It’s time to get in the Christmas spirit! The subject of our episode today is the 2017 movie about Charles Dickens and his writing of A Christmas Carol. Did Charles invent Christmas? Let’s find out…
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- The Man Who Invented Christmas (2017) – IMDb
- The Man Who Invented Christmas – Official Site
- The Man Who Invented Christmas (film) – Wikipedia
- The Man Who Invented Christmas vs the True Story of Charles Dickens
- Dickens: True Story Behind ‘The Man Who Invented Christmas’ | Time
- True Story Behind ‘The Man Who Invented Christmas’ – Charles Dickens Christmas Carol
- Amazon.com: The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits eBook: Les Standiford: Kindle Store
- ‘The Man Who Invented Christmas’ Is Half History, Half Humbug : NPR
- ‘The Man Who Invented Christmas’: A Glimpse Behind Dickens’ Classic Holiday Tale | CBN News
- ‘The Man Who Invented Christmas’: A Glimpse Behind Dickens’ Classic Holiday Tale | CBN News
- The Man Who Invented Christmas Movie Review (2017) | Roger Ebert
- ‘The Man Who Invented Christmas’ Film Review: Scrooge’s Origin Story Is a Bit of a Humbug
- When Charles Dickens fell out with America – BBC News
- Charles Dickens Biography – Biography
- A Christmas Carol: The True History Behind the Dickens Story | Time
- Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol inspired by visits to Cornwall | Books | The Guardian
- The Real Scrooge – Neatorama
- What Was Charles Dickens Really Doing When He Wrote ‘A Christmas Carol’?
- A Companion to Charles Dickens – Google Books
- Children as Chimney Sweeps in England – A Terrible Chapter in History
- Soot – National Cancer Institute
- Our Mutual Friend, by Charles Dickens
- Amazon.com: British Chimney Sweeps: Five Centuries of Chimney Sweeping eBook: Benita Cullingford: Books
- Revealed: the Scot who inspired Dickens’ Scrooge – The Scotsman
- History of Christmas Traditions in the 19th Century
- Christmas in 19th Century America | History Today
- Did Oliver Cromwell Really Ban Christmas? | Historic England
- Christmas Tree Traditions – Christmas Trees and More – University of Illinois Extension
- David Perdue’s Charles Dickens Page – Characters C-D
- Amazon.com: The Lives and Times of Ebenezer Scrooge (9780300046649): Paul Davis: Books
- Charles Dickens: A Life – Kindle edition by Claire Tomalin. Literature & Fiction Kindle eBooks @ Amazon.com.
- 7 Real-Life Inspirations For Dickens’s A Christmas Carol | Mental Floss
Disclaimer: Dan LeFebvre and/or Based on a True Story may earn commissions from qualifying purchases through our links on this page.
Note: This transcript is automatically generated. There will be mistakes, so please don’t use them for quotes. It is provided for reference use to find things better in the audio.
Hello and Merry Christmas to you and yours!
Today, we’re going to get into the Christmas spirit by comparing the 2017 movie The Man Who Invented Christmas with history. Now, if you’re not familiar with the film itself, the story is that of Charles Dickens and how he wrote the classic Christmas story, A Christmas Carol.
The movie is written by Mozart in the Jungle’s writer, Susan Coyne and based on a book also called The Man Who Invented Christmas by historian Les Standiford.
So, what we’re learning about today is a movie that’s based on a non-fictional book that’s based on the life of an author whose book is considered by many to be the basis of the Christmas spirit we’re familiar with today.[/vc_column_text][vc_custom_heading font_container=”tag:h2|text_align:center” use_theme_fonts=”yes” shrk_theme_font=”default”]Learn the true story behind The Man Who Invented Christmas[/vc_custom_heading][vc_column_text]The movie opens with some text on the screen giving us a bit of background. We’re in New York in the year 1842. According to the movie, Charles Dickens is basking in the success of his latest novel, Oliver Twist, as he’s touring around America. Fans of the book are welcoming him in every city with lavish galas.
As we see Charles, who’s played by Dan Stevens, back stage, we hear the announcer introducing him. Tonight, live on stage, the great magician of our time whose wand is a book! The Shakespeare of the novel, the people’s author, the great and marvelous Boz! Ladies and gentlemen, it’s Charles Dickens!
Then, walking out on stage, Charles appears to thunderous applause. The stage changes behind him, indicating this happens in cities across America.
So, did this tour of America happen? And wait a moment, did the guy who introduced him on stage call him Boz? What’s with that?
Well, as dramatized as these scenes may be for the movie, they’re still pretty accurate. Charles Dickens’ book, Oliver Twist, was published between the years 1837 and 1839 in a series of 24 sequential installments known as a serial.
It marked the first time in an English novel that there was a child as the main protagonist — Oliver Twist, of course, being the child’s name.
And it is true that, in 1842 like the movie says, Charles Dickens embarked on a tour across America where he was hailed like a rock star. Everyone loved him. In fact, even though the movie doesn’t mention the date, the event we see happen first in New York in 1842 was on Valentine’s Day and was a massive ball that rivaled any event the city had seen up to that point.
There were 3,000 people at the Park Theatre that night, and Charles spent much of it dancing with his wife, Catherine. She’s played by Morfydd Clark in the movie.
But, that tour wasn’t all happiness. The trip started off for Charles to see if the Americans had a better system than the classes in England that he despised.
The movie doesn’t mention this at all, but after the first few stops, Boston, New York, Charles quickly started to go downhill. He grew tired of how enthusiastic his fans were, once writing that, “I can’t drink a glass of water, without having 100 people looking down my throat when I open my mouth to swallow.”
Or there was the time when he was in Cleveland, Ohio, and woke up to find a “party of gentlemen” watching his wife sleeping in bed.
Even his trip to Washington, D.C. where he hoped to learn more about American politics was overshadowed by people spitting tobacco in the city streets.
Charles wrote, “Washington may be called the headquarters of tobacco-tinctured saliva. The thing itself is an exaggeration of nastiness, which cannot be outdone.”
He’d later sum up his trip in a letter to one of his friends named William Macready by saying, “I am disappointed. This is not the Republic I came to see. This is not the Republic of my imagination.”
If you want to learn more about Charles’ trip to America in 1842, check out the travelogue he wrote while in North America called American Notes.
The last bit to mention about the opening sequence in the movie, though, has nothing to do with his trip to America. It’s that mention of the name “Boz.”
The movie’s mention there is correct. Boz was a name Charles Dickens often wrote under. It was a nickname he borrowed from his younger brother, Augustus, that they had as children. But, as his career grew, most of his friends called him Boz and he himself often referred to himself as Boz.
There was even a Boz Ball on one of the stops in the 1842 tour of North America, and in 1843 his novel The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit listed Charles Dickens as the author but included the phrase “Edited by Boz” on the title page. So, he wrote and edited it, basically.
Speaking of Chuzzlewit, if we head back into the movie, the next bit of text we see tells us that now it’s October of 1843. That’s 16 months and, according to the movie, three flops after the American tour.
The movie even mentions Chuzzlewit when we see Charles and his friend, John Forster, at a restaurant. Miles Jupp’s character, Thackeray, comes up to the two friends at the table and talks about the vile things the reviewers wrote about Chuzzlewit.
So, that must’ve been one of the flops we just learned about that the movie doesn’t really name, right?
Well, yes … and sort of, no.
You see, many of Charles Dickens’ writings that we think of now as books were, at the time, serials. Sort of like how Charles’ second book, Oliver Twist, was published between February 1837 and April 1839 so, too, were many of his other stories after that.
After The Adventures of Oliver Twist came The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby. That was also a monthly serial, published between April of 1838 and October of 1839 — so technically, Nicholas Nickleby started publishing a year before Oliver Twist’s final chapters published.
After Nickleby, The Old Curiosity Shop was published between April of 1840 and November of 1841, and then Barnaby Rudge was also published between February and November of 1841.
Finally, the only one the movie mentions is Chuzzlewit, which was published starting in January of 1843 and up until July of 1844, which would mean it finished almost six months after the publication of A Christmas Carol in December of 1843.
So, to recap, the timeline is a little more complex than the movie makes it seem thanks to the books not publishing all at once.
Oliver Twist’s final publication came in April of 1839, and the tour we saw in the beginning the movie was in 1842.
Even though the movie doesn’t mention which three novels it’s considering to be flops, there are four that could be in the running simply based on their publication dates being right after Oliver Twist, would be Nicholas Nickleby, The Old Curiosity Shop, Barnaby Rudge and then Martin Chuzzlewit.
Interestingly, of those, Nickleby was an immediate success that only helped cement Charles Dickens as a famous writer in his time. The Old Curiosity Shop was so popular that New Yorkers stormed the wharfs when they heard about the arrival of the ship containing the first installments came in 1841.
Those last two, though, would certainly quality as the flops the movie is talking about. Barnaby Rudge, was met with criticism and not nearly as much popularity as Charles’ previous books.
But, even then, the timeline in the movie is a bit off because Barnaby Rudge was published between February and November of 1841, with the serial installments finally published into a single book after that in 1841.
So, that was before the American tour in 1842.
Charles didn’t publish any novels in 1842, but rather wrote his travelogue called American Notes about his trip to America that we learned about earlier.
American Notes didn’t sell well at all, probably because Charles was so disenchanted with his trip that it turned into what many at the time considered to be quite insulting to his fans in the United States.
And so, even though the movie doesn’t give us the title of the three flops, we can only assume those three books they’re talking about aren’t three novels but rather they must be Barnaby Rudge just before the trip, the American Notes travelogue, and then, of course, Chuzzlewit that he started on soon after his return to England.
The movie also doesn’t mention this at all, but Charles borrowed £2,000 from his publishers, Chapman and Hall, to cover both his trip to the United States and Canada along with the mere fact that he wasn’t going to be writing any new novels for an entire year.
Adding to that was another £1,000 of debt that Charles had racked up thanks to the poor sales of his book just before the tour, Barnaby Rudge.
That loan was to be paid back in the form of a new novel that Charles should begin writing as soon as he returned from North America. But, they added another stipulation to the loan that they’d take out £50 if his monthly salary of £200 if it didn’t have the sales they’d need to start paying back the loan.
Charles and Catherine began their return journey on June 7th, 1842, and then in January of 1843, the first of the Chuzzlewit stories were published.
Like the movie suggests, Chuzzlewit was significantly less popular than his previous books.
But, as we learned earlier, the timeline of the movie is also going to be a bit off because Chuzzlewit continued their monthly installments through July of 1844. So, it’s not like they were a completed book like the movie makes it seem by the time October of 1843 rolled around.
Going back to the movie, with a growing debt looming, Charles is talking with his publishers when he mentions a new book. They say, well, obviously we’d love to consider it! Wait … consider it? Charles asks.
Well, yes, if we like it … they stammer.
In a huff, Charles leaves the room. The great Charles Dickens’ writing isn’t a sure thing like it had been in the past. It’d seem they’re a bit more hesitant now that he’s had a few less-than-successful books.
And that’s true.
Granted, it didn’t happen exactly like we see in the movie, but as Charles continued to write the Chuzzlewit story, it evolved with the sales. Remember, they were published in installments as they were released. And, as sales weren’t where they wanted them to be, Charles added a bit of a stab at the United States that he thought might help increase sales in England.
In particular, many critics pointed to a part where a couple of the book’s characters are having a conversation.
“Why, I was a-thinking, sir…that if I was a painter and was called upon to paint the American Eagle, how should I do it?”
“Paint it as like an Eagle as you could, I suppose.”
“No,” said Mark. “That wouldn’t do for me, sir. I should want to draw it like a Bat, for its shortsightedness; like a Bantam, for its bragging; like a Magpie, for its honesty; like a Peacock, for its vanity, like a Ostrich, for its putting its head in the mud, and thinking nobody sees it.”
Well, needless to say, this characterization of the American Eagle didn’t win him any new fans in the United States. In fact, it lost him one of his most popular supporters in American author Washington Irving. He’s the guy who wrote The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, among other classics.
But, in England, it did help with sales. Just not as much as Charles wanted. The series’ sales increased by only about 3,000 copies, going from 20,000 to 23,000 issues being sold for The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit.
For a bit of comparison, his hits like Nicholas Nickleby had 50,000 people buying each issue of the monthly installments while The Old Curiosity Shop boasted sales of just over 100,000 per issue.
Chuzzlewit wasn’t pulling in the numbers it needed to keep Charles’ publishers from taking that £50 out of Charles’ monthly salary that they had agreed to earlier. Even though he’d agreed to the reduced stipend should sales be low, when the time came to reduce his paycheck, Charles understandably wasn’t happy about it.
That is what caused Charles to get upset at his publishers at Chapman and Hall. It wasn’t really their hesitation over publishing his new book, like the movie shows. Although, if we could’ve been a fly on the wall for their conversations I’m sure they weren’t happy about the low sales and were, indeed, very hesitant about working with Charles any more until he’d been able to start paying back some of the money he owed them.
Charles, thoroughly upset at the low sales, a growing debt and the latest news that Chapman and Hall were going to start deducting money from his salary, he wrote a letter to his friend, John Forster, in which he promised he’d never write for Chapman and Hall again.
Then, seemingly in a move to back up his words, Charles signed an agreement with the company that was printing his books, Bradbury and Evans, to work with them to print his next book.
Back in the movie’s storyline, after storming out of his publisher’s office, Charles meets up with his friend John Forster at a restaurant and we see one of the waiters stop by. Charles asks his name, to which he says it’s Marley. Charles writes this down, saving the name for future use.
Of course, we know how he used this name — Jacob Marley, the deceased business partner of Ebenezer Scrooge.
But, is that true? Was Jacob Marley based on real person?
Even though the movie makes it seem like Charles got the name from a waiter in a restaurant, the basic gist of Charles collecting names of people he met for future use was true. It’s just that in this instance, Jacob Marley most likely didn’t come from a waiter’s name.
It’s hard to know for sure since there’s no documented proof tracking the origins of who may have been the inspiration for Jacob Marley, but according to a historian named Barry West, he believes the character was inspired by a London physician named Dr. Miles Marley.
According to Mr. West, who spent years researching the topic, there’s a newspaper clipping that suggests Dr. Marley hosted a party for St. Patrick’s Day at 11 Cork Street in Westminster, London. One of those guests invited for the celebration was none other than Charles Dickens.
So, it’d make sense that Charles and Dr. Marley had met before the event. And, according to Mr. West’s research, there’s also evidence of a conversation during the event where Charles told Marley that his name, which both agreed was unusual, would be a household word by the end of the year.
The next major plot point in the movie takes place when he’s tracked down in the crowd by a woman who says she’s a big fan. Then her husband, an older man, arrives. He’s obviously not a fan.
The interaction goes something like this:
Charles starts by asking the old man, “What don’t you like about my writing?”
It becomes clear what kind of man he is, when the old man replies with something to the effect of how “those people” don’t belong in books.
“Those people? You mean the poor? What do you think they should do with ‘those people’?”
“Aren’t there workhouses?”
This angers Charles. “You know how many people would rather die than work there?”
The old man stiffens. “Then let them! It’ll reduce the surplus population.”
Sickened, Charles leaves.
That’s when, across the street, another man calls to him.
Showing two children, he asks Charles if he wants to buy them.
“They’re small and can fit into any chimney!”
Angered by this, Charles races after the man. He loses him in the alleyway, but this leads to a graveyard where he sees a burial taking place witnessed by a single, cranky old man. We never really find out who the man was, but that man is played by Christopher Plumber, and eventually he ends up playing the character Charles creates out of this whole experience — Ebenezer Scrooge.
That’s made up for the movie, but sort of like the difference between the waiter we saw in the movie and the real person who may have been the inspiration for him, most historians believe there was a real person who was the inspiration for Ebenezer Scrooge.
The problem is — we don’t know exactly who that person was, and there’s quite a few theories out there.
Probably the most outlandish of those theories is one that most historians don’t believe to be true. That’d be the one of Ebenezer Scroggie, whose last name means “meal man” and was, according to the story, a caterer to King George IV. But, when Charles saw his gravestone, he misinterpreted the last name as “mean man” instead of “meal man”, and the character of Scrooge was born.
But, as I said, that’s most likely not true.
A more likely person to be the inspiration for Scrooge may have been a man named Jemmy Wood, who many believe to have been Britain’s first millionaire. He was a bank owner and, like Scrooge, was well-known in the time for being extremely stingy.
The idea there being that the name Scrooge stems from an old-English word meaning “squeeze.”
Or, if you remember that phrase from the old man in the movie about the poor dying to reduce the surplus population — that’s not something original from the movie. That’s something Scrooge says in A Christmas Carol, and also something that many have attributed to a political economist named Thomas Malthus.
Then again there’s another quote from Scrooge in the book that resembles someone else in history. That’d be the line where Scrooge asks, “Are there no prisons? And the Union workhouses? The treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?”
A man named Thomas Carlyle wrote something similar when he wrote in 1840, “Are there not treadmills, gibbets; even hospitals, poor-rates, New Poor-Law?”
Maybe they all added to Scrooge — maybe there’s not just one inspiration. But, if there’s one who stands above the rest as a possible inspiration it’d probably be a man named John Elwes.
One reason many believe Scrooge’s biggest inspiration may have been Elwes is because we know Charles Dickens referenced him in another book of his, Charles’ last book called Our Mutual Friend. There are multiple references to John Elwes in that book, including one where characters talking about being very stingy with money asks, “Did you ever come across the life of Mr. Elwes?” to which the other replies, “The miser?”
Some even believe Elwes looked a lot like the character that artist John Leech ended up drawing to depict Scrooge for A Christmas Carol.
So, even though that scene we saw in the movie was an oversimplification of where the character of Scrooge came from, it is likely it came from a real person — or, perhaps, many people.
Oh, and the man’s mention of selling children to fit into chimneys? Sadly, that sort of thing was very common.
After the Great Fire of London in 1666, the city required fireplaces were built in a safer manner. That meant they were smaller, and chimney sweeps had a hard time cleaning out obstructions.
Child labor was horrible then, as well, but this was the stuff of nightmares. Children as young as four years old would be forced to shimmy up the chimney and use a brush to knock out any soot overhead. Of course, gravity would make it all fall down right on top of them.
They’d keep climbing up, knocking the soot all over themselves until they reached the top of the chimney. Then, they’d slide down and climb out, cleaning up the soot that had fallen down.
For all of that, the children usually were never paid. Their masters were paid.
Soot is described by the National Cancer Institute as the byproduct of something burning — usually wood in a fireplace. It’s a very dangerous substance that prolonged exposure to can lead to cancer.
So, as you can imagine, children who were exposed to soot for 14 to 16 hours a day meant it was common for developmental problems, disfigurement. For almost 100 years, children were dying because of this without anyone really taking notice. Then, they started to notice the prolonged exposure to soot was causing cancer in the scrotum, something they referred to as Chimney Sweep Cancer.
Sadly, that didn’t stop children chimney sweeps. And, sadly, that wasn’t the worst of how they’d die. With chimneys sometimes being as narrow as 18 inches, or about 45 centimeters, it was common for children to get stuck in the chimneys.
And once they were stuck … they would never be unstuck.
If you want to learn more about this sad and dark part of British history, check out the book by Benita Cullingford called British Chimney Sweeps: Five Centuries of Chimney Sweeping.
For our story today, though, let’s head back into the movie’s timeline.
We see Charles go back to his publishers, Chapman and Hall, where he proposes his idea for the new book. It’s a Christmas book.
Neither Chapman nor Hall are impressed. A Christmas book? Do people even celebrate Christmas anymore?
They’re clearly not too sold on the idea.
In the movie, this is when we see Charles decide he’ll publish it himself. And, we already talked about the real reason why Charles decided not to publish with Chapman and Hall anymore. But it is true that Christmas celebrations of the day weren’t anything like what they are today.
Although, it’s not like Christmas wasn’t celebrated by anyone at all.
After all, The Night Before Christmas was published in 1823, and started building some of the Christmas traditions we know of today, including the concept of St. Nick’s reindeer.
There were a lot of ancient traditions that had made their way into winter celebrations. The Scandinavian celebrations of Yule, or the winter solstice. The Roman holiday of Saturanlia, named after the god of agriculture — Saturn. And, of course, the Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus, that timed on December 25th by Pope Julius I in the 4th century.
We don’t really know why he picked that date, but because the Christian Bible never mentioned when Jesus was born and because there were already celebrations in Rome around Saturnalia, many have speculated the Pope timed it to be the same in an attempt to merge the celebrations together.
For centuries, those celebrations began to grow.
Things changed in 1645 when, under Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan reform, the church’s laws became stricter about celebrating Sunday as a holy day. As such, any other days, including Christmas, weren’t considered to be as holy as the Lord’s Day.
Like any topic dealing with religion, Cromwell’s ban on Christmas — as some historians call it — is hotly debated. But, regardless of how much of a ‘ban’ it was, it did slow the celebration of Christmas as a holiday in England for quite some time. Much of that sentiment made its way into America when settlers made their way over in the mid-to-late 1600s.
In fact, there was a five shilling fine in Boston for anyone who celebrated Christmas between the years 1651 and 1681. That wasn’t everywhere, though. There are some reports that the Jamestown settlement happily celebrated Christmas.
The American Revolution changed things in the newly-formed United States, with many of the English traditions being overturned. That included Christmas celebrations, which ramped back up.
In 1819, the American author Washington Irving wrote a series of stories about Christmas celebrations called The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon. As we already learned, Washington Irving was a known supporter of Charles Dickens’ writings up until that incident with the American Eagle painting conversation.
Still, some have speculated perhaps it was this story that inspired Charles to have the idea to write a Christmas story. Although, in fact, it wasn’t going to be a Christmas story at first.
The movie doesn’t mention this at all, but the idea for A Christmas Carol was originally going to be a pamphlet that Charles gave the title of, An Appeal to the People of England on Behalf of the Poor Man’s Child.
As the title implies, the topic of the pamphlet would be to stand up for the children of England who were too poor to earn a living, forced to work in workhouses and dying in the streets at way too young of an age. That idea for the pamphlet came from a child labor report he read in the spring of 1843.
The report included stories of girls, forced to work six days a week for 16 hours a day sewing dresses. Or boys spending 11 hours a day dragging coal carts in the mine’s tiny tunnels.
Some historians suggest that revolutionaries like Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx read the same reports and imagined a revolution would be imminent. Charles, on the other hand, wasn’t a revolutionary.
He was a writer.
By the time Charles sat down to begin writing, the pamphlet idea was thrown out and instead he decided to write a story to get across the concepts of change he wanted to tell.
Speaking of sitting down to write, back in the movie, we see this start when there’s very little time left. The movie mentions there’s only six weeks to get a book out by Christmas, and Charles takes a loan out to hire an artist. That man turns out to be Charles Leech, a very well-respected artist who agrees to the tight deadline — with some extra money in there for the rush job, of course.
We already learned a bit about John Leech, who was indeed the artist who drew the illustrations for the first edition.
Even though his idea for the story began formulating in his mind in the spring of 1843 as we learned about with the pamphlet idea, Charles Dickens didn’t start writing A Christmas Carol until October with the intention of releasing it in time for Christmas.
It’s around here that, in the movie, we’re introduced to Charles’ sister, Francis — or Fanny, as she was called by her family and friends. She’s played by Katie McGuinness. She arrives at Charles’ home with her husband, the Reverend Henry Burnett, and their young son, Henry, Jr.
He’s played by Pearse Kearney, while the senior Henry is played by Marcus Lamb.
Charles is delighted at the arrival of his sister, which is a sentiment he doesn’t have when his mother and father arrive.
Talking about his dad, who’s played by Jonathan Pryce, Charles starts complaining about him to his sister. He tells Fanny that this morning, I had three to five shillings in my hand and now — observe the vacancy!
Then, watching his father playing with Charles’ children, Fanny says, “No one is useless in this world…” and Charles finishes, “…who lightens the burdens of another.”
That’s a quote often attributed to Charles himself, and while it’s possible he came up with it, it’s also very possible it’s something he got from his parents. If there’s one thing that’s nearly impossible to track down to their original source, it’s quotes.
What we do know, though, is that Charles Dickens did indeed have a very strained relationship with his father. Most of that revolved around money, something that John never seemed to have.
Some of that debt might be attributed to the fact that John Dickens had eight children. Trying to raise that many kids isn’t the cheapest thing to do. But, then again, Charles Dickens had ten children of his own.
So, it’d seem the biggest reason for John’s financial misfortunes just boiled down to having a poor sense of how to handle and deal with money.
We see the culmination of this animosity over money between John and Charles in the movie in the next scene. It happens as Charles is writing his book, and we see the Ghost of Christmas Past. She’s played by Anna Murphy, the same girl who plays the Irish maid in the Dickens’ home, Tara.
It’s here that the movie jumps back in time to Charles as a child. He’s only 11 years old, and John is being carted off. We don’t really know where to at this point, but John mentions something about being free once the debt is paid, so we must assume its debtors’ prison.
Behind John we can see a building with a sign that says Warren’s Blacking. In the jailor’s cart we can see John, a girl behind him and his wife, Elizabeth, holding a son. So, there’s at least two children there.
While it is true that John Dickens was sent to debtors’ prison, the way the movie shows it happening all at once isn’t accurate.
It was on February 20th, 1824 when John was sent to the Marshalsea Debtors’ Prison because of a loan in the amount of £40 and 10 shillings to a baker in town named James Kerr.
That’s not the only debt John incurred. That was just the final straw of a debt totaling £700. But …the inaccurate part in the movie isn’t John being sent to debtors’ prison. The inaccuracy was showing Elizabeth and two children being sent there at the same time.
It was in April of 1824 that Elizabeth and four of their youngest children were sent to Marshalsea with John. That’d be four of their seven children at the time. The last of their children, little Augustus Dickens, wasn’t born until 1827.
The movie is correct, though, showing that young Charles Dickens was forced to work at Warren’s Blacking Warehouse. He did get paid, but barely. Six shillings for an entire week’s worth of work.
His job there was to work ten hours a day pasting labels onto boot blacking — shoe polish.
Here’s how Charles described his days at Warren’s in a letter to John Forster many years later:
The blacking-warehouse was the last house on the left-hand side of the way, at old Hungerford Stairs. It was a crazy, tumble-down old house, abutting of course on the river, and literally overrun with rats.
Its wainscoted rooms, and its rotten floors and staircase, and the old grey rats swarming down in the cellars, and the sound of their squeaking and scuffling coming up the stairs at all times, and the dirt and decay of the place, rise up visibly before me, as if I were there again.
The counting-house was on the first floor, looking over the coal-barges and the river. There was a recess in it, in which I was to sit and work. My work was to cover the pots of paste-blacking; first with a piece of oil-paper, and then with a piece of blue paper; to tie them round with a string; and then to clip the paper close and neat, all round, until it looked as smart as a pot of ointment from an apothecary’s shop.
When a certain number of grosses of pots had attained this pitch of perfection, I was to paste on each a printed label, and then go on again with more pots. Two or three other boys were kept at similar duty down-stairs on similar wages.
One of them came up, in a ragged apron and a paper cap, on the first Monday morning, to show me the trick of using the string and tying the knot. His name was Bob Fagin; and I took the liberty of using his name, long afterwards, in Oliver Twist.
The character of Bob Fagin was very controversial for the antisemitism … but that’s a story for another day.
John’s days in debtors’ prison ended when his mother died and left him all the money she had — £450. That was immediately taken by the debtors, and along with the £146 John was being given as a pension for his time as a clerk in the Navy, things were looking up.
The Dickens family was allowed to leave prison when John agreed to declare bankruptcy and give up all his possessions while promising to pay back the rest of the debts as soon as possible. It’d be a couple more years before those were finally cleared.
The movie really focuses more on Charles’ strained relationship with his father over having to work at the workhouse due to John’s debts, but he was also bitter toward his mother. You see, after John and Elizabeth were released from prison, Charles wasn’t freed from the blacking warehouse until after a disagreement between John and Charles’ boss at the warehouse resulted in Charles getting fired.
His mom wanted him to keep working there so he could make money for the family, even though it was a meager sum, but his dad wanted Charles to go back to school — something he’d been pulled from when John had been sent to prison.
For her wanting him to go back to the blacking warehouse, Charles harbored a bitterness toward his mother that lasted until the end of his life.
Back in the movie, we see the Ghost of Christmas Present next. He’s played by Justin Edwards, the same guy who plays John Forster in the film. After a bit of explanation that the Ghost of Christmas Present is all about the gifts of abundance, goodwill and generosity, the ghost turns to Christopher Plumber’s version of Scrooge.
“But, you wouldn’t know anything about generosity, would you?”
Scrooge looks a bit sheepish.
“Unlike these people,” the ghost continues. And the scene transforms to show Bob and Mrs. Cratchit — she never really has a name, but some adaptations of the story have called her Emily.
Together with their children, Martha, Belinda, Peter, a few other unnamed kids, and the youngest, Tiny Tim. He’s very sick and must use a crutch to get around.
According to the movie, these characters are all inspired by Charles’ sister’s family — including little Henry, Jr., who we see walking with a crutch just like Tiny Tim.
Like we learned about many of the other characters for Charles’ stories, there very well could’ve been many inspirations for Tiny Tim. But, most historians agree that it was indeed Fanny’s son, Henry, Jr., who was the inspiration for Tiny Tim.
Although it’s worth pointing out that his name wasn’t always Tiny Tim. In the first draft, it was Little Fred — possibly named after one or both of Charles’ younger brothers, Frederick or Alfred.
In fact, some historians believe the sickliness of Tiny Tim was inspired by the illness of his younger brother. So, perhaps again we have a character born out of multiple real people.
Going back to the movie, we see the final of the three ghosts next. It happens while Charles is walking in the city at night.
And not to get too sidetracked, but that’s something Charles did. As biographer Claire Tomalin mentioned in her great book, Charles Dickens: A Life, during the six-week period writing A Christmas Carol and under the stress of declining sales and a growing family, Charles would walk as much as 15 to 20 miles a night around London.
That’s about 24 to 32 kilometers, by the way. During those walks, he’d focus on formulating the storyline for his book.
And so, in the movie, it’s on one of these walks that he comes across the Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come. The movie doesn’t show this as a character played by someone we’re already familiar with like the other two, but rather a scary-looking figure that is cloaked and towering above everyone else.
Following its finger, Charles and the host of characters in his mind that are following him find themselves in the Cratchit household. Mrs. Cratchit asks Robert if he went to the cemetery today. Yes, he replies. My little child … my little child.
Then, as the tears flow for Mr. and Mrs. Cratchit, we see Tiny Tim’s crutch, lying unused by the fireplace.
Suddenly, we’re back to reality as Charles is reading the story to Tara.
“Wait … Tiny Tim dies?”
Tara is in shock.
“No, he can’t die!”
“Well, he was very sick,” Charles says, implying that the end was inevitable.
“But, he can’t die. Scrooge must do something to fix it!” Tara cries.
Of course, that’s not exactly how it happens in the movie, but you get the idea. As dramatized as this scene is for the film, it’s very possible something that could’ve happened.
While I couldn’t find anything in my research to indicate Tiny Tim would explicitly die in the original version of A Christmas Carol, in a book called The Lives and Times of Ebenezer Scrooge by Paul Davis, he writes that Charles didn’t include that epic line confirming that, indeed, Tiny Tim did not die in the original, handwritten manuscript.
It’d seem that was added later by the time it was being printed.
As for the illness that Tiny Tim had, many have speculated as to the nature of it. The movie makes no mention of it, probably because Charles himself never clarified … but the mere fact that it must’ve been a curable illness has made many wonder about what it was.
And most doctors who have been asked this question to tend to believe it must’ve been rickets.
That’s an illness that was common for children in 19th century England where smog often prohibited the most natural source of vitamin D that kept rickets at bay.
The symptoms for rickets would be a loss of bone density and weak muscles, which would’ve led to the crutch. Eventually, it’d lead to death — something, sadly, that many suffered.
But, it was curable. If not from the sun’s vitamin D then by an improved diet. That’s something that could be improved by Cratchit getting a raise, of course.
Heading back into the movie, things end happily … much like A Christmas Carol itself.
Charles manages to get the book written in time. He sends it to the printer and then seems to wait around while it’s getting done. Charles’ relationship with his father is restored.
And finally, the text on the screen at the very end of the film mentions that the book was published on December 19th, 1843 and by Christmas Eve every single copy had been sold.
That is true.
There were 6,000 first edition copies that were printed. Granted, it’s not likely Charles was waiting around for them to print — it took two weeks between the time Charles finished writing the story and for them to be printed. By the time December 24th rolled around, all 6,000 had sold.
But, things weren’t all sunshine and happiness after this for Charles. While his relationship with his father may have been improved, it wasn’t magically solved like the movie shows. And, as we learned earlier, Charles harbored a bitterness toward his mother for the rest of his life.
Instead of being the immediate resolution to his money problems, A Christmas Carol ended up being more trouble than Charles anticipated.
After all, he was both the writer and the publisher this time around. In his mind, Charles had hoped to make £1,000 for the 6,000 copies.
And he was close — it made £992 and five shillings. But then came the expenses. £74 2s for printing, £89 2s for paper, £49 18s for the drawings, binding at £180, printing plates at £15 17s, advertising and incidentals at £168 7s, and many more expenses.
In the end, Charles Dickens made a total of £137 for the first edition of A Christmas Carol. That’s about $16,500 today. Not bad, but hardly the $118,000 today that £1,000 would’ve been back then.
Then, Charles was thrust into a battle to defend his work.
It started when the book made its way to America. In January of 1844, the American publishers Harper and Brothers advertised A Christmas Carol would be available on the 24th for only six cents a copy.
With an exchange rate of $5 to £1, the cost of five shillings for the authorized version was a lot more expensive.
The reprint by Harper was cheaply made, didn’t include any of the four original illustrations by John Leech that Charles’ authorized version did, and … well, was a blatant copyright violation.
But … it was six cents.
It sold well, but Charles never saw any of the money in royalties for it. And it didn’t stop there. Newspapers in America serialized the story and others ripped it off. For example, an author named Henry Hewitt published a book called A Christmas Ghost Story that was a little different, but not much. According to Henry, he improved and added on Charles’ original story.
Of course, Charles never saw the money from Henry’s book, either. Sure, there were copyright laws, but there hadn’t been agreements between the United States and England on those copyrights, yet.
When he wrote the book, Charles was hoping to make £1,000 in profit from his story in the weeks following its release. A full year later, he’d made a grand total of £744, or about $89,000 in today’s U.S. dollars, from A Christmas Carol.