Inasmuch as the Dickens Project seeks to promote study and enjoyment of the life, times, and work of Charles Dickens, it is fitting that on the 150th anniversary of the first publication of A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost Story of Christmas, we marked the occasion by offering a new publication which we hoped will futher the appreciation and understanding of Dickens's best known work. That work is now one of the first resources we published on-line.

No other book or story by Dickens or anyone else (save the Bible) has been more enjoyed, criticized, referred to, or more frequently adapted to other media. None of his other works is more widely recognized or, indeed, celebrated within the English-speaking world. Some scholars have even claimed that in publishing A Christmas Carol Dickens single-handedly invented the modern form of the Christmas holiday in England and the United States.

As G.K. Chesterton noted long ago, with A Christmas Carol Dickens succeeded in transforming Christmas from a sacred festival into a family feast. In so doing, he brought the holiday inside the home and thus made it accessible to ordinary people, who were now able to participate directly in the celebration rather than merely witnessing its performance in church.

Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in the 1840s. These were years of famine in Ireland as well as of severe economic depression worldwide. Dickens knew and understood the effects of poverty, and, by having Scrooge notice homeless mothers huddled in doorways at the end of the first Stave, he was writing from his own observation and experience. So today, A Christmas Carol along with other works by Dickens continues to direct attention to the problems of homelessness and economic injustice on our very doorsteps. In focusing on such questions, Dickens is a writer for all historical periods, including our own.

It is useful to recall that Dickens had written an earlier version of A Christmas Carol several years before taking up the story of Scrooge in October 1843. His first novel, The Pickwick Papers (1836-37), contains an interpolated tale, "The Goblins Who Stole A Sexton," that anticipates A Christmas Carol in several interesting respects. Told at a Christmas party, the story recounts how Gabriel Grubb, a drunken, cruel, misanthropist, is visited one Christmas Eve by goblins, who torment him physically and show him scenes of the happy domestic life from which he has deliberately excluded himself. The lessons they teach him result in his redemption. He reforms his ways and eventually leads a long and happy life.

The major change that Dickens made in 1843 when he revised his earlier tale was to transform its central character from a member of the working class-a sexton-into a wealthy businessman, thereby introducing a different and considerably more "radical" social message into the story. Nevertheless, the basic situation in the two stories is quite similar. Both Gabriel Grubb and Scrooge are spoilsports. That is, each refuses to join and participate in the communal festival or sacred "sport" of Christmas. In both stories the spoilsport receives supernatural visitors who instruct him in the human values appropriate to the Christmas season, and in both stories the spoilsport undergoes a conversion that reunites him with the spirit of community and fellowship. In both stories, moreover, a child or group of children plays an important role in the redemptive process.

In A Christmas Carol, Dickens unites important features of the two Christmas stories he wrote for the December number of Pickwick Papers, joining the family feast of Dingley Dell with its games, intergenerational bonding, and domestic rituals together with the story of a supernatual visitiation leading to conversion.

The various Christmas Carol adaptations listed below reflect only a fraction of the many ways in which Dickens's original tale has been transposed to other media. In a sense, the story itself is already a multi-media production, especially the scenes where Scrooge is made to witness a series of visionary tableaux in which he can not participate. It is almost as if Dickens were writing a story to be told by media not yet available in the Victorian age. Yet no sooner was a new technology invented in the intervening 150 years than A Christmas Carol was quickly adapted to it.

Reactions to A Christmas Carol have varied tremendously over the years, with each generation finding in it a message-spiritual, psychological, or political-applicable to the needs of different audiences. Clearly the Carol is an ideological work, both in and for our own time. The enormous success of its multiple adaptations testifies to its enduring value as a marketable commodity. Ostensibly its message is one that decries the commercialism of a debased Christmas celebration. Yet ironically, the story itself continues to be bought and sold, packaged and repackaged to meet an apparently inexhaustible demand. Indeed, the book you hold in your hands is itself a result of the Dickens Project's participation in the commercialization of A Christmas Carol. However pure our motives in seeking to promote enjoyment of the Carol, we also knew that we could sell our little book and turn the profits to some practical use-a good one, we assure you! In the end, it may not matter that A Christmas Carol has been commercialized, since its story of the strength of community and the power of love is not lost in the buying and selling.

Curiously enough, Dickens himself made little money from A Christmas Carol, although he had high hopes for its commercial success. In its first edition, the Carol was a beautiful little book, well made and lavish with illustrations. Our little book, not so lavish nor so beautiful, nevertheless attempts to reproduce some of the spirit that animated the original. May it bring you pleasure and good cheer!

John O. Jordan
December 1993

This "Carol" portion of the Dickens Electronic Archive is still available as a book. Please write to us.

Return to top of page***Dickens's Life Before "The Carol"***Christmas 1842***The Illustrations ***Adaptations***Bibliography

DEA Index
The Dickens Project


Dickens's bonfire destroys literary heritage
"On the afternoon of September the 3rd, Dickens having decided to destroy his accumulation of papers and letters, a bonfire was made in a field at the back of the house, whence Katie and her two brothers helped to carry basket after basket full of correspondence from all sorts of people, including old friends like Washington Irving, Carlyle, Thackeray, Tennyson and others, which proceeding greatly distressed Katie, who begged her father to save even a few letters.

 'We should always remember,' he said in reply, 'that letters are but ephemeral: we must not be affected too much either by those which praise us or by others written in the heat of the moment.' As the contents of the last basket was emptied on the burning mass Dickens remarked most seriously:

 'Would to God every letter I had ever written was on that pile.'

Henry Dickens recollected years afterwards that he and his brother had 'roasted onions on the ashes of the great!'" (9)

Many letters from Dickens to and about Wilkie Collins survive. A volume of of letters to him was published as The Letters of Charles Dickens to Wilkie Collins (1) and others are found in the three collections of Dickens's letters, most notably, of course, in the definitive Pilgrim edition which is now published up to the end of 1864 (2).

But although more than 2000 of Collins's letters have been identified, only two out of the hundreds he wrote to Dickens are known because Dickens destroyed the ones in his possession, together with almost all his other correspondence.

On 4 September 1860 Dickens wrote to William Henry Wills, the sub-editor of Household Words

"Yesterday I burnt, in the field at Gad's Hill, the accumulated letters and papers of twenty years. They set up a smoke like the genie when he got out of the casket on the seashore; and as it was an exquisite day when I began, and rained very heavily when I finished, I suspect my correspondence of having overcast the face of the heavens."
The field at Gad's Hill, 4 May 1997

The bonfire took place when Dickens moved from Tavistock House in London and took up permanent residence at Gad's Hill Place, Rochester, Kent. He was assisted by three of his children. One was Katie, then aged 20. Katie's friend and biographer Gladys Storey gives this account of what Katie told her of the burning.
"On the afternoon of September the 3rd, Dickens having decided to destroy his accumulation of papers and letters, a bonfire was made in a field at the back of the house, whence Katie and her two brothers helped to carry basket after basket full of correspondence from all sorts of people, including old friends like Washington Irving, Carlyle, Thackeray, Tennyson and others, which proceeding greatly distressed Katie, who begged her father to save even a few letters.

 'We should always remember,' he said in reply, 'that letters are but ephemeral: we must not be affected too much either by those which praise us or by others written in the heat of the moment.' As the contents of the last basket was emptied on the burning mass Dickens remarked most seriously:

 'Would to God every letter I had ever written was on that pile.'

Henry Dickens recollected years afterwards that he and his brother had 'roasted onions on the ashes of the great!'" (9)

Dickens, who liked to call himself 'The Inimitable', surely became on that day 'The Inimical' destroying a priceless part of the literary heritage that belongs to us all. And while Dickens burnt these irreplaceable letters from his friends, they carefully preserved his letters to them of which more than 14,200 are known.

Nearly five years later Dickens explained to his friend, the actor William Charles Macready, why he had done it

"Daily seeing improper uses made of confidential letters in the addressing of them to a public audience that have no business with them, I made not long ago a great fire in my field at Gad's Hill, and burnt every letter I possessed. And now I always destroy every letter I receive not on absolute business, and my mind is so far at ease." (3)
The traditional reason for this destruction was found in Dickens's personal life. In August 1857 he met a young actress, Ellen Ternan, who joined his amateur company to play a part in Collins's play The Frozen Deep and most students of his life now agree that they became lovers (4). Whether they did or not, Dickens's marriage soon effectively ended and from May 1858 he lived separately from his wife.

Household Words Saturday 12 June 1858, XVII No.429 p601

In June 1858 he published a statement about his circumstances and the rumours about his personal life on the front page of his journal Household Words. He wrote

"Some domestic trouble of mine, of longstanding, on which I will make no further remark than that it claims to be respected as being of a sacredly private nature, has lately been brought to an arrangement...By some means, arising out of wickedness or folly, or out of inconceivable wild chance or out of all three, this trouble has been made the occasion of misrepresentation, most grossly false, most monstrous, and most cruel - involving, not only me, but innocent persons dear to my heart...I doubt if one reader in a thousand will peruse these lines, by whom some touch of the breath of these slanders will not have passed, like an unwholesome air." (5)
He was also saddened by the marriage of Katie to Charles Collins, the artist and Wilkie Collins's younger brother. He blamed himself. On the day of her wedding, 17 July 1860, after Katie had left for her honeymoon, Dickens was found by his daughter Mamie sobbing into her wedding gown saying "But for me, Katey would not have left home" (9).

 However, there is also an interesting context in Wilkie Collins's work for Dickens's action. During the time when his marital troubles were beginning, he became closer to his friend Collins. Apart from working together on The Frozen Deep they collaborated on Christmas numbers of Household Words and Dickens's letters show that between his letter of 29 August 1857 and that of 23 October 1857 he changed from writing 'My dear Collins' to 'My dear Wilkie', a form of address he stuck with for the rest of his life.

Between 1854 and 1860 Collins wrote three times in Dickens's periodicals about burning letters. In the Christmas 1854 edition of Household Words Collins wrote 'The Fourth Poor Traveller'. The storyteller, a lawyer, says

"My experience in the law, Mr. Frank, has convinced me that if everybody burnt everybody else's letters, half the Courts of Justice in this country might shut up shop" (6).

A few months later in 1855 Collins wrote 'The Yellow Mask' also for Household Words. Father Rocco, a priest and the scheming villain of the piece, says

"private papers should always be burnt papers" (7).
Dickens edited Household Words and paid careful attention to all its contents. He would have read carefully these two passages by his friend. In particular, on 1 December 1854 Dickens wrote to Mrs Richard Watson that the Christmas 1854 number would require "my utmost care and assistance" (8).

 A few years later, and just a few months before Dickens made his historic bonfire, Collins wrote of burning a letter in The Woman in White. Marian Halcombe has received a letter from Walter Hartright. Her half-sister Laura loves Hartright but has agreed to fulfil her promise to her dying father to marry someone else.

Hartright takes his leave
Illustration by John McLenan
The Woman in White Harper & Brothers, New York 1860 p52

Hartright has gone away and is about to embark on a ship for South America. Marian decides not to tell Laura about the contents of the letter. And adds

"I almost doubt whether I ought not to go a step farther, and burn the letter at once, for fear of it one day falling into wrong hands. It not only refers to Laura in terms which ought to remain a secret forever


"So the figure itself fluctuated in its distinctness"

Dickens's Own Adaptation
Satirical Adaptations
On-Line Adaptations
List of adaptations of The Carol

Adaptations of A Christmas Carol fall into three rough categories. The first of these is a straight adaptation, or interpretation of the story for the sake of the story, with an attempt to keep as close to the Dickens text as is possible. The second is the use of the story as a medium through which to make an often unrelated point. A Christmas Carol has often been adapted in this manner to political commentary or satire. The third is an exploitation of the story's popularity or cultural importance as a sure way to make money.

Even faithful adaptations vary slightly because they contain the opinions and priorities of the writers. J. Edward Parrott explained the changes in his adaptation of A Christmas Carol by explaining that, because he recommended the play for young people, certain scenes were "too tragical in their intensity, and too harrowing in their unpalliating realism."

Cyclical political and moral attitudes also affect adaptations. In most of the adaptations that stray from Dickens's original text, many of the changes are representative of the era in which that adaptation was done. For example, before the stock market crash of 1929, an adaptation called An American Carol was a business-based celebration of capitalism. A forward-looking 1928 stage version of A Christmas Carol called Mr. Scrooge contained a "critique of capitalism" and portrayed a Cratchit with "the beginnings of a revolutionary consciousness." (In contrast, see this quote from the London Daily Worker.)

The older the story gets the looser the interpretations become. Many of late twentieth-century adaptations are based on either the events or the characters in A Christmas Carol, rather than on the story as a whole. For example, Dr. Seuss's How the Grinch Stole Christmas echoes the hard-hearted miser who learns to love the Christmas season. The Frank Capra film, It's A Wonderful Life depicts the personal transformation following a man's observations of his life as if he were absent from it.

The adaptations mentioned so far all have a Christmas setting. There have also been similar adaptations for other holidays. The an episode in the situation-comedy Roseanne shows Roseanne losing her Halloween spirit, being visited by ghosts of Halloween past, present, and future, and then regaining her love of Halloween pranks. There has also been a version of the Grinch's story, adapted to Halloween.

Like folklore, perceptions of A Christmas Carol have changed as the story is passed down from one generation to another. Most people are familiar with Dickens's Carol have never read the original book. Though A Christmas Carol is a literary work written long after the time of oral storytelling had passed, its history is very much that of a folk tale. Anyone who studies the Carol soon sees that the story changes as its audience changes, and it will continue to change in Christmases yet to come.

Dickens's Own Adaptation

From 1857 until the end of his life, Charles Dickens performed public readings of his books. A Christmas Carol was his most popular and favorite reading. It was the first piece he performed, and the last before his death. Dickens adapted the Carol for performance, shortened it first to three hours, then eventually to an hour and a half. (This book reprints his script)

Dickens seldom referred to the prompt copy of A Christmas Carol that he carried onto the stage with him, and each reading was a little different, because he added to and changed the Carol when he read. "I got things out of the old Carol--effects I mean--so entirely new and strong that I quite amazed myself and wondered where I was going next," he wrote to a friend. The Manchester Examiner in 1867 said of his readings, "There is always a freshness about what Mr. Dickens does--one reading is never anything like a mechanical following of a previous reading, even of the same work." Another newspaper of the time wrote, "He gave to every character a different voice, a different style, a different face."

Dickens enjoyed performing because he loved his "public." Writing of his first audiences at a reading of the Carol, he said, "They lost nothing, misinterpreted nothing, followed everything closely, laughed and cried... and animated me to that extent that I felt we were all bodily going up into the clouds together."

In 1867 and 1868, Dickens performed in the United States. His readings were so popular that people camped overnight in the streets to buy tickets at box offices, or found tickets sold by scalpers. In Washington D.C., President Andrew Johnson had tickets for his family every night. The tour was incredibly lucrative. Dickens made $140,000 on the tour, an immense sum for the time. He refused to pay taxes on this income--in protest to a government which for decades had not taken up his cause of international copyright--and was physically protected by the New York City police from the federal tax collectors who came to arrest him the day he boarded ship to return to London.

Introduction***Dickens's Life Before "The Carol"***December 1843*** The Illustrations***Adaptations***Bibliography

ACC Index
Dickens Electronic Archive Index
The Dickens Project