The real-life inspiration for Tiny Tim had a much sadder fate. Dickens’s frustration about poverty in Great Britain led to a classic, writes Lucinda Hawksley.

In May 1843, Charles Dickens was invited to a fundraising dinner in aid of the Charterhouse Square infirmary, which cared for elderly, impoverished men. Ironically, most of the diners were very wealthy men, who made fortunes in the City of London. Dickens wrote a contemptuous letter to his friend Douglas Jerrold describing them as “sleek, slobbering, bow-paunched, overfed, apoplectic, snorting cattle.

He wanted to write something that would strike ‘a sledgehammer blow’ on behalf of poor children

The author was burning with desire to bring about genuine changes to society. He was “stricken down” by reading the 1843 parliamentary report on Britain’s child labourers, written by pioneering doctor Thomas Southwood Smith and intended to write a pamphlet titled An Appeal to the People of England, on Behalf of the Poor Man’s Child, “with my name attached, of course”. The more he thought about it, however, the less impact he felt it would have. Instead, he wanted to write something that would grab people’s attention, something to strike “a sledgehammer blow” on behalf of poor children and have “twenty thousand times the force” of a government pamphlet.

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In October 1843, Dickens travelled to Manchester to give a speech in support of the Athenaeum, an educational charity for working men and women. His older sister, Fanny, lived in Manchester with her husband, Henry Burnett, and their two sons, Harry and Charles. When Dickens visited them, he was confronted by the difficulties facing his disabled nephew Harry. It made him think about the realities of what life was like for impoverished disabled children, whose lives were even harder than those of their able-bodied siblings. Harry was the inspiration for Tiny Tim. (Sadly, unlike his fictional counterpart, Harry Burnett did not survive – despite his uncle’s best efforts to pay doctors to save him.)

While walking around Manchester, Dickens was horrified by the sight of families starving on the streets. The breadth of poverty in post-Industrial Revolution Manchester was chilling. This was the ‘Hungry Forties’. Britain was experiencing an economic depression, unemployment was growing exponentially, two consecutive harvests had failed and the price of everyday foods was beyond the reach of many.

Dickens’s speech at the Athenaeum on 5 October was passionate in its call for reform. Fired by what he had seen, his words burned with fury and feelings of powerlessness. He railed at how the upper class of wealthy privileged men seemed determined never to share their riches with those who needed help: “…How often have we heard from a large class of men... that ‘a little learning is a dangerous thing?’ Why, a little hanging was considered a very dangerous thing, according to the same authorities, with this difference, that, because a little hanging was dangerous, we had a great deal of it; and, because a little learning was dangerous, we were to have none at all….” His speech was reported in newspapers all over the country.

Dickens’s publishers were unsupportive of the book

By the time Dickens travelled back to London, he knew he needed to write something monumentally important. The first known mention of A Christmas Carol is in a letter to Scottish academic Macvey Napier, on 24 October: “I plunged headlong into a little scheme ...[and] set an artist at work upon it.” The artist was Dickens’s great friend John Leech, who would become famous as one of the leading cartoonists for Punch.

Christmas yet to come

Dickens spent six weeks writing. He finished the novella on 2 December, but instead of being relieved, he was stressed and panicking about finances. His bank account was overdrawn and his publishers, Chapman and Hall, were unsupportive of what they considered a strange idea. His current novel, Martin Chuzzlewit, had lost readers during its serialisation, and the publishers were losing confidence in their star author. As a result they refused to pay the full costs for publishing A Christmas Carol, so Dickens paid the rest himself. Now the book was finished, Dickens was furious at how little effort Chapman and Hall were making to publicise it. They came to regret their lack of confidence: A Christmas Carol was an instant and overwhelming success, and in 1844, Charles Dickens moved to rival publishing house Bradbury and Evans.

A Christmas Carol was published on 19 December 1843, and it captured the zeitgeist. For some years, people had been feeling nostalgic for the ways in which Christmas had been celebrated in the past. The British Isles were ripe for a Christmas renaissance. The plot also highlighted how Christmas had lost its former purpose, as a time of charitable giving.

The astonishing and immediate success of A Christmas Carol surprised even its author. Six thousand copies were published on 19 December, and on Christmas Eve Dickens received a letter from Chapman and Hall to say “as the orders were coming in fast from town and country, it would soon be necessary to reprint”. The novelist William Thackeray wrote a heartfelt review in Fraser’s Magazine saying, “It seems to me a national benefit, and to every man or woman who reads it a personal kindness.”

By coincidence, 1843 was also the year in which the very first Christmas card was produced commercially. It was the idea of a frantically busy civil servant, Henry Cole, who didn’t have time to write the expected long Christmas letters. He had 1,000 cards printed and those he didn’t need he put up for sale. This helped to encourage a new fashionable fervour for Christmas.

A Christmas Carol has never been out of print. It is known throughout the world and it can be guaranteed to be commented on in newspapers every December. Dickens used it as a mouthpiece for his own feelings about society. At the start, Ebenezer Scrooge utters the comment that poor people who are unable to work should die and “decrease the surplus population.” Dickens was voicing what he believed many of his readers felt about the poor – and how he believed people had once viewed him as the labouring child of an imprisoned debtor. These words haunt Scrooge, and he grows to be deeply ashamed for having thought of human beings as worthless.

What Dickens thought was the essence of A Christmas Carol is often left out of adaptations. When the Ghost of Christmas Present is starting to age and fade away, Scrooge notices something underneath the spirit’s robe. He thinks it’s an animal’s claw, but it’s a skinny human hand: “Two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable ... clung upon the outside of its garment ... a boy and a girl.... ‘Spirit, are they yours?’ Scrooge could say no more. ‘They are Man’s,’ said the Spirit, looking down upon them. ‘...This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree...’.”

This was Dickens’s main reason for writing A Christmas Carol. He wanted his readers to realise that, if they continued to deny poor children the necessities of life – such as food, shelter, warm clothing, healthcare and an education – they would grow up to become dangerous, violent adults. The child born in a workhouse who was not as fortunate as Oliver Twist, or the impoverished child who didn’t die young like Little Nell, would grow up to become another Bill Sikes, Fagin, Little Em’ly or Daniel Quilp.

Dickens and Christmas by Lucinda Hawksley is published by Pen and Sword.

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