages.   Of course it helps that we have seen movie versions and theatrical performances of it too.    It’s such an accepted part of the Christmas culture that we seldom think about what inspired it? 

The Man Who Invented Christmas delves into how the book came to be written, including even the smallest of details like the name Ebenezer Scrooge.   As well, Dickens was writing from his childhood experience of poverty as his father was frequently in debtor’s prison and he was made to work in a blacking factory at a young age to support the family.   The book also provides some background context to the times, such as Tiny Tim likely suffered from rickets, a common medical condition in industrial London where smog frequently blocked sunlight and vitamins had yet to be invented.  While I was familiar with much of the discussion in this book, having read Jane Smiley’s excellent (link) biography of Charles Dickens, two things stood out. 

The first is the absolute genius of the plot.    I can picture Dickens walking the foggy streets of London, late at night, planning it all out.   Normally he would write and publish in installments, (a feat in itself leaving no room for revision), but this was to be a complete book, and for something he dashed off in a mere six weeks, writing in a manic frenzy until it was just perfect, it is a work of pure genius. 

The second thing is Dickens knew when he was writing it, that it was good and possibly had the makings of greatness, although he could not have foreseen it’s enduring power, and as he mentioned in several of his letters he was quite obsessed with the process.   What a wonderfully satisfying thing to be pleased with what you have written, and then to find out other people like it too.  Isn’t that something we all aspire too?   The reviews were all positive, glowing in fact.   It never went out of print.  

Les Standiford’s book is a fascinating peek behind the scenes into the mind of a creative genius and well worth a read, especially for fans of Dickens.    

Postscript:   Skip the movie by the same name and read the book instead.  What the Dickens kind of miscasting was that?   Dan Stevens will be forever known as Mathew Crawley on Downton Abbey.   Any suggestions for who could play Dickens well? 

      

Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol

       We have Charles Dickens to thank or blame, depending on your perspective, for the present Christmas madness.   The movie about The Man Who Invented Christmas is currently in theaters, and was based on a 2009 book by Les Standiford.   
The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday SpiritsThe Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits by Les Standiford

Maybe Santa will bring me this for Christmas…hint, hint.

      Although I have not seen or read either, I am currently in the process of re-reading A Christmas Carol, the illustrated version, an annual tradition I try to keep, although I don’t always succeed.    OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A Christmas Carol is my favorite book of all time.  I love it for it’s perfect plot, it’s memorable characters and its simple message of hope and redemption.   While I like the movie (especially the 1951 version with Alistair Sim, although the 1938 version has a better Tiny Tim and Bob Cratchit and a much scarier ghost of Christmas past which would have me scurrying to bed when I was Tiny Tim’s age), the book itself is pure perfection.   You wouldn’t change a thing in it.  It’s so ingrained in our memory that we couldn’t imagine it any other way.  Desperate for money, with a mortgage overdue and six children to support, Dickens produced it in a mad six-week frenzy in October of 1843.   It was published on Dec 19, just in time for the Christmas trade, and immediately sold out, and has been in print ever since.

      If I am ever in New York at Christmas time, my first stop will be the Morgan Library, where every year Dickens original handwritten sixty-eight-page manuscript is on display over the holiday season.  Dickens chose the red leather binding himself and gifted and inscribed it to his friend, Thomas Mitton.   Here is an online link to the manuscript, and you can now buy a facsimile copy from the Morgan shop online.      

http://www.themorgan.org/exhibitions/charles-dickens-a-christmas-carol

      A few years ago, the library held a contest for Dickens fans and scholars to study the manuscript in search of the most noteworthy editorial changes.   While he may have written it in an outpouring of creative genius, he still did a lot of crossing out and revising.  Can you imagine Tiny Tim being called Fred?   It is a sad part of history lost that our present writing methods no longer permit this peek into the creative process.    

      Dickens was long-winded, (why use one word when ten will do), so for a short tale, it is wordy, but it’s not as bad as Oliver Twist (which I read at age twelve when the movie musical came and found a difficult read), or A Tale of Two Cities or any of his other works.   In A Christmas Carol the descriptive passages are pure bliss.   Some of my favorites include, the description of the damp piercing cold at the beginning of the story, (foggier yes and colder. Piercing, searching, biting cold), the entire passage about the Cratchit household and their Christmas dinner, (Mrs. Crachit dressed out poorly in a twice-turned gown but brave in ribbons and Belinda too, and Peter with his collar done up), the dancing and food at old Fezziwig’s party, (away they all went, twenty couples at once), the games (blind man’s bluff and charades) and music at his nephew Fred’s, and the town and the grocer’s all dressed for Christmas with the people sallying forth full of goodwill and good cheer.        

     And who can forget those classic lines, “Why, where’s our Martha?….not coming on Christmas Day?”  “for it is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas,”  “come and see me, will you come and see me,” and “there’s such a goose, Martha.”    The goose description alone is priceless. 

         ”Such a bustle ensued that you might have thought a goose the rarest of all birds; a feathered phenomenon, to which a black swan was a matter of course — and in truth it was something very like it in that house. Mrs Cratchit made the gravy (ready beforehand in a little saucepan) hissing hot; Master Peter mashed the potatoes with incredible vigour; Miss Belinda sweetened up the apple-sauce; Martha dusted the hot plates; Bob took Tiny Tim beside him in a tiny corner at the table; the two young Cratchits set chairs for everybody, not forgetting themselves, and mounting guard upon their posts, crammed spoons into their mouths, lest they should shriek for goose before their turn came to be helped. At last the dishes were set on, and grace was said. It was succeeded by a breathless pause, as Mrs Cratchit, looking slowly all along the carving-knife, prepared to plunge it in the breast; but when she did, and when the long expected gush of stuffing issued forth, one murmur of delight arose all round the board, and even Tiny Tim, excited by the two young Cratchits, beat on the table with the handle of his knife, and feebly cried Hurrah!

There never was such a goose. Bob said he didn’t believe there ever was such a goose cooked. Its tenderness and flavour, size and cheapness, were the themes of universal admiration. Eked out by apple-sauce and mashed potatoes, it was a sufficient dinner for the whole family; indeed, as Mrs Cratchit said with great delight (surveying one small atom of a bone upon the dish), they hadn’t ate it all at last. Yet every one had had enough, and the youngest Cratchits in particular, were steeped in sage and onion to the eyebrows.” 

img026           My ancestors always had a goose for Christmas, as was the custom back then as they were readily available on the farm.   This post card was given to me by a descendant of a great uncle who had moved to Seattle around 1920.   He must have been home for Christmas one year as he has written across the bottom in pencil, Xmas dinner on the farm.   I inherited the crystal bowl on the table, but not the goose tradition, only a turkey will do for Christmas. Even Scrooge preferred turkey, as he bought the prize turkey and sent it anonymously to the Cratchit family at the end.  (That delivery boy must have been Canadian as he said, “EH?….why, it’s Christmas Day.”)

The pudding description is spectacular too.     

“In half a minute Mrs Cratchit entered — flushed, but smiling proudly — with the pudding, like a speckled cannon-ball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half-a-quartern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top.

Oh, a wonderful pudding! Bob Cratchit said, and calmly too, that he regarded it as the greatest success achieved by Mrs Cratchit since their marriage. Mrs Cratchit said that now the weight was off her mind, she would confess she had had her doubts about the quantity of flour. Everybody had something to say about it, but nobody said or thought it was at all a small pudding for a large family. It would have been flat heresy to do so. Any Cratchit would have blushed to hint at such a thing.”

  

Unlike Mrs. Cratchit, I won’t be worrying about the quantity of flour,

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or like Tiny Tim, hearing the pudding singing in the copper.  I’ll just be listening for the ding of the microwave.   Although I bought the pudding at the British shop, the rum sauce will be homemade, and is equally good on vanilla ice cream for those who don’t care for Christmas pudding. 

      My standard rum sauce is just a mixture of butter, brown sugar, water and some rum added in the last five minutes, with most of the alcohol boiled away just leaving the flavor.   I tend not measure, so it’s never the same from year to year, including the rum which can vary depending on the stress level.  It can be made ahead, and stored in the fridge and microwaved later, along with the pudding.   You can also buy individual portions of plum pudding at the British shop, but it is more economical to buy the larger size.  

       If you have a moment of peace and quiet over the holidays, A Christmas Carol is a good read, and a simple reminder of what Christmas is all about.  And so, in the words of Tiny Tim,  God Bless us Every One! 

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A Tiny Caroler – Dec 2017

Song of The Day:   God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman (because it’s in the book) – click here for music link  –  The New York Philharmonic Orchestra

PS.  Edited Dec. 2018 to add that while I found the movie while interesting I could not get past the fact that Dan Stevens did not suit the role as he will always be Mathew in Downton Abbey.    I have not read the book yet but I know Santa will bring it this year, as I bought it myself while shopping for others!