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Sir Charles Dickens

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Published: 5 Dec 2012      

Charles Dickens was born in Portsmouth,England on February 7, 1812. His father, supporting such a large family, had difficulty avoiding debt and his challenges shaped the impressions of young Charles.

Life was hard in London of 1824, Charles was the second of seven children and life was especially difficult. At the age of twelve, his father was sent to a debtor's prison, leaving an already poor family utterly destitute. The entire family moved into the prison to be with his father. Charles was then sent out to work for twelve hours a day, in a shoe polish factory, as this was common for child labourers in Londonin the early 19th century. 

He was not badly treated there, which was fortunate for him, as this was normal of child labourers to be badly treated. But he experienced shame over his family's condition. Their poverty, their shabby dwelling and his mother's insistence that he continue working through his youth built such resentment that it hardened his heart, even still as an old man late in life. 

No, this is not the history of one Ebenezer Scrooge. This is the beginning of the story of the man who invented Scrooge and who may have been more like Scrooge than most ever really knew. 

In 1827, at the age of 15, he worked professionally as a solicitor's clerk. During his tenure there he learned shorthand and, being bright, became a reporter. His talents grew to include drawing. By 1833 he worked to submit stories and sketches to newspapers under the pen name "Boz". By 1837 Sketches by Boz and The Pickwick Papers made him famous and financially stable. 

From there he delved into works of fiction that have long since become classics. His stories were ripe with tales of the harsh treatment of the poor and the woes of ignorance. Through words and art, he told the story of 19th century English poverty and the realities of child labour as such as he endured

 A Christmas Carol

In the autumn of 1844 Dickens started up a project that consumed him. Fresh from a tour of London's charitable schools, Dickens found the inspiration to completely address the issues of want and Ignorance among the poor. The schools were privately funded charitable organisations that took in the poor of London's children and it was these visits that both moved and disturbed Dickens. 

In just six short weeks that autumn, Charles mulled over a story with a Christmas setting. A ghost story that had him weeping and laughing as he mulled the tale over in his head while he walked the dark streets of the city late at night.

The story contained elements drawn from his own grevence against poverty. The home of Bob Cratchit was inspired by his own child hood home. His own brother was known as "Tiny Fred" and the character of Cratchit's  son Tiny Tim has some basis in the own real life handicapped nephew. The central character of Scrooge gained many of his worst characteristics from Dickens himself, who was known to be miserly and obsessed with the creation of wealth. 

Dickens was so sure his story would be a succes, he insisted on illustrations and a good quality binding for the first edition. The first run of 6,000 copies was released on December 19, 1843  and sold out in only five days. By Spring of 1844, the book was on it's sixth edition. Letters came from all over to Dickens, claiming the book was almost as important as the Bible in the family home. 

By 1853, Dickens himself was performing readings of A Christmas Carol. His renditions of the tale were particularly well presented and known for their flare. Dickens re-edited his own personal copy of the book, adding emphasis and deleting un needed detail for the sake of performance. He was able to deliver the reading in jonly two hours. 

For a time, his life was set by readings of A Christmas Carol. While many times he drew huge crowds for the benefit of charities, he also made a good living as a reader of his own works. In 1865, he was reading A Christmas Carol in the United States. By then his fame and the fame of the book preceded him. The two dollar tickets created lines of over than half a mile on the night before opening and were later sold on the streets of Boston for a of sum of twenty-six dollars the next day. 

In New York, more than 5,000 turned out to purchase tickets on a bitterly cold evening he also toured Washington and Philidelphia. 

By the Spring of 1870, Dickens grew ill from performing. It was widely noticed at the time that the effort he put into the tellings of the story caused him to collapse backstage during the intermissions, doctors were waiting for him to check his vital signs and tend to his needs. On March 15th 1870 he had a very difficult time and he returned for a final applause to sadley announce to the audience that they had witnessed his final performance. 

Within three months, Dickens was dead. He was then buried in Westminster Abbey next to George Frideric Handel, another name made famous by Christmas. (He compossed The Messiah). The effect of this one peice of work on Dicken's own life cannot be denied and for the effect A Christmas Carol had upon the world. At the time of Dicken's birth, Christmas was not a greatly celebrated holiday, certainly it was nothing as we know it today. 

In fact, Christmas in London of the 1820s was not even a day off for most working men, women and children. Christmas was still scorned by a generation who claimed it had roots in pagan rituals. While the crossover to mainstream  had taken place as churches invoked the name of Christ upon the pagan festivals of winter, open societal acceptance of the same was slow in coming. 

The images created in A Christmas Carol were as endearing to the generations who loved the story then as they do now. References to the Christmas tree, the merry dress of the Ghost of Christmas Present, of families engaged in frivolous holiday games and the gathering around the table for the Christmas feast were all inspired by what Charles Dickens wrote and by how he himself approached the holiday of Christmas. 

A son of Charles Dickens once said: "Christmas was a great time, a really jovial time, and my father was always at his best, a splendid host, bright and jolly as a boy and throwing his heart and soul into everything that was going on.... And then the dance! There was no stopping him!" 

Indeed, as Scrooge's redeeming transformation warms the hearts of readers everywhere, one cannot help but wonder if his story isn't more closely aligned with that of his inventor. Charles Dickens seemed to relish in Christmas. And so do we with each passing season as his work is celebrated on screen and in print, even now, some 160 plus years since it was first published.