The Family Tensions That Inspired Dickens to Write ‘A Christmas Carol’

Nancy Bilyeau
6 min readDec 20, 2019

The novelist drew from his own life in crafting characters

Charles Dickens, the giant of 19th century English literature

It may well be the most beloved Christmas story ever written. Charles Dickens’ novella, originally titled Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas was published on December 19, 1843, and sold 6,000 copies by Christmas Day. It has never gone out of print and is the basis for countless adaptations, giving way to debates over who is the best Ebeneezer Scrooge: Alastair Sim or Reginald Owen, George C. Scott or Patrick Stewart.

Autographed manuscript of the title page of ‘A Christmas Carol,’ signed by Dicken. Purchased byJohn Pierpont Morgan before 1900. Image courtesy of Morgan Library & Museum Media Department.

While the story itself is both touching and mythic, taking a closer look at Dickens’ decision to write the book and the personal history that he poured into it is illuminating.

Dickens, to put it bluntly, wrote A Christmas Carol because he needed the money. He’d found literary fame due to the success of The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist, but his new book, Martin Chuzzlewit, was not as successful.

Dickens had a wife and four children to support; his wife, Catherine, was pregnant with their fifth. He came up with the idea to rent the family’s London home and live on the Continent for a year. A Christmas Carol was written to fund this move. A story of spirits who appear at Christmastime was not invented by Dickens. For centuries, during the longest and darkest nights of the year, it was thought that the barrier between this world and the afterlife was at its thinnest. This was the time for ghosts to show themselves to the living.

The original cover of A Christmas Carol. Dickens insisted that it be bound in crimson morocco, a durable goatskin leather. The binding is elegantly decorated in gilt with the name “Thomas Mitton Esqre.” Dickens presented the bound manuscript to Mitton, his close friend and creditor, possibly as a Christmas gift. From the J.P. Morgan collection, courtesy of the Morgan Media Department

Dickens penned the book in six weeks. He wrote in a concentrated burst from 9 am to 2 pm every day. Writing would be followed by long brainstorming walks.

He scribbled many notes in the margins as he went, making swift corrections. According to curators of a Dickens exhibit at the Morgan Library & Museum, owner of the original manuscript, “Deleted text is struck out with a cursive and continuous looping movement of the pen…

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Nancy Bilyeau

Passionate about history, pop culture, the perfect bagel. Author of 5 historical novels. Latest book: ‘The Orchid Hour' www.nancybilyeau.com