The transformative power of Dickens' 'Christmas Carol'

review

December 21, 2008|By Chauncey Mabe | Chauncey Mabe,South Florida Sun-Sentinel

The Man Who Invented Christmas

By Les Standiford

Crown Publishing Group / 256 pages / $19.95

One of the many famous anecdotes arising from the life of Charles Dickens, the most important English novelist in the 19th century, came when poet Theodore Watts-Duncan reported that a young cockney street vendor, having just heard of the author's passing, exclaimed, "Dickens dead? Then will Father Christmas die, too?"

Christmas has so long been entrenched as the top holiday in the Western calendar that it seems preposterous to date, as Les Standiford does in The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits, our now-common yuletide traditions to the publication of a single book.

That book, of course, is A Christmas Carol. Standiford, a mystery writer-turned-popular historian, brings fresh insight to the familiar story, among other things linking the revival of Christmas to the restoration of Dickens' own fortunes. With an eye for telling detail and a gift for synthesizing a broad range of sources into a tight and highly readable narrative, he packs an amazing amount of information into a relatively brief volume.

Among its other virtues, The Man Who Invented Christmas presents a biography of Dickens' life, from his time as an impoverished child laborer to his later youth as a newspaper reporter to his stunning early literary success with The Old Curiosity Shop.

At the same time, Standiford provides a history of Christmas, which had been suppressed in America and England by Puritan and other authorities who saw it as an excuse for revelry.

Christmas may have been poised for a revival in any case. The first Christmas cards went on sale in 1843, the same year Dickens published his book. "The Night Before Christmas," with the first presentation of St. Nicholas as Santa Claus, had come out two decades earlier. Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's consort, helped popularize the Christmas tree, a tradition he brought from his native Germany.

But Standiford makes the case that A Christmas Carol deserves most of the credit for rehabilitating Christmas. By having Scrooge, after his redemption, buy a turkey for Bob Cratchit's family, he even displaced the traditional Christmas goose and helped make turkey-farming a major business.

Standiford provides insight into the oppressions of England's industrial age; publishing and literary culture; and Dickens' complicated feelings toward the United States. Along the way he discovers forgotten details: Dickens was on the verge of bankruptcy when he wrote A Christmas Carol; he separated from his wife after 23 years of marriage and took up with a much younger actress (he was modern!); and he produced five more Christmas novels.

David Copperfield, Great Expectations and Dickens' other more "serious" novels sometimes overshadow Christmas Carol. Standiford argues for its literary merit - for the cadences, wry humor, the fantasy grounded in reality. Modern audiences who know the story only from its many TV and movie dramatizations, he writes, miss these elements.

Chauncy Mabe is the book editor of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

excerpt

"Faced with bankruptcy, he was contemplating giving up on writing fiction altogether. Instead, he pulled himself together, and, in six short weeks, wrote a book that not only restored him in the eyes of the public but began the transformation of what was then a second-tier holiday into the most significant celebration of the Christian calendar."

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