All in all, 1843 was not a good year for Charles Dickens, especially late 1843. American Notes, a narrative about Dickens’ travels to Canada & the United States, sold well the previous year. In 1843, sales slumped. Feeling that Dickens was poking fun at them, Americans steered away from the book.
Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.
Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol
In 1843, Dickens published Martin Chuzzlewitt. Like other books, it was released through newspapers in chapter-by-chapter installments. English readers lost interest quickly. Americans, already irritated, only became more annoyed.
Dickens’ reputation as a best-selling author took a hit. So did his income. He had mouths to feed – 4 children with a 5th on the way – and writing was his primary source of revenue. By late 1843, things were looking bleak.
Charles Dickens had been poor before. In 1824, when he was twelve, his father was imprisoned. John Dickens had run into debt. Unable to pay his debtors, all his household goods – furniture included – were sold and John was incarcerated at Marshalsea Debtor’s Prison. Ultimately forced to give up their home, Charles’ mother and siblings moved into prison with his father. To sustain himself, Charles pawned his own possessions, left school, and found alternate lodging. He worked for meager wages in a boot-blacking factory, pasting labels onto pots of blacking.
The experience affected Dickens’ entire life. Keenly aware of the social injustices and terrible working conditions facing the poor, especially children, Dickens advocated for change. He toured the Cornish tin mines, wrote articles, and challenged parliamentarians to do something.
In the fall of 1843, Dickens travelled from London to Manchester to speak about child labour and the plight of the poor at a fundraiser. On October 5 , 1843, he spoke to a capacity crowd at the Manchester Athenaeum. The sight of healthy, well-fed people in the audience contrasted sharply with the poor, overburdened subjects of his lecture. With Christmas not far off, the contrast cut even deeper.
With two books on the wane, with the plight of the poor so evident, and with the Christmas season drawing near, Dickens plotted a new novel during his three days in Manchester. When he returned to London, he started writing. Within six weeks, he had a complete manuscript.
Released on the 19th of December in 1843, A Christmas Carol was an immediate success on a number of fronts. The book breathed life into Dickens’ fading career and restored his reputation. The cast of characters echoed the deep divisions of society and highlighted the appalling conditions facing the poor. The tale of retribution rang true and reinforced the spirit of Christmas giving.
All the elements of success fit except one. The book did little to buffer Dickens’ sagging income. The first edition was too lavish, the price was too low, and Dickens’ profit was marginal.
The rest, as they say, is history. Dickens’ story of tight-fisted, mean-spirited Ebenezer Scrooge’s conversion to generosity and congeniality is a Christmas classic, told and retold now for almost 175 years.
Are there lessons to be learned from Dickens’ experience for those who write? Probably there many, but for me, one stands out. Dickens wrote about something that deeply mattered to him. Passion drove his story, and that is evident on every page. Find your passion – the subject you can’t wait to explore, the message you just have to deliver – and while you may not write in the style of Dickens, chances are that you will be able to write like the dickens.
For more about Charles Dickens check http://www.dickensfellowship.org
This post was adapted from another at Larry Verstraete’s The Story Behind blog.