OF ALL THE EARLY Decembers of my childhood, one of the things I remember most is a single, silent ritual by which my father announced the coming of Christmas. Some frosty morning not long after Thanksgiving, but never before December had started, he would pull down from a bookshelf in his study a small battered slipcase, remove a little brown book with a gold holly wreath stamped on its cover, settle into his easy chair, kick up the foot rest, and begin to read to himself.
As I watched his eyes scanning the pages, I could tell that very soon he was not in the room with me anymore. He was in London. It was Christmas Eve. And the year was 1843.
Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol is, in any form, a well-known and well-published seasonal treat. We all know how the old frost-bitten miser Ebenezer Scrooge, “hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire,” is visited by the remorseful ghost of his former partner, Jacob Marley. With the aid of a trio of time-traveling spirits, Jacob offers him “a chance and hope of escaping my fate,” whereupon Scrooge, wanting no more than a good night’s sleep, reluctantly journeys through Christmases past, present, and future on his way to spiritual redemption. By the end of the fable, he has become Uncle Ebenezer, “as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew.”
The Carol is a story full of what Dickens termed the “glorious pageant” of London life, a tale about Scrooge’s poor but contented employee Bob Cratchit, Bob’s hobbled son Tiny Tim, young Scrooge’s kindly old employer Fezziwig, the wretched and wolfish (though decidedly human) creatures Ignorance and Want, fellowship, charity, forbearance, reclamation, and plump, steaming, holly-sprigged plum pudding.
To my father, Dickens’s story was everything that Christmas was about. More to the point, this little brown book was everything that Christmas was about.
While he owned several nicely illustrated editions of Dickens’s fable, including two or three from the early decades of the last century, he never paid much attention to them. They were carefully preserved, unused, on a farther shelf in his library. No. Year after year, he lovingly unsheathed only this one, a drab miniature volume produced sixty years ago by Columbia University Press. And the reason he did was simple.
It was a facsimile of the 1843 first edition.
Although he is rarely given much credit for it, among Dickens’s gargantuan talents was a studied sense of what makes an elegant book. A spat with his publishers Chapman & Hall involving the slumping sales of Martin Chuzzlewit in the fall of 1843 (in a scene lovingly and comically imagined in Calhoun and Heaney’s Dickens’ Christmas Carol After a Hundred Years: A Study in Bibliographic Evidence) caused the author to propose that his new book be published on commission: he would write a short seasonal story, pay all the costs for its production himself, and reap what he felt would be a handy profit, all without incurring further his publishers’ bad feeling. After all, Dickens’s reputation as England’s most popular living novelist ensured a brisk and profitable sale for such a unique holiday item.
So off he went, writing his “little scheme” in October and November. Once done, he supervised the design and printing in early and mid December, including commissioning a set of color plates from the up and coming Punch illustrator John Leech.
The resulting little volume is a bibliographer’s delight. Bound variously in salmon-colored, brown, or cinammon vertically ribbed cloth with gold and blind stamping on the covers and spine, the early editions of the book measured a pocket-sized four and a quarter by six and three quarter inches. The pages were gilt edged all round. Carrying on the metaphor of the carol, the story’s five chapters were named “staves.” With four black and white wood engravings and four hand-colored steel engravings by Leech, this “neat book” sold exceptionally well at newsstands and bookshops throughout London, by various reports selling out its first printing of 6000 copies within days of publication on December 19.
My father’s facsimile was true to most points of the first public issue of that edition. From the red and blue title page, to the tenderly colored engravings, to the quaint “Works of Mr. Charles Dickens” advertisement at the end (which shows us the master in mid-career — it touts only the books from Nickelby up to the thirteenth of twenty projected installments of Chuzzlewit): my father cherished this little book. He knew that the only true way to read Scrooge’s story was as the author designed it to be read.
The lines of text and ornament on the charming two-color title page are not quite parallel. Inside, the handset type, the occasional jerky lines, the misspellings, blobs of ink, alternating lightness and heaviness of impression, spotiness, cracked letters, missing punctuation, broken hyphens: all these imperfections speak not of detatched mechanization and the assembly line, but of inkers and binders and colorers in gaslit printer’s rooms, rushing to get those first six thousand copies to the booksellers, of ink-stained fingers in cold rooms heated only by the toil of workers, and everything suffused with the odor of paint and oil and ink and sweat.
This book is all about a thing made, and in it my father saw what the facsimile publishers over the years must have seen: that a reader of this edition would be ineluctably drawn back through the intervening decades to the Christmas of 1843 — its penetrating foggy air, the icy, wheel-rutted streets and narrow courts of the great black-bricked, black-skied city — to the ghost story Dickens wrote, and finally to Dickens himself. Through the type and the engravings, you become as close to each character “as I am to you,” writes Dickens, “and I am standing in the spirit at your elbow.”
When I open the book to the first page, I learn what my father learned when he purchased the book in 1956: that the full effect of the facsimile begins with Dickens’s very first line.
Marley was dead : to begin with.
No matter how often you read it, the oddness of the line’s punctuation cannot fail to stop you in your tracks. Read silently or aloud, the effect is stunning, even quickening, in a dead sort of way.
Modern editions, many of them, change that colon to a comma, as if to imply that Dickens really didn’t know what he was doing. My father knew, and taught me to know, that by altering that one simple thing, you already begin to lose the essence of the book; modern minds — so certain of their intelligence — begin to pull you into their time and away from Dickens’s.
Year after year, my father brought out this book. Year after year, I was intrigued by it. I remember asking him more than once for permission to read it. “Only if you promise to be careful,” he said. I did. I was. I like to think my early interest caused him to search for a copy of my own. Sadly, the 1956 Columbia was by then out of print, so he bought me instead a sort of “training” facsimile. Inexpensive, though handsome, it was a bright-red copy produced by the J. G. Ferguson Publishing Company of Chicago.
After my father died, eleven years ago this past January, my mother asked if I wanted any of his books. It’s the way with all of us, I suspect: sorrow mingling with greed that rises at such a statement. Yes, of course. I wanted the Carol.
I little imagined when I pulled the little brown book from his shelf and took it home with me that something quite private and different would begin to work on me.
Apart from the usual scent of all old books, over the seasons and years that it was landlocked in my father’s study, the book’s pages had soaked up the smell of his pipe smoke and the room’s aura of claustrophobia and must, until it was imbued with its own distinctively sweet, intoxicating fragrance. Like the cooped-up air that I imagine pours from the genie’s bottle when you invoke it, this aroma enveloped my senses. Eleven years after the last pipe was smoked, the smell still permeates the pages and haunts me in an almost physical way. It resets the parameters of my present world, and it moves me into the London of 1843, with Scrooge, with Marley, with Bob, and with Dickens.
And also with my father. It’s no irony for me that the book is about reanimating the dead.
Reviewers at the time, many of them, cited the story’s ability to soften the reader to a greater appreciation of the world’s poor and needy, falling in with Scrooge’s nephew’s testament about Christmastide: “though it has never put a scrap of gold and silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, ‘God bless it!’”
Despite all the “good” being tossed around the season, my father loved the unreconstructed Scrooge best. He made no secret of it; telling us, my mother, brother, and I, that the miser, the growler, the skinflint, the threatener of small carolers — he was the hero of this story. The congealed, facetious old man was hands down far more interesting before the spirits changed him and made him more or less normal. If the earlier Scrooge is cruel, misanthropic, heartless (attributes doubtless admired by certain mid-century fathers), he is also energetic, purposed, and fun as only a nasty creature can be. Maybe my father saw in the raw Scrooge a sense of possibility: after all, the potential of perfection can only exist in an imperfect thing. Maybe he just liked bad Scrooge’s sense of mischief.
If immersing himself in the Carol each year was for my father something of a retreat from the world (and no doubt he loved this little book for that), in a larger sense the story is Dickens’s most eloquent and natural call to embrace the world. The author wants us to search all around, voraciously, for poverty, homelessness, anger, ignorance, want, and greed, and he wants us to do something about them.
This little book still has the power to change, and to change fundamentally. I know, because it has changed me.
The November after my father died, someone I knew was in a severe financial situation. It’s barely an exaggeration to say that it was a matter of life and liberty, but it was compounded by moral issues as severe as the need. Day and night I was tormented about how to deal with it. Reading this little book was like conversing with Dickens. In the absence of my father it gave me, at least, his answer.
Near the end of Stave I, Marley floats “out upon the bleak, dark night” to join his fellow phantoms crying “piteously at being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant, whom it saw below, upon a doorstep.” Among the spirits is an old ghost with “a monstrous iron safe attached to its ancle [for ankle; a quaint, old spelling not modernized during Dickens’s lifetime].” The more I read this scene and saw the tortured phantom in Leech’s engraving, the more I felt the weight of that heavy safe on my own ankle. Could this spirit, chained to the cashbox, impotent to help in death what it might have helped in life, be myself? Would I learn “that no space of regret can make amends for one’s life’s opportunities misused”?
Adding to the terror and frustration of Dickens’s original scene is that, given the severity of street life in London at the time, it’s fairly likely that either or both the wretched woman and her infant would soon die, perhaps that very night, Christmas Eve. In fact, the harsh potential remains. For when the book ends neither Scrooge nor anyone else has sought out and helped that woman and child. This has always bothered me. It seemed a loose end in a tale so masterfully absent of them.
I’ve come to believe, though, that this incompleteness is part of Dickens’s mastery of his subject. Squeamishness is what he precisely wants us to feel here. Leaving the scene open-ended, leaving the loose end loose, he forces the reader to come away from the story with a sense of something still to be done. Ever after, we look, or should look, for chances to rectify injustices like this one, to exercise pity, to become less ghostly and more substantially human. And because Dickens is more present in the pages he designed, the message of the Carol is more potent. I had my answer; I knew what to do.
Money was paid and liberty achieved.
According to bibliographers, buyers of the Carol’s fourteenth edition issued in 1860 got essentially the same book as the first buyers seventeen years earlier — though with some forty-odd typographical errors corrected (and others introduced). When it had been so painfully determined that the hand-colored illustrations had severely limited his profit, (Dickens expected L1000 income but netted by various estimates only L130 to L230) you might say that any of the thirteen subsequent editions past the first that still carried the expensive colored engravings and the two-color title page were actually the first in a long train of facsimiles.
In 1870, the year of Dickens’ death, Chapman & Hall finally reset the book in a different form, but reverence for its original look surfaced a scant three years later, when all five of his Christmas Books were reissued in “stereotype” editions, creating the first acknowledged facsimiles. Another appeared in 1890 or so. From then on, it was never very long before another more or less faithful imitation was produced on both sides of the Atlantic. H. S. Nichols (New York) published one in 1914, which was followed in 1920 by The Atlantic Monthly Press/Little Brown & Co. (Boston), in 1922 by Cecil Palmer (London), in 1924 by Charles E. Lauriat (Boston), in 1956 by Columbia University Press, sometime in the 1970s by J. G. Ferguson of Chicago, and finally one from Bradbury & Evans and another from Nottingham Court Press, both in 1987. A few of these (certainly the Ferguson and the 1922 Palmer) actually reproduced later corrected editions. Some facsimiles have doubtless eluded me, but as far as I can tell, there are none in print now; a shame.
Nearly every book about Dickens or the Carol repeats one story until it has entered legend: when the daughter of an apple seller in Drury Lane heard the news of the great author’s death in 1870, she asked, “Then will Father Christmas die too?”
The answer, of course, is no.
In part what Dickens himself did with this small book — creating nearly singlehandedly what we have come to view as the modern Christmas — has helped ensure that the traditional familial holiday and all its secular trappings continues to this day. Because of that, neither Father Christmas nor Dickens will die.
And, in a very particular sense, neither can my father. At this time “in the long calender of the year” he visits me again like Marley. Scrooge was saved from the weary journeys of the damned by his old partner’s intervention. For me, opening my father’s little gold-stamped book and rediscovering its clotted, wobbly type and engravings are also a kind of redemption, not least for the particular fragance of its pages.
No doubt, sometime soon — next year, or the year after that, or five years from now — when I open the book and turn its pages once more, I’ll be shocked to find how little of my father’s aura remains. The pages will have taken on more of the blander smell of my study. Soon the perfume of his life will be gone entirely.
But if that happens, if, in my reading, he will become an ever more intellectual presence rather than an emotional one, the book itself will be our connection.
Dickens knew how to wrench tears and laughter in quick succession from his reader. Like last year, like twenty years ago, and twenty years from now, I’ll feel that tug of wonder and joy from the story’s very first line, and know again my father’s Christmas legacy to me: when I open this book, he is there as close to me as Dickens himself is, standing right there in the spirit at my elbow.