Charles Dickens’ Hand-Edited Copy of His Classic Holiday Tale, A Christmas Carol


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No hol­i­day sea­son can seem to pro­voke as much anx­i­ety, or even out­right dis­cord, as Christ­mas. But there are at least a few things most every­one can agree on. I would like to think one of them is A Char­lie Brown Christ­mas (and its sound­track). Anoth­er, I’m sure, is Charles Dick­ens’ A Christ­mas Car­ol (1843). Some read­ers might object to the tale’s maudlin sen­ti­men­tal­i­ty. But few would say it isn’t a great sto­ry, and well told. And in Dick­ens’ day, you might be lucky enough to catch the author him­self read­ing it aloud. Accord­ing to cura­tor Issac Gewirtz, Dick­ens gave some­where around 150 read­ings of A Christ­mas Car­ol. This, at a time, Gewirtz tells us, when “pub­lic read­ings of fic­tion or poet­ry [were] not done; it was con­sid­ered a des­e­cra­tion of one’s art and a low­er­ing of one’s dig­ni­ty.” Nev­er­the­less, while Dick­ens may have let his own chil­dren down, he would not dis­ap­point his loy­al read­ers.


As is gen­er­al­ly the case when a work of prose goes to the stage, the text need­ed prun­ing. NPR’s All Things Con­sid­ered brings us these images of Dick­ens’ “prompt­book” for his per­for­mances, a copy of the text great­ly abridged by Dick­ens’ own hand and now resid­ing at the New York Pub­lic Library. While Dick­ens’ first per­for­mance ran three hours, lat­er ver­sions took about half that time. In-between, he slashed out whole para­graphs, sim­pli­fied words and phras­es, and removed entire pages. “What’s inter­est­ing to see,” says Gewirtz, “is how much of the atmos­pher­ics have been delet­ed.” Instead, Dick­ens con­veys the mood with mar­gin­al stage cues like “soft­en very much” and “tone to mys­tery.” It is intrigu­ing to imag­ine Dick­ens tak­ing on the roles of Scrooge, Mar­ley, and Cratch­et père and fils, but alas we’ll nev­er get to hear him. We can, how­ev­er, hear the voice of Dick­ens’ great-grandaugh­ter, nov­el­ist Mon­i­ca Dick­ens (below), who in 1950 record­ed her ver­sion of the fam­i­ly Christ­mas fable.

Monica’s daugh­ter Mary Dan­by, also a nov­el­ist, tells the BBC that her mother’s ren­di­tion is faith­ful to the Dick­ens’ fam­i­ly tra­di­tion of read­ings, begun by Charles him­self. There­fore, Monica’s phras­ing is as much like Charles Dick­ens’ as we’re like­ly to hear. Dick­en­sian­ism is still some­thing of a fam­i­ly busi­ness, as is writ­ing. “In my fam­i­ly,” says Dick­ens’ great-great-grandaugh­ter Mary, “they think you are a bit odd if you haven’t writ­ten a book.” Still, I doubt their Christ­mases are any bet­ter, or any worse, than the rest of ours.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A Christ­mas Car­ol Pre­sent­ed in a Thomas Edi­son Film (1910)

A Christ­mas Car­ol, A Vin­tage Radio Broad­cast by Orson Welles and Lionel Bar­ry­more (1939)

Cel­e­brate the 200th Birth­day of Charles Dick­ens with Free Movies, eBooks and Audio Books

The His­toric Meet­ing Between Dick­ens and Dos­to­evsky Revealed as a Great Lit­er­ary Hoax

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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