The following is part two in a three-part series on Charles Dickens’ creation of A Christmas Carol. To read part one, CLICK HERE.
While Dickens greatest failures would qualify for heady success among most authors, one’s yardstick is often laid against their own distance already run and Dickens’ primary competition was Dickens’. Barnaby Rudge, a fictional story set during the Gordon Riots of 1780, the same time as the war for American Independence, was a departure for Dickens. Somehow, the essence of Dickens’ talents became lost in the story. His characters failed to inspire, even among his greatest supporters. Literary critics have analyzed Rudge and placed it near, or at the very bottom of his works. The public seemed to agree, finding it less appealing than his previous stories. Sales of the serialized novel dropped from 100,000 to 30,000.
This created an inversion of finances with his publisher Chapman and Hall, and Dickens’ advance on royalties exceeded the revenue they were receiving for Rudge. In addition, Dickens had talked them into financing his taking some time off to recover from exhaustion. The pressure was mounting to produce a success that would begin satisfying the debt.
There was no peace on the personal front either. Dickens father, ever enterprising upon his son’s success, was selling early drafts of Dickens’ work without Charles’ permission, which seemed positively virtuous compared to his eventual forging of Dickens name on invoices for his own rich tastes and sending them to Dickens publisher. Charles and his wife Catherine had their fourth child, Walter, in early 1841, and the pressures of his growing family, his extravagant tastes and his meteoric popularity and subsequent decline left their relationship strained.
Dickens could not see the cause of the problem. As he evaluated the situation, it was not the quality of his work that had diminished, but his growing numbers of critics who sought to make their own name by diminishing his. Misdirected by his own pride, he was not weighed down with remorse or guilt, but with anger. He sought a diversion, something to take his mind off the unfair situation he endured.
His friend and focus of admiration, fellow writer Washington Irving, suggested he come to America. Great authors of the time were venturing into the world and writing travelogues of their observations, a sure seller in Dickens’ case due to his public that yearned for another success. With the triumph of Curiosity Shop, Irving was certain Dickens would enjoy great adulation in the states. The idea appealed to him. Dickens was enamored with America, having made somewhat a study of it in Barnaby Rudge. With his affinity for the underdog, he idolized the country that was not seventy years old at that point and yet had amassed an impressive history. It was just the diversion he felt he needed.
In 1842, with renewed enthusiasm as a balm for his worsening mood, he compelled his wife Catherine to join him on the Britannia, bound for The United States. She hesitated because of his condition that they leave their four children behind for the six-month expedition, including their seven-month-old infant. However, Charles successfully convinced or cajoled or compelled, and the two of them left for New York.
Dickens, initially invigorated by the gargantuan crowds he drew, quickly became disenchanted with America and Americans. His tendency to vary dramatically from an initial rosy view to one in which he could find nothing of redeeming value was a pattern he exhibited in many areas and manifested itself here. His discontent ranged appropriately from the practice of slavery, to his somewhat narcissistic repulse of what he saw as Americans’ complete lack of propriety regarding how he was addressed and how he was touched.
From the streets of Boston and New York to the Washington DC waiting room of President Tyler where he was to be received, he was put off by the smoking, the spitting and the loose manner of speech. Though his irritation with the lack of copyright protection in the United States was justified, he received many admonitions to drop the subject, at least from his speeches. Nonetheless, he used most every public opportunity to press his point, delivering a withering diatribe on how he and others were being wronged. The couple fled to Canada for a rest in the last month of their visit, and then returned home in June, leaving behind a public that was fascinated with the man, but found him pompous, ostentatious and “foppish.”
His summed up his experiences and observations in the non-fiction, American Notes for General Publication, his editorialized travelogue. He used Americans and their homeland as the foil for criticism, very thinly veiled in humor, and the venting his own disapproval.
American Notes sold poorly in England, surprising Dickens with his countrymen’s disinterest in the topic. Dickens now had rebranded himself. No longer the upbeat character who, with legitimate concerns for the welfare of the poor, used humor to disarm and engage his readers on the topic. He was now the sullen critic, the acerbic observer and voluble witness of weakness, failure and disillusionment. This tone was not only unbecoming, more importantly, it did not sell books. It seems almost everyone understood this but Dickens himself. He continued his onslaught in, The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit. When the already low sales of the serialized novel appeared at risk for further decline, he felt he could give a lift to the story by having his protagonist visit America.
He satirized and lampooned the young nation. His readers found it neither humorous nor appealing. “There is nothing that more offends the population of any country than the interference of a foreigner with its laws and institutions,” wrote the publication, The Atlantic Monthly in a retrospective 30 years after his visit. “Dickens seemed to think that there was something noble in the courage with which he put at risk his universal popularity, in order to tell the Americans, face to face, that they were guilty of injustice to himself…”. Dickens vitriolic lancing of American pride cost him the friendship and respect of Washington Irving, not to mention further damaging his sales records.
By 1843, life was indeed bleak for Dickens. England was in a devastating depression. Dickens’ literary disappointments had heaved him into an excessive debt, falling further short of the sales commitments he had made to his publisher Chapman and Hall. His marriage to Catherine Hogarth was at best in a lull, at worst showing of signs of weaknesses that might cripple it. His image in the public eye, a factor of most importance to Dickens, was that of a once great author who had peaked and had become lost in a self-centered vortex of egotism, his demise only a matter of time, if not already past.
Then something remarkable, or really, a series of somethings most remarkable, happened.
There are moments in time when disparate threads of our lives, seemingly unrelated, are pulled together and wound tightly and upon their emergence from that bond, have experienced a metamorphosis into a greatly strengthened cord, that strength coming from their combination. Whether it was the invisible hand or the pierced one that gathered these strands of Dickens’ life is left open for one’s own conclusion, but gathered they were. In this case, the threads were three catalytic events that would combine to change the course of Dickens’ life.
The first had its source a few years earlier when Dickens had made the acquaintance of Angela Burdett-Coutts. She was the granddaughter of Thomas Coutts, founder of the banking firm, Coutts & Co. Just before her grandfather’s second wife died, this woman, kind of heart to young Angela, stipulated in her will that if the twenty-three-year-old would agree to never marry a foreigner and to never involve herself in the affairs of the bank, she would inherit 50% of Coutts’s personal fortune. These might seem unusually restrictive covenants until one realizes that this bequest totaled about 3 million pounds.
Angela agreed, changing her name from Burdett to Burdett-Coutts, and instantly joined the ranks of the wealthy, earning the label of the richest woman in England after the queen. Unusually, Angela did not fall prey to the temptations of indulgence common to high society living or to causes political in nature. Rather, she set about to improve the conditions and opportunities for the poor and raise the consciousness of the problem to the nation at large. Her role in this story is made significant by her acquaintance with the dynamic, popular young author Charles Dickens, who would afford her the perfect partnership to deploy her resources. Charles and Angela shared a common concern for the state of the poor and in this concern, she periodically engaged him to help her decide where to direct her philanthropic funds and efforts.
In 1843, Angela urged Charles to visit one of the so-called ‘Ragged Schools’ which provided free education for the indigent. Though noble in their purpose, they typically ran radically short of funds for even the most basic needs. Specifically, she suggested he travel to the Field Lane School on Saffron Hill. In an ironic twist, the school, built in 1841, was located in the exact location of the criminally infested section of London where Dickens had fictionally placed Fagin’s den in Oliver Twist, and therefore Dickens was no stranger to the surroundings, nor to the type of poverty that created these conditions. Nonetheless, he was deeply affected by his visit. Of his observations of the young inhabitants of the ragged school he said, “…the children in them are enough to break the heart and hope of any man.”
Upon hearing his reactions to the school, Miss Burdett-Coutts immediately allocated resources to address what Dickens thought were the most immediate problems, the simple inability to practice any hygiene whatsoever, and the cramped conditions that made any kind of progress unlikely. Forgetting himself, forgetting the criticism levied against him, forgetting his peevish lack of tolerance for others, Dickens re-immersed himself in the world about which he had written to establish his career. If what he saw, by his own words, would “break the heart and hope of any man”, then he was this man – his own heart was broken, and as a result, became receptive for what was to come.
The second strand was an invitation from his older sister, Fan. She lived with her husband in the suburbs of the great industrial town of Manchester. Where London was the center from which the industrial revolution was steered, and all that was rising or sinking on its tide – culture, the arts, society, and the like – Manchester was the engine, a city singular in purpose. It was considered the greatest industrial city in the land. Often referred to as the “chimney of the world” the coal soot of its many factories was a feature of everything that could be touched by the wind which blew through its confines. With a population nearing 400,000, it was the second largest city in England and a third larger than a similar city in America, New York.
If its key products were said to be the heart of textile manufacturing, it would also have to list one of its primary by-products the poverty that accompanied the men who made those goods. A few years prior, an effort had begun to construct an athenaeum, a building to house a library, a school for languages, and other means to educate the masses of the public and support learning. While the project had been germinated in good times, the recent depression left the completed building and its mission in serious debt. Would he, his sister queried, come speak at an event to raise funds to support the Manchester Athenaeum? He had had a busy year, with many charitable speeches, and by his own writing revealed he had grown tired of the efforts, both physically and emotionally. Therefore, it is not clear why he accepted this invitation, but one could assume that his heart, softened and pained at the sight of the children of Field Lane School, inspired him to reinvigorate his platform that the education and support of the poor was one of the most important things he could engage in.
He shared the stage that October night with two other men. The first was Richard Cobden, a fiery activist who had become the voice of the working man, seeking to end the tariffs, such as the Corn Law, that protected the wealthy at the expense of the poor. The other was a young man who had left the study of law to become an author, writing a series of romance novels. From there, he had also found his way into parliament as a junior member. His inclusion on the agenda that evening grew from his interest in social improvement works. He was, without a doubt, the least important of the three. In later years this man, Benjamin Disraeli would go on to serve two terms as Prime Minister of England.
When Dickens turn came, he instantly mesmerized the audience. Drawing upon the well of inspiration that guided his life, he artfully spoke to the concerns of the growing gap between rich and poor. He spoke from experience about what he saw at Field Lane. He validated that while the intentions of his antagonists in stories like The Old Curiosity Shop and Oliver Twist were fiction, they were based on facts that were even more brutal than presented to his readers. His theme was to challenge those who felt providing education for the poor could promote disastrous consequences, a popular and widespread notion. He engaged the audience with these famous lines:
“I do not know whether, at this time of day, and with such a prospect before us, we need trouble ourselves very much to rake up the ashes of the dead-and-gone objections that were wont to be urged by men of all parties against institutions such as this, whose interests we are met to promote; but their philosophy was always to be summed up in the unmeaning application of one short sentence. How often have we heard from a large class of men wise in their generation, who would really seem to be born and bred for no other purpose than to pass into currency counterfeit and mischievous scraps of wisdom, as it is the sole pursuit of some other criminals to utter base coin–how often have we heard from them, as an all-convincing argument, that “a little learning is a dangerous thing?” Why, a little hanging was considered a very dangerous thing, according to the same authorities, with this difference, that, because a little hanging was dangerous, we had a great deal of it; and, because a little learning was dangerous, we were to have none at all.”
When their laughter finally died down, Dickens became more serious:
“Why, when I hear such cruel absurdities gravely reiterated, I do sometimes begin to doubt whether the parrots of society are not more pernicious to its interests than its birds of prey. I should be glad to hear such people’s estimate of the comparative danger of “a little learning” and a vast amount of ignorance; I should be glad to know which they consider the most prolific parent of misery and crime. Descending a little lower in the social scale, I should be glad to assist them in their calculations, by carrying them into certain gaols and nightly refuges I know of, where my own heart dies within me, when I see thousands of immortal creatures condemned, without alternative or choice, to tread, not what our great poet calls the “primrose path” to the everlasting bonfire, but one of jaded flints and stones, laid down by brutal ignorance, and held together, like the solid rocks, by years of this most wicked axiom.”
All attendees were electrified, and it triggered something within Dickens.