Now as much part of our Christmases as Her Majesty’s Address to the Commonwealth – but much more amusing and a good deal more edifying – A Christmas Carol appears in this new edition alongside four other seasonal books by Dickens: The Chimes – A Goblin Story, The Cricket on the Hearth – A Fairy Tale of Home, The Battle of Life – A Love Story, and The Haunted Man and The Ghost’s Bargain – A Fancy for Christmas Time.
Since its first publication, just before Christmas 1843, Dickens’ ‘ghostly little book’ – A Christmas Carol – has never been out of print. William Makepeace Thackeray hailed it as a ‘national benefit’, and warned off critics from ‘reviewing it down.’ He even claimed that it had caused the gloomy Sage of Chelsea, Mr Carlyle – a man who ‘did not keep Christmas Day’ – on reading it ‘to send out for a turkey and to ask two friends to dine.’ What took Dickens only six weeks to write created a new genre in the Christmas story and is regarded by most Dickens readers and scholars as a masterpiece.
The Carol was the first of Dickens’ ‘seasonal helpings of humour, pathos and preachment’ in novella-form. And the public were to love them. Yet critical reception of his Christmas Books following the Carol was never to be as high, some received lukewarm notices and others hostile reviews. Some contemporary critics felt that in the subsequent Christmas Books ‘the humour becomes whimsy…and the pathos soon turns into sentimentality’ and others objected to ‘the religious tone and the pious sentimentalising’ of his last, The Haunted Man. However, one scholar, Philip V. Allingham, has written, ‘Dickens could have gone on until his death turning out Christmas Books adhering to the tried and true formula, and the public would have continued to snap them up in the tens of thousands, no matter what critics wrote.’
Nor do all scholars regard the genius of Dickens to have been suited to short stories. Of the Christmas Books, the critic Steven Marcus has written, ‘only A Christmas Carol is of genuine literary interest.’ Where the writing of literary history is concerned, this probably is the case, but it somewhat misses the point: these seasonal productions of Dickens’ were hugely anticipated by his readers and they continue to be greatly enjoyed by new generations of readers. Their appeal, like Christmas, is timeless.
Robert Douglas-Fairhurst’s lively introduction provides historical background information about the inspiration of these Christmas stories, how they were composed, and how they were received by the reading public.
In addition to reproductions of the original illustrations for A Christmas Carol, this edition includes two curiosities – two facsimile pages of Dickens’ own reading version of the Carol, which he used for his public readings for the rest of his life. This ‘prompt-copy’ with its cuts and underlinings gives some idea of Dickens’ ‘performance of the story’. The other is a periodical article that I was not familiar with – ‘What Christmas Is, As We Grow Older.’
© Michael Lister
Edited by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst. Charles Dickens. A Christmas Carol and Other Christmas Books. Oxford University Press. £12.99. ISBN-10: 0-19-920474-8. ISBN-13: 978-0-19-920474-8