Free Library of Philadelphia event celebrates Charles Dickens in December with his Christmas classic

Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol started out as a political pamphlet subtitled An Appeal to the People of England, on behalf of the Poor Man's Child.
Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol started out as a political pamphlet subtitled An Appeal to the People of England, on behalf of the Poor Man's Child.
Posted: December 21, 2012

THE YEAR OF DICKENS is coming to an end. The Free Library has been marking the famous author's 200th birthday with a variety of events throughout the year, continuing through December.

December's activities have had a holiday theme, which is appropriate since Dickens pretty much invented Christmas - or at least the way we celebrate it these days.

It's difficult to imagine Christmas without Ebenezer Scrooge, or Tiny Tim, or those ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come. Dickens' A Christmas Carol met widespread acclaim when it was published in 1843, and the public's love affair with the tale shows no signs of fatigue nearly 170 years later.

Dickens did not write A Christmas Carol out of any special love for the holiday, though he seems to have liked Christmas well enough. More than anything, he was moved by the plight of England's laboring poor. The work that eventually became A Christmas Carol was first intended as a political pamphlet, with the working title An Appeal to the People of England, on behalf of the Poor Man's Child. Doesn't exactly jump off the page or inspire holiday cheer, does it?

Dickens realized as much himself after reading the political pamphlets of mid-19th century London. A contemporary of Dickens', the writer and social thinker Thomas Carlyle, published political broadsides all the time.

Here's a passage from a pamphlet Carlyle wrote on March 1, 1850, called Model Prisons:

"The deranged condition of our affairs is a universal topic among men at present; and the heavy miseries pressing, in their rudest shape, on the great dumb inarticulate class, and from this, by a sure law, spreading upward, in a less palpable but not less certain and perhaps still more fatal shape on all classes to the very highest, are admitted everywhere to be great, increasing and now almost unendurable."

Dickens wanted to appeal to the public, and he was smart enough to realize that he would have to write something appealing to do so.

It was a skill he'd already demonstrated, first with his Pickwick Papers, published serially in 1836-1837. Pickwick Papers' sharp writing and clever storytelling had made him famous. He'd also published Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby and others.

One thing he noticed was that people liked to read stories about Christmas, preferably ones that included references to ghosts. Special editions of Christmas stories written around the holiday season did a brisk business.

In writing A Christmas Carol, Dickens was tapping directly into that market. And he had the further inspiration that a witty and wry style would be perfectly compatible with a story that was both Christmas-themed and meant to stir up feelings of charity and sympathy for the poor.

The first line of the novella is, "Marley was dead: to begin with." How could anyone not continue reading a story that begins with such an intriguing first line?

A few paragraphs later, Dickens continues with, "The mention of Marley's funeral brings me back to the point I started from. There is no doubt that Marley was dead.

"This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate."

In all of Dickens' writings, there are constant asides to the pleasure and amusement he is taking as the writer. This is the charm of Dickens - he plays with the characters and the stories that he creates.

And he sometimes stops mid-story to remind the reader that he is manipulating the story for the amusement of his audience.

There are great characters in Dickens' novels, there are memorable tales and, in the case of A Christmas Carol, moving social commentary. But it all comes together because of the magic in Dickens' style.

I've never found any of the filmed versions of "A Christmas Carol" to be anywhere near as satisfying as reading the story. Maybe that is because it is impossible to put a sentence like "Marley was dead: to begin with," on film. Dickens was in love with language, not with images. That language is still alive, still accessible.

As his bicentennial year comes to a close, there are still a number of events planned in which Dickens the writer will be celebrated. I suspect that is the way Dickens would have wanted to turn 200.

"The Artful Letter: Charles Dickens,"an exhibit of original manuscripts, letters and illustrations, continues through Jan. 13. "At Home on the Stage: Charles Dickens and the Theatre," ending Jan. 4, features rare playbills, letters, and other documents relating to Dickens and the stage. Central Branch, Free Library of Philadelphia, 1901 Vine St., 215-686-5322,

Art Attack is a partnership with Drexel University and is supported by a grant from the Knight/NEA Community Arts Journalism Challenge, administered by the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance.

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