soldiers returned from war.
On October 5, 1843, when Charles John
Huffam Dickens addressed members at the
Manchester Athenaeum he was aware of these
horrendous circumstances. Earlier that year he
had visited a mine in Cornwall and a cotton
factory in Manchester.
Shortly after his speech, he conceived
the idea behind A Christmas Carol. Initially
intending to write a pamphlet attacking the
startling realities associated with poverty and
child labour, he decided to turn his attention
to a novelette.
He would later reveal that as the story took
life in his head, he “wept and laughed and
wept again” as many a night he strolled several
miles along the London streets when everyone
was asleep. Prodding him, he would say, was
Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim who constantly
looked over his shoulder.
The result is literary history. Six thousand
copies of A Christmas Carol were printed,
released and sold out within a week. A second
printing quickly followed, and Dickens had
little doubt that most of his readers would understand what simmered behind the words and
between the lines of his “ghostly” narrative.
“Ghost of an Idea”
In the preface to A Christmas Carol, Dick-
ens writes, “I have endeavoured in this Ghostly
little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea,
which shall not put my readers out of humour
with themselves, with each other, with the
season, or with me. May it haunt their houses
pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.”
It might appear odd to have launched a
spectral Christmas tale near the apex of an era
when scientific and technological advances
had seized the world’s, and indeed, England’s
imagination, catapulting thought into spheres
of economic potential.
But England has for centuries embraced
spectral entities, with Christmas long affiliated
with ghosts, according to Roger Clarke in A
Natural History of Ghosts: 500 Years of Hunting for Proof.
Proof notwithstanding, reported sightings
indicated many believed the ghost of Anne
Boleyn appeared each Christmas at Hever
Castle, nestled sedately 30 miles southeast of
London in Kent’s countryside.
Her apparition apparently revealed itself
not only ambling across a bridge which spans
the River Eden near the castle’s grounds, but
also manifested near an oak where she suppos-
edly had been wooed by Henry VIII before
becoming his second wife.
Unfortunately for Anne, Henry became
disenchanted with her. Accusing her of adultery and having instigated a plot to have him
assassinated, he had her beheaded at the Tower
of London in 1536. Here too, according to
witnesses, her ghost has appeared at this site of
When Dickens chose to accentuate the
avarice and lack of concern among the well off,
like Scrooge, a character whom he describes as
a “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping,
covetous old sinner”, he used this allegorical vehicle to portray how such a man could
change “the cold within him”.
Interestingly, John Foster, a great friend and
fellow writer whom Dickens selected to be
his official biographer, revealed that Dickens
had a fondness for ghost stories. He would
go on to state that only Dickens’ s intellect
restrained him from falling into the clutches
Attributed to Emanuel Swedenborg
(1688–1772), spiritualism is the belief that
the dead can speak to the living.
Dickens may have forgone drinking deeply
from the cup of spectral communication, but
he rode the tide of the social zeitgeist with his
“Ghostly little book”, at the same time appeasing a personal penchant. And Marley, “dead as
a doornail”, does speak to Scrooge.
London in the nineteenth century was a cynosure of art, theatre and literature in tandem
with being a paramount commercial city. The
instruments of Britain’s economic power lay
in this metropolis, its banking enterprises and
private financial investments the fuel behind
opportunists whose grasps spanned oceans
and continents. London had morphed into a
major port city whereby shipping and trading
furthered its dominance.
Through the ages, London was also home to
literary giants from Chaucer to Shakespeare.
This city was the hearth that nourished.
Notable painters were similarly inspired.
J. M. W. Turner in his watercolor of Dudley,
Worcestershire (1832), in Britain’s “Black
Country”, presented a vivid snapshot of that
town’s environmental challenges.
The appellation “Black Country” emerged
in the nineteenth century and referenced
industrialised counties in the West Midlands,
among them Staffordshire and Worcestershire
where coalfields and iron ore smelters reigned.
A portrait of Dickens by Daniel Maclise
in 1839 shows him seated at his writing desk,
and some have hinted that Dickens inspired
several British artists through his portrayals
of Victorian life, an inference that the writer’s
pen influenced the painter’s brush.
But life in the great city had sharp edges.
In 1819, while vacationing in Italy, Percy
Bysshe Shelley, in Peter Bell, a parody of
Wordsworth’s Peter Bell, wrote, “Hell is a city
much like London—a populous and a smoky
city. There are all sorts of people undone; And
there is little or no fun done; Small justice
shown, and still less pity.”
This unflattering poke at London held
largely true a quarter of a century later.
London in 1843 was haunted by fog, crime
and grime. Horse droppings lay underfoot,
soiling the boots and shoes of wealthy and
poor alike. Streams of raw sewage flowed in
gutters that vomited into the Thames. Chim-
neys expelled coal smoke so profuse it invaded
myriad nooks and crannies, playing havoc with
the eyes and nose of every inhabitant.
Bankers, beggars, “dollymops” (prostitutes)
and genteel ladies, shoplifters, “dippers” (pick-
pockets) and street vendors hawking various
wares on street corners, along with cattle often
driven through the streets to meat markets,
jostled with coaches and carriages for space.
If Manchester, the archetype of the textile
Charles Dickens’ first edition of A
Christmas Carol was published on
December 19, 1843 and cost a mere 5
shillings (about $25 in today’s currency). All 6,000 copies were sold out
by Christmas eve.