Charles Dickens’s Christmas tale—which he published himself to reap maximum profit—came together quickly and became an instant classic (even if it didn't initially garner him as much money as he thought it would). Here are a few fascinating facts you might not have known about A Christmas Carol.
1. Charles Dickens was inspired to write A Christmas Carol after a charity event.
In 1843, Dickens gave a speech at a charity night to raise money for the Manchester Athenaeum in England—an institution dedicated to "advancement and diffusion of knowledge." The 31-year-old spoke alongside the young Benjamin Disraeli, who would later become prime minister of Great Britain. Afterward, Dickens went on a long nocturnal walk and had the idea for his "little Christmas book."
2. Dickens started A Christmas Carol in October 1843 and wrote obsessively for six weeks.
As Dickens wrote, he wept, laughed, and wandered around London at night "when all sober folks had gone to bed." He finished the novella at the end of November so it could be published in time for Christmas. A Christmas Carol hit the shops on December 19, 1843, and sold out in three days.
3. Dickens was the first famous writer to give public readings of his work—and his first reading was A Christmas Carol.
The reading took place in front of a crowd of 2000 people in the town hall of Birmingham, England, 10 years after the book was published. Dickens opened the reading by saying, “Ladies and gentlemen—I have said that I bear an old love towards Birmingham and Birmingham men; let me amend a small omission, and add Birmingham women too. This ring I wear on my finger now is an old Birmingham gift, and if by rubbing it I could raise the spirit that was obedient to Aladdin’s ring, I heartily assure you that my first instruction to that genius on the spot should be to place himself at Birmingham’s disposal in the best of causes. I now have the pleasure of reading to you tonight A Christmas Carol in four staves.”
4. Dickens created a version of A Christmas Carol for his readings.
Rather than simply read extracts from his stories, Dickens loved to perform them—so he created a special version of A Christmas Carol for exactly that purpose. He tore the pages out of an original book, and stuck them into a new, large leafed, blank paged book. Then he filleted the text, cutting out descriptive scenes to create a performance script. He added stage directions for himself all over the text. This version of the text is known as a "prompt copy."
5. There's one extant copy of A Christmas Carol created by Dickens himself.
It's owned by the Berg Collection of English and American literature at the New York Public Library (NYPL). I came across it when researching my book The Secret Museum and wrote about its story. In 2009, NYPL and Levenger Press released a 224-page reproduction of Dickens's prompt copy of A Christmas Carol.
6. Dickens visited America twice for reading tours.
During the second tour—which took place at Christmastime in 1867—he used the prompt copy at the NYPL, once at a Steinway piano hall, and once at a church in Brooklyn. People camped out in the snow to be sure of a ticket. By opening time, the line was a mile long. The second tour earned him £19,000—far more than he was earning from the royalties of his books.
7. Mark Twain attended one of Dickens's readings.
When he was 32, Mark Twain listened to one of the then-55-year-old Dickens’s New York performances. He described the writer's entrance thus:
"Promptly at 8 P.M., unannounced, and without waiting for any stamping or clapping of hands to call him out, a tall, 'spry,' (if I may say it,) thin-legged old gentleman, gotten up regardless of expense, especially as to shirt-front and diamonds, with a bright red flower in his button-hole, gray beard and moustache, bald head, and with side hair brushed fiercely and tempestuously forward, as if its owner were sweeping down before a gale of wind, the very Dickens came! He did not emerge upon the stage—that is rather too deliberate a word—he strode."
Twain’s review was not favorable: “There is no heart,” he said. “No feeling—it is nothing but glittering frostwork.” Bah Humbug!
8. Dickens had a routine on days when he would do readings.
On reading days, Dickens would drink two tablespoons of rum mixed with cream for breakfast, a pint of champagne for tea and, half an hour before he went on stage, he would knock back a sherry with a raw egg beaten into it. During the interval of his reading he would sip beef tea, and at bedtime he’d have a bowl of soup.
9. Just as Dickens’s first public reading was of A Christmas Carol, so was his last.
The author had decided to retire from readings because his health was failing, and his final performance took place at St. James’s Hall in Piccadilly on March 15, 1870. His son recorded his last words to the audience: "From these garish lights I vanish now for evermore, with one heartfelt, grateful, respectful, and affectionate farewell."
10. In 2013, Neil Gaiman read from Dickens's prompt copy of A Christmas Carol.
While I was writing The Secret Museum, I kept thinking how wonderful it would be to bring some treasures in the book back to life. As Christmas drew near, I thought about asking someone to read from Dickens’s prompt copy of A Christmas Carol—maybe the Ghost of Christmas Present was sprinkling some good cheer above me. Neil Gaiman would be perfect, I decided, so I sent him an email. To my delight he said yes immediately!
In December 2013, as an early birthday present to A Christmas Carol, I welcomed an audience to the New York Public Library and talked about the prompt copy and other Dickensian treasures in the library’s collection (including a letter opener made out of the paw of his deceased pet cat Bob, named after Bob Cratchit). Then, the very wonderful Neil Gaiman read us A Christmas Carol, using the very same prompt copy Dickens used back in 1867. You can hear the performance here.
A version of this story ran in 2013; it has been updated for 2021. It has also been updated to correct the publication date of A Christmas Carol.