A carol for the ages: celebrating 180 years of Dickens' Christmas classic with Senate House Library
19th December 2023 marks the 180th anniversary of the publication of “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens (1812-1870). Published by Chapman and Hall in 1843 as “A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas”, the book remains a firm festive favourite, and is often credited with popularising many aspects of the “ideal” and traditional Christmas that are still prevalent today.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that the University of London was founded in 1836 (and Dickens moved to the university’s current neighbourhood, Bloomsbury, in 1837), Senate House Library has rich holdings of 19th century books and several treasures relating to the man considered by many to be Britain’s finest novelist. The Sterling Library, gifted to the University by pioneer of the early record industry Sir Louis Sterling, has several first editions of A Christmas Carol from 1843, from the 6,000 printed in the novel’s first run.
Also on a Christmas theme, the collections include rare miniature novelty editions of Dickens’s ‘Christmas Books,’ complete with illustrations, each measuring just 1”x1” (2.54cm x 2.54cm). These rare and beautiful books can be viewed in Senate House Library on request.
A Christmas Carol was the first of five Christmas tales authored by Dickens, which have come to be known collectively as his ‘Christmas Books’. A Christmas Carol was followed by The Chimes (1844), The Cricket on the Hearth (1845), The Battle of Life (1846) and finally, in 1848, The Haunted Man. These short novels helped to cement Dickens’s reputation as the inventor of the traditional Christmas. In A Christmas Carol the festive period is described as ‘a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time’, the warmth of which is contrasted with Scrooge’s miserliness, the poverty within society, and the ‘misanthropic ice’ of the season.
Dickens himself experienced poverty during his childhood, which greatly influenced his writing on the social issues of his day. Following his father’s incarceration in Marshalsea debtors’ prison when Charles was 12, he was forced to work for a time in a boot-blacking factory. When Dickens began his literary career, he did not forget his earlier experiences, and devoted a great deal of time and energy raising awareness of poverty, especially among children.
In 2020, tying in with its wealth of Dickens collections, Senate House Library ran an exhibition, “Childhood in Dickensian London” which put the author’s works and life into context. The exhibition included rare first edition copies of Dickens’s most-loved novels, examples of his journalism, and intricate drawings and sketches of Dickens and the characters he created. There are also books and documents relating to wider social reform in Victorian era London, all of which are from Senate House Library’s vast collections.
With his Christmas Books and social reform efforts, Dickens offered a lens into the growing divide between wealthy and impoverished Britons during the Industrial Revolution. As a rising middle class celebrated an increasingly idealised Christmas, the poor continued to struggle as portrayed so vividly in Dickens’ writing. It would perhaps be inaccurate to credit Dickens with “inventing” Christmas, but through his ‘Carol Philosophy’, he did undoubtedly help to renew and redefine the holiday as a kind, forgivable and charitable time. His stories came into being at a time when a growing middle class with disposable incomes and recent innovations like the Christmas Tree and Christmas Card helped cement the idea of the “perfect” Christmas, an image still portrayed in adverts and movies today.