19 December 1843 witnessed the publication of one of Charles Dickens’ most popular and well-loved stories, A Christmas Carol. Published by Chapman and Hall, its initial print run of 6,000 copies sold out within days and within three months the story had been adapted for the theatre at least eight times.
In 1822, the Dickens family had lived at 16 Bayham Street in London. Situated in the less genteel suburb of Camden Town, Dickens described it as having a ‘basement, two ground floor rooms, two on the first floor, a garret and an outside wash-house.’ When describing the Cratchit family home in A Christmas Carol, it was to Bayham Street that Dickens looked for inspiration. Home to his parents, four siblings, his relative through marriage, James Lamert, and an orphan brought from the Chatham Workhouse, the house must have felt extremely cramped and considerably less comfortable than any previous family home.
It was not, however, a love of Christmas that inspired A Christmas Carol. The true inspiration came from the Second Report of the Children’s Employment Commission, published in 1842. This expose shocked the nation with its graphic depictions of the poverty and cruelty faced by children employed in factories and mines.
A Christmas Carol was followed by a further four Christmas tales in the 1840s: The Chimes (1844), The Cricket on the Hearth (1845), The Battle of Life (1846),and The Haunted Man (1848). These stories became instant favourites among the public and created a link between Charles Dickens and Christmas that endures to this day.
Chapman and Hall
Though it sold incredibly well, A Christmas Carol did not make Dickens enough money to overcome the disappointing sales of Martin Chuzzlewit (first published in serial form) or to allow his publishers, Chapman and Hall, to recoup their losses from his 1842 tour of the US. In debt and facing a lower monthly stipend, Charles blamed Chapman and Hall for his financial mess and looked for a new publisher. On 1 June 1844 the deal was done and the printing company, Bradbury and Evans, became his new publishers. They bought his debts and back stock from Chapman and Hall and paid Dickens the sum of £2,000. In return Dickens pledged them a quarter share in everything he would write over the next eight years.
In December 1853, Dickens took to the stage in Birmingham to perform his first public reading, including A Christmas Carol. The readings were a huge success and proceedings were donated to a local adult education centre. Combining his love for fiction and performance, public readings not only gave Charles great pleasure but also gave his many fans the opportunity to see him in action.