From Scrooge to Sobriety: Christmas Spirit and the Dickensian Detox
Charles Dickens sometimes liked to tease and surprise with his endings. Once, as John Gross provocatively points out, he proceeded from a novel that ends in deep gloom with its hero getting married to another that ends fairly cheerfully with its hero getting killed. A Christmas Carol boasts an ending even more cheerful than that, in which a prize turkey “twice the size of Tiny Tim” votes for Christmas and—as Dickens ladles out the beer, smoking bishop, bowls of punch, and pudding flambéed in brandy—there is no question of anybody abstaining.
Scrooge may go on, outside the limits of the story, to live happily ever after “upon the Total Abstinence principle”; but even in the less-than-roaring 1840s a Total Abstinence edition of A Christmas Carol would have seemed still more strange and unthinkable than the Total Abstinence edition of Robinson Crusoe (with the rum left out) which Dickens later had fun imagining in his “Frauds on the Fairies.” By 1867, however, things were different, and it was time for a change.
Dickens had by then spent thirty years as inseparably “fixed to Christmas,” in Anthony Trollope’s phrase, as the fairy to the tree. First he had gone from the set-piece Christmas sequences of the 1830s, the most famous of which sees Mr Wardle getting in the guests at Dingley Dell, to a string of Christmas Books that began in 1843 with A Christmas Carol and culminated in 1848 with Redlaw (an anagrammatically correct replica of Wardle) letting in the ghosts in The Haunted Man. Subsequently, from 1850 onwards, there were two successive weekly magazines—Household Words and All the Year Round—in which Dickens, as editor and main owner, had a very large stake. These gave him fresh opportunities for delivering the festive story that all of his readers now considered their due, and that therefore became (in the words of one contemporary commentator) “as regularly expected as pantomime.” Dickens would plan for an Extra Christmas Number, twice the length of a standard issue (and costing twice as much), to come out in mid-December. His most trusted contributors, whose invitation to join the gathering was on the bring-a-bottle basis, would typically be asked for a chapter apiece.
The last of these Extra Christmas Numbers came out exactly 150 years ago, on 12th December 1867. The story which it featured, “No Thoroughfare,” was the joint work of Wilkie Collins and Dickens himself. It had nothing Christmassy about it apart from some thick drifts of Alpine snow. Even the title seemed to declare Dickens’s awareness that the series had come to a dead end. There was to be no Extra Christmas Number in 1868. As August approached, a letter from Dickens to his sub-editor and co-proprietor W. H. Wills pulled the plug on the planning to which otherwise both men would soon have needed to apply themselves. “I fear I am sick of the thing,” it said.
A formal announcement of the abandonment of this annual fixture—as everybody had come to regard it—was made on 19th September 1868, underneath the magazine masthead. The Extra Christmas Number was an innovation so much imitated, Dickens lamented, that it was now “in very great danger of being tiresome.” There were, however, other reasons besides for his having grown “sick of the thing,” to the point of thinking that it was now time to dry out. In a letter of 30th October, Dickens would hint at his increasing resentment of the presence at his Christmas parties of some of the authors to whom he had opened the magazine’s doors. It had led, alas, to his own writing being “swamped by that of other people.” Privately, too, Dickens had arrived at the same conclusion which in a later age countless publishers and record companies would reach: that preparing fresh product for Christmas release is more trouble than it’s worth if you can simply reissue some tried and trusted old material instead. So he was happy to dust off what he had done twenty-five years ago in A Christmas Carol, now not only reworked for lucrative live performance as a seasonal favourite on the reading circuit but newly available with the other Christmas Books as the latest three-shilling volume in the handsome gold-on-red Charles Dickens Edition. The first 25,000 copies had in fact hit the shops in the second week of December 1867, at exactly the time that “No Thoroughfare” did.
“No Thoroughfare,” therefore, was a point beyond which Dickens could afford not to go. After he had spent many years feeding his work to the greedy Christmas market, which duly devoured it, he was now playing the unregenerate Scrooge: declining to donate, and decreasing the surplus population of festive stories. This combination of excess with restraint is actually characteristic of Dickens, as John Kucich has shown, although it goes sharply against the grain of the inexhaustible, endlessly prolific story-weaver that we like to imagine. Not even in Dickens World, where turkeys can grow to twice the size of Tiny Tim, is there such a thing as the gift that goes on giving.