On this day in 1843, the Charles Dickens classic “A Christmas Carol” was published. Or was it? While researching the book’s history, there appeared to be some confusion over the date, with many sources confirming December 19 as the day Ebenezer Scrooge was introduced to readers.
As it turns out, the book has a somewhat complicated publishing history, owing to different copies that were made.
Dickens feverishly wrote his classic Christmas tale in about six weeks. Because of the disappointment of his serialized “Martin Chuzzlewit,” the author was hoping to produce something that would be both popular and profitable. Dickens set out to tell the tale of a miserly old man called on to repent his ways and make “mankind … charity, mercy, forbearance and benevolence” his business.
Finished by the end of November 1843, Dickens worked with his publishers Chapman and Hall to produce the work through a rather unorthodox arrangement – he incurred all the costs of the publishing but would also gain all the profits. Dickens was certain his book would be a financial success.
However, “A Christmas Carol” proved to be costly to produce, due to Dickens’ insistence on a lavish format. An article in The Guardian’s book blog notes the author required “a fancy binding stamped with gold lettering on the spine and front cover; gilded edges on the paper all around; four full-page, hand-colored etchings and four woodcuts by John Leech; half-title and title pages printed in bright red and green; and hand-colored green endpapers to match the green of the title page.”
Dickens scrapped some of this initial plan and changed out the green title page to blue. And while the green endpapers were first choice, at some point in the publishing process, they were switched out for yellow.
On Dec. 17. 1843, Dickens was given presentation copies to hand out among friends and acquaintances. The known copies had the red and blue title page and yellow endpapers. It’s also interesting to note some text discrepancies.
In these early copies, chapters are designated as “Stave I,” “Stave II” and so forth, and the Table of Contents also lists the staves with Roman numerals. However, in the original, uncorrected text, Stave I is designated with a Roman numeral while the rest of the chapters have the numbers written out.
Ultimately, copies of “A Christmas Carol” exist in various forms, with combinations of title pages, endpapers and chapter headings.
The Library holds the first edition, first issue (with title papers in red and blue and green end papers) in addition to one with the yellow endpapers. Both have the described “Stave I” of the first chapter heading followed by the uncorrected text.
On Dec. 19, Chapman and Hall released an initial print run of 6,000 copies of “A Christmas Carol” that sold out by Christmas Eve. Cost of the book was five shillings. Unfortunately, the overwhelming public response didn’t equal a large sum of money in Dickens’ pocket. Even after numerous printings into the next year, his profits were only about £726.
In America, interest was slow to take off, perhaps owing to Dickens’ criticisms in “American Notes for General Circulation,” a recounting of his trip to the states in 1842.
Needless to say, “A Christmas Carol” is firmly ensconced in literary heritage – and even in theater, movies and music! In addition to the rare presentation copies, the Library holds numerous other editions including this digitized copy from 1911.
The Library also holds first editions of many important Dickens’ works, including “David Copperfield,” “A Tale of Two Cities,” “Nicholas Nickleby,” “Master Humphrey’s Clock,” “The Old Curiosity Shop,” “Baraby Rudge,” “Little Dorrit,” “Our Mutual Friend,” “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” “Oliver Twist,” “Sketches by Boz” and “Great Expectations,” among others. Our collections even include his traveling kit and walking stick.
For further reading about the Dickens’ classic, check out this blog post from the Inside Adams blog and this one from the Library’s National Audio-Video Conservation Center.
And make sure to join us over the next few days as we highlight more historical treasures in celebration of the holiday season. You can catch up on previous years here. Happy Holidays!
Sources: history.com, John J. Burns Library Blog, The Victorian Web