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

The novelist drew from his own life in crafting characters

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.

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.

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 and replaced with more active verbs — to achieve greater vividness or immediacy of effect — and fewer words for concision. This heavily revised sixty-six-page draft — the only manuscript of the story — was sent to the printer in order for the book to be published on 19 December, just in time for the Christmas market.”

Literary historians believe that because he needed to write so fast, Dickens wrote about a topic close to his heart. He fueled the story with his own feelings about the terrible conditions for the poor in England. The 1834 New Poor Law went far toward criminalizing poverty. Dickens was furious about the grim fate of the working class, and he used this novella to write about it.

As for the book’s characters, debates go on about which real-life “misers” Dickens based the elderly Ebeneezer Scrooge on or his partner Jacob Marley. When it comes to the younger Scrooge, though, Dickens’ own youth can be seen in glimpses. His years of loneliness and resentment come through.

In the story, the boy Ebeneezer Scrooge has been sent away to a boarding school (one with dirty rooms and cracked windows) by a father who seems to want nothing to do with him.

Dickens had a complicated relationship with his father, John Dickens. When he was 12, Charles Dickens was removed from school and forced to work at a blacking factory for 10 hours a day, six days a week. The reason: his father, John Dickens, had been sentenced to Marshalsea Prison because he was unable to pay a debt of 40 pounds; his wife and younger children joined him there, while Charles lived alone in lodgings.

This means that when still a child, Charles Dickens was under intense pressure to make money and relieve this debt. It was the family’s only way out of prison. These memories never left Dickens: “My whole nature was so penetrated with grief and humiliation,” he told a friend.

The character of Bob Cratchit, Scrooge’s weak, hapless, but warm-hearted clerk who has a large family that he struggles to support, bears some resemblance to Dickens’ father. Scrooge’s abuse of Cratchit is quite interesting in this light.

A crucial character in A Christmas Carol is Scrooge’s older sister Fan, who is the only person to love him unconditionally but dies as a young woman after giving birth to her son, Fred.

“Always a delicate creature, whom a breath might have withered,” said the Ghost. “But she had a large heart.”

“So she had,” cried Scrooge.

Fan, it seems clear, was based on Dickens’ older sister Frances, known in the family as Fanny, who was close to her brother when they were children.

She was “clever and accomplished,” according to Dickens biographer Claire Tomalin. A talented musician, in 1823 she became a student at the Royal Academy of Music in London. She was expected to become the star of the family, not Charles. Biographers believe that he was envious of Fanny.

According to the Charles Dickens Museum, “Fanny’s schooling was, however, often marred by her father’s inability to pay her fees. A letter survives from John Dickens, dated 25 May 1826, in which he suggests a payment plan, offering to pay ‘£10 quarterly from the 24th June next and the same to continue until the account is finally closed.’ “

Fanny did have a career as a professional singer, with a “pure” singing style. In 1837, she married a fellow musician and they settled in Manchester. The couple had two sons. “Once Fanny Dickens married and had children, her career declined,” wrote Tomalin.

Fanny became ill with tuberculosis. One of her children, Harry, was a bright child who suffered from a physical handicap. When Fanny died, Harry passed away shortly afterward at the age of 8. Some speculate that the child was the inspiration for Tiny Tim.

Such family tragedies would seem to provide strong inspiration for Dickens in his character creations of Fan and Tiny Tim. What is chilling is that Fanny and Harry died years after Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol.

By the time his sister fell ill, Dickens was in a much better financial position. He hired the best doctors for Fanny, but nothing could save her. She died at the age of 38 on September 2, 1848. Dickens arranged for her burial in Highgate Cemetery. Harry was buried there too, as were Charles Dickens’ parents and other members of his family.

As for Charles Dickens, the great writer, he did not join them. Dickens is buried elsewhere.

Nancy Bilyeau is a magazine editor and historical novelist. Her most recent novel, ‘Dreamland,’ is set in 1911 Coney Island. She is also the author of the Christmas ghost story novella ‘The Ghost of Madison Avenue.’ To learn more, go to www.nancybilyeau.com

Passionate about history, pop culture, the perfect bagel. Author of 5 historical novels. Latest book: ‘Dreamland’ www.nancybilyeau.com

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store