After it was first published on 19 December 1843, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol quickly became a Victorian Christmas-time hit, with all 6,000 copies selling out in a week, and more than 15,000 selling by the end of the following year. Its popularity was for multiple reasons: in addition to Dickens’ already well-established reputation, the novel struck a chord with readers because of its unflinching depiction of gruelling poverty, wealth divides and illness caused by poor healthcare, housing conditions and overwork.
Behind the fantastical story itself, however, is the equally important story of its author, who was motivated in part because of his personal experience of being poor to try and enact social change. Today, the themes and message of A Christmas Carol are as relevant as ever, and as a result, it is one of the most-adapted and longest-running winter-time stories.
So why did Dickens write it?
He knew what it felt like to be poor
Though Dickens never experienced truly severe poverty, he had experienced hardship and separation. After his father lost his job in the British Navy in 1824, Dickens’ father was sent to debtors prison, and was soon followed by his wife and children, with the exception of Charles and his sister Fanny.
Charles was sent to work in a boot-blackening factory, which he later described as having a profound effect upon him, writing that he felt ‘utterly neglected and hopeless’.
He was concerned about children’s education
By the mid-19th century, it was estimated that some 100,000 children in London had never attended school of any kind. Of those that did, many attended ‘ragged’ schools, which were charity-run institutions intended to provide at least basic education for destitute children. However, owing to little funding, the schools were often overcrowded, poorly-ventilated, covered in filth and rife with disease.
Dickens himself visited Samuel Starey’s Field Land Ragged School, which taught poor children. He was horrified by what he saw, and as someone who had himself been poor as a child, was determined to try and aid poor children however he could. In A Christmas Carol, this concern is clearly reflected via Tiny Tim, the sickly child of his employee Bob Cratchitt, who is too poor to receive healthcare, and whose condition is worsened by living in poverty.
He was concerned about child labour
Children who didn’t attend school often worked in factories, mines, construction businesses, shipyards and as chimney sweeps, sometimes from the age of just 3 years old. Life expectancy didn’t normally exceed the mid-twenties as a result. However, Victorian society expected lower and working class families to substitute their income with their children’s wage.
As a result of increased mechanisation in workplaces and the fact that children could be paid less, employers often relied upon child labour, and children could work for up to 16 hours a day in dangerous, dirty conditions. Indeed, it wasn’t until a parliamentary act in 1847 that the workday for children and adults was limited to 10 hours.
He was critical of workhouses
Families that couldn’t find employment or afford housing often ended up using workhouses, which were designed to be humiliating as punishment for the ‘sin’ of being poor. Similar to ragged schools, the conditions within workhouses were slum-like breeding grounds for disease, violence and crime, and families were split up by gender as a means of further adding to their inhumanity.
In the novel, the Cratchitt family are clearly at risk of ending up in a workhouse, owing to the tenuousness of Bob Cratchitt’s job because of his cruel employer, Scrooge. The family are depicted as honest and loving, in contrast to the Victorian perception of those in poverty even being deserving of living in such circumstances.
He was somewhat motivated by money
After spending too much on his 1842 American tour, Dickens was motivated to write because he needed to make money. In addition, he had a growing family to support. Though the book sold a huge number of copies, the book’s lavish bindings and fairly low price meant that Dickens made little of the £1,000 he had hoped to make through sales.
At the time, he wrote: ‘What a wonderful thing it is that such a great success should occasion me such intolerable anxiety and disappointment!’ Nonetheless, the publication of the book did help to bolster his profile.
It was originally going to be an informative pamphlet
In addition to being a novelist, Dickens was a fervent social campaigner, writing in letters, articles, pamphlets and essays about the importance of kindness, generosity and humility, and criticising class and wealth divides.
After visiting Samuel Starey’s Field Land Ragged School in 1843, Dickens was inspired to write an article about the ‘sickening atmosphere… of taint and dirt and pestilence’ and began writing a pamphlet for the Edinburgh Review that he planned on calling ‘An Appeal to the People of England on behalf of the Poor Man’s Child’, to draw attention to the conditions that the children and staff at the school endured.
However, within a week, he turned his attention to writing a fictional novel, since he felt that audiences would be more sympathetic to arguments delivered via characters within a story. He completed A Christmas Carol in a mere 6 weeks.
It was aimed primarily at the middle classes
One of Dickens’ key aims in writing A Christmas Carol was to stimulate charity amongst those who were more fortunate by humanising those experiencing poverty. Dickens also sought to draw attention to the needless cruelty of those who were more fortunate, like Scrooge.
Importantly, however, he does not portray Scrooge as villainous or law-breaking: it is clear that he works hard for his money, and by many Victorians would be considered a respectable, successful business owner. Instead, his fatal flaw lies in his lack of generosity and empathy for others. Dickens also countered a commonly-held belief that workhouses and ragged schools were good enough to accommodate the poor, via Scrooge recognising that the city of London needs something more – empathy in the form of charity – if he is to be truly redeemed from his cruel ways.