Charles Dickens wrote at top speed, in part because of gifts that didn’t seem so at the time. In his youth, he was a court stenographer. He learned the intricate Gurney system of shorthand in three months, he boasted, not the usual three years (it helped that his father taught him a version when he was young). Later, Dickens became a shorthand reporter for the Mirror of Parliament. He recorded lengthy speeches and exchanges on the spot.
“I wallow in words,” he complained. But the experiences gave him the ability to write as fast as human speech, and a mental scrapbook populated with people he’d seen and, unlike mere faces on the street, had heard as well.
He also went to the theater every night for three years, he says. He studied characters and the construction of scenes and plots, transitions, rising and falling actions. More than anything, in fact, he wanted to be an actor. But as legend has it, on the day of the big audition, he fell ill and turned to writing instead.
Dickens (1812–1870) enjoyed international success with The Pickwick Papers (1837), Oliver Twist (1839), Nicholas Nickelby (1839), and The Old Curiosity Shop (1841). He serialized his novels in periodicals, on a weekly or monthly basis — was among the first to do so. Sales and feedback helped him gauge a story’s appeal. On some occasions he changed the plot or revised a character as a result.
Barnaby Rudge (1841) needed changes. And in 1843 Martin Chuzzlewit’s initial “numbers” (installments) were a flop. Dickens had to write even faster. He was going broke — even his publisher was banging on his door — and his wife Kate was pregnant with their fifth child. Some say Dickens contemplated giving up writing altogether. He needed a best-seller.
Dickens investigated the conditions of child workers in iron and coal mines. They were beyond deplorable, so he gave a speech at the Progressive Club in Manchester, England. Shortly after, on a walk in the cold night air, the idea came to him: a “slender volume” that would strike a “sledgehammer blow” against exploitation of child labor. Make it an ardent plea for social reform — “this boy is ignorance, this girl is want” — but not in a broadside or pamphlet no one would read. No. He’d link it with Christmas (which was not the holiday it is today) and with society as a whole.
This was mid-October. Dickens wanted the story written and published — “a deluxe gift book” — before Christmas. That gave him around six weeks. And he still had to turn in regular installments of Chuzzlewit.
Writers often say that when intensely focused on a subject, thoughts and images seek them out like magnetized filings. As he wrote A Christmas Carol Dickens took long walks around London, “fifteen and twenty miles many a night when all the sober folks had gone to bed.” He “wept and laughed and wept again,” as parts of the story came to him and often fit right in. They melded into a tale of “black streets” and warm hearths, and extremes of greed and charity, and, most of all, the gap between the two.
When he finished in early December, Dickens “broke out like a madman.” He wrote “THE END THE END THE END” on the last page and knew he’d done something special — in only six weeks.
He didn’t take it to his publisher. He owed them money, and they didn’t fancy the idea of a novel about Christmas — a rejection that cost them more king’s ransoms than there have been kings. Though near broke, Dickens published the book himself.
He produced a handsome edition that began with this preface: “I have endeavored in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humor with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.”
He needed money, but to make it more available to a general readership, he asked only five shillings per copy. The first 6000 were sold by Christmas. The book went through seven editions by the end of 1844. Because of the low price, however, Dickens made “disappointing profits.”
But was there a real Tiny Tim? Probably not, though hundreds could have qualified.
And Ebenezer Scrooge, that unforgettable assemblage of grating sounds — did he have a source? Was there an actual “bah, humbugger” out there?
Jack the Ripper has fewer candidates. Some suggest it was Thomas Malthus, who argued that population growth exceeded the food supply, and therefore must be curbed, by famine or disease, if necessary.
Others opt for Jeremy Wood, England’s first millionaire and major miser. Many say Gabriel Grub. He’s the grouch in Chapter 29 of The Pickwick Papers: “an ill-conditioned, cross-grained, surly sort of fellow” with a “deep scowl of malice.” He digs a grave on Christmas Eve and goblins snatch him underground. A horrific chat with their king convinces Grub that the world he detests is actually “very decent and respectable” after all.
Grub’s conversion provides a sketch. John Elwes fills in many details. In Our Mutual Friend, Dickens mentions “Elwes the Miser” as one of Ebenezer’s possible ancestors. Elwes inherited two fortunes but spent only 50 pounds on himself per year (at his death, in 1879, he left over 500,000 pounds, about $28 million by today’s standards). He wore dilapidated clothes, wouldn’t hire a coach when it rained, and, rather than buy fresh food, would eat putrefied game.
According to a biographer, Elwes and his miserly uncle, Sir Harvey Elwes, “would spend the evening railing against other people’s extravagances while they shared a single glass of wine.” The biographer, among many others, nominated Elwes as the primary source for Scrooge. Though in Dickens’s dancing imagination, surely others had a say.
Within six weeks of its publication, Edward Stirling adapted A Christmas Carol for the London stage. It ran for 40 performances. Thus began a tradition that has continued to this day.