That night, Dickens walked the dirty streets of Manchester nearly until dawn. The response of the crowd echoed in his ear, reaffirming to him the cause that he might best support with his natural gifts. He was humble, and he was inspired, and these two combusted within him. In these moments, and in many that would come in future, similar nocturnal walks in London, in this crucible, the third strand was added to the to the other two. From multiple biographies of the great author and from his own personal letters, it appears that over this period of time, he was given a gift – clarity of thought – that contained within it, three self-observations.
First, maybe it was not the critics and readers that were wrong. Maybe, in fact, it was him. In a move most unusual in public figures, for whom ego is often their primary conveyance, he examined himself. Maybe he had become lost in his anger and disgust, and in so doing, cut himself off from his natural talents, and perhaps in the process, his foreordained purpose.
Second, perhaps he could inform without preaching, educate without intimidating, inspire without using guilt and encourage rather than goad action. Perhaps he could return to his style that allowed him to set the table with his stories and permit the reader to voluntarily select what they were ready to hear, rather than be force-fed a diet of thick, heavy culpability.
Finally, Dickens happened upon a most extraordinary thought: change in human behavior does not and will not come from an external force. It will never be permanently engaged by device or demand. Change must begin and come from within – from a change of heart. From this inner wellspring, actions will voluntarily be altered, the effects of which will spread outward in concentric rings. If he were going to change the world, he understood that the world must be changed by individuals, each of whom must undergo a personal transformation.
A story began to form in his mind. This would be a tale of a man who embodied the selfishness that was so destructive of the time. Even his name, Scrooge, would in onomatopoeic fashion, evoke in the reader an understanding of his character. He would be given a gift, procured for him by one like him – a former business partner who had died in his sins – to see the impact of the choices he had made in his past, to see himself as the world now saw him, and to see his future should his path not change. The supporting cast? Jacob Marley, the three ghosts of Christmas, nephew Fred, Bob Cratchit, Tiny Tim, and two briefly referenced children, one named Ignorance and the other Want.
According to the words of his friend and biographer, John Forster, as Dickens walked, “with a strange mastery it seized him.” Upon his return to London, while trying to finish Martin Chuzzlewit, he continued to find inspiration in nightly walks of sometimes fifteen miles, and in crafting his story, he “wept over it, and laughed and wept again.” He would use the language of song, crafting the chapters as “staves” or verses. It would garner a simple title: A Christmas Carol.
In six weeks’ time, the story was complete. His publisher’s lack of conviction for the book led Dickens to confidently fund its production using his own resources. It was not just any Christmas story, and as such, should not look like just any other. The page edges were trimmed in gold and contained within them 8 illustrations from his old friend, John Leech. The cover was red cloth embossed in gold with the title, A Christmas Carol, and two boughs of holly leaves. The dedication was simple, a message from a friend to a friend, unassuming and not preachy, and toying with the concept of the spirits in his tale allowing the reader to see he was not taking himself too seriously:
I HAVE endeavored 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.
Their faithful Friend and Servant,
C. D. December 1843.
The book was expensive in its production for its size and length, due to Charles’ vision of its appearance. At the same time, he wanted it accessible to the masses, and priced it barely above his cost. On December 19, 1843, the first editions of A Christmas Carol went on sale for 5 schillings.
Whatever doubt the Dickens publisher had about the curious little book vanished as quickly as the first printing. That printing of 6,000 copies sold out by Christmas Eve five days later. In response two more runs were initiated prior to the end of that year. The enthusiasm for the little book continued, and by the end of 1844, A Christmas Carol experienced eleven more printings.
From that profound moment in 1843 to Dickens passing in 1870 he would write nine more novels, some to critical acclaim, some to criticism. He would also pen more than twenty additional short stories, including four Christmas themed works, but none quite like Christmas Carol.
More than 175 years have passed since this little book was launched into the public consciousness. A Christmas Carol has quietly marched on, to this day never having gone out of print from its first run on December 19, 1843. It plays on an untold number of stages large and small. Businessman and postman find the time to don the hat and scarf, to memorize the lines, to huff humbug at Bob Cratchit. Director’s children learn to walk on a crutch to utter the few, but most famous lines of A Christmas Carol. Neighbors and friends sit in the audience, back for a second or fifth or twenty-fifth viewing to fear, to laugh, to cry, to hope and to turn, perhaps only a bit, with the transformation of the old man.
Its simple story in its simple package with its simple message should never be underestimated. Truth has a backbone that holds it erect in the face of the gravest of challenges. It related and relates a message that was fit for times of plenty, to spread our bounty. It is fit for times of need, to remember those most hurt.
In this war we fight today for the hearts of man, it is as unassuming a solider as there ever was, the Johnny Appleseed of that infantry: diminutive and unassuming, but as pure in heart as any and more than most. Yet onward it voyages, planting seeds to be harvested by those that come upon the fruits of its message.
As long as there is at least one, and maybe only one heart to lose itself in the care of others, we carry on. We are indeed fellow passengers, as nephew Fred proclaimed to his uncle Scrooge. A victory for one is a beacon for us all. If that single heart is yours alone, then we as a people are not lost, it is not over, and there is hope.
(Excerpted from the forthcoming book, The Third Greatest Christmas Story Ever Told, or How Charles Dickens and A Christmas Carol Won a Battle in the War for the Hearts of Man by R. William Bennett. Bill is the author Jacob T. Marley, The Christmas Gift and the newly released The Last Man at The Inn.