Archive for December 18th, 2013

Hitting the road with Charles Dickens and A Christmas Carol

Wednesday, December 18th, 2013
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christmas-carolDickens-lover John Hennessy (also known as Stanford University’s president) told us some time ago that he reread A Christmas Carol at this time of year. Perhaps we’ll join him – certainly it’s short enough.  My little facsimile of the first edition is a double-spaced 166 pages long (at right).

It was the first book Charles Dickens took to the road for his famous readings, which made a killing in the U.S.  His second American tour raked in the equivalent of $2.3 million in today’s dollars. People camped out in the snow the night before to hear it – it was the 19th-century version of Black Friday sales at Walmart.

During that 1867 tour, the 32-year-old Mark Twain was in the audience, and was distinctly unimpressed.  Here’s how he described the “old” (55 years old) writer’s entrance:

Promptly at 8 P.M., unannounced, and without waiting for any stamping or clapping of hands to call him out, a tall, “spry,” (if I may say it,) thin-legged old gentleman, gotten up regardless of expense, especially as to shirt-front and diamonds, with a bright red flower in his button-hole, gray beard and moustache, bald head, and with side hair brushed fiercely and tempestuously forward, as if its owner were sweeping down before a gale of wind, the very Dickens came! He did not emerge upon the stage – that is rather too deliberate a word – he strode.

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Hamming it up

The verdict? “There is no heart,” he said. “No feeling – it is nothing but glittering frostwork.”

Dickens was renowned for his theatrical readings.  Here’s how he prepared:  two tablespoons of rum mixed with cream for breakfast, a pint of champagne for tea and, half an hour prior to performance, he would knock back a sherry with a raw egg beaten into it. During the interval of his reading he would sip beef tea, and at bedtime he’d have a bowl of soup – just like Ebenezer… or was that porridge?  I’ll have to reread and find out.

Dickens’ first public reading was A Christmas Carol, and it was also his last.  His son recorded his last words to a London audience in March 1870 (springtime is not the usual time for reading A Christmas Carol): “…from these garish lights I vanish now for evermore, with one heartfelt, grateful, respectful, and affectionate farewell.”

On performance days, Dickens would prep with two tablespoons of rum mixed with cream for breakfast, a pint of champagne for tea and, half an hour before he went on stage, he would knock back a sherry with a raw egg beaten into it. During the interval of his reading he would sip beef tea, and at bedtime he’d have a bowl of soup … just like Ebenezer … or was that porridge? We’ll have to doublecheck.

Just as Dickens’ first public reading was of A Christmas Carol, so was his last – an uncharacteristic springtime reading of A Christmas Carol in March 1870. His son recorded his final, admittedly hammy, words to the audience: “…from these garish lights I vanish now for evermore, with one heartfelt, grateful, and affectionate farewell.”

How do I know all this stuff?  You can read this and more little-known facts about the Christmas classic over at Mental Floss here.  And below is the bestest Christmas Carol ever, the 1951 version with Alaistair Sim.  And below that, Dickens’s distinctive bookplate.  Just because we like lions.

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