Friday, July 9, 2010
The Man Who Invented Christmas by Les Standiford
So Dickens and Christmas is just about as opposite of a Texas summer as I can imagine. This book is a short biography of Dickens, focusing on how and why he wrote his most beloved work, A Christmas Carol, and its huge impact on Western culture, specifically how most people celebrate or imagine Christmas.
It begins with Dickens reading in Manchester for a charity fundraiser. He was at a tough place in his current work, Martin Chuzzlewit, and facing personal and financial difficulties. Like today, most writers are only as popular as their last work. Dickens was in debt and needed something inspirational -- his previous work, American Notes for General Circulation, was not well received, and Chuzzlewit, his latest serial publication wasn't nearly as popular as the books that made him famous.
The book includes a short background of Dickens' career before A Christmas Carol, and gives quite a lot of detail about his publishing history. it's pretty depressing that one of the world's most beloved writers made so little money from his own works, since countries didn't recognize international copyrights. There were bootleg versions and lousy knockoffs published in England as well -- at one point, he sues a publisher for a cheap imitation of his work. He won the lawsuit, but the publisher declared bankruptcy, so Dickens wound up having to pay court costs for himself and the defendant as well! Talk about adding insult to injury! (He did put this experience to good use as material for Bleak House).
There's also a lot of background about how the Christmas holidays had fallen out of favor and were barely celebrated in the manner that most people imagine. Dickens himself was writing about an idealized holiday. The popularity of this book inspired people to decorate and start buying more Christmas turkeys, which quickly surpassed the popularity of the traditional Christmas goose. (I've tasted roast goose, it was pretty dry; I'm not surprised that most people prefer turkey). Prince Albert also contributed Christmas traditions, popularizing Christmas trees.
I don't know that this book has anything particular insightful or groundbreaking. If you're a Dickens fan you probably know all about his sad childhood, how he skyrocketed to fame with The Pickwick Papers, and his unhappy marriage and divorce. It does help give some context and background, and there's some interesting background about 19th century publishing. Standiford recommends Peter Ackroyd's biography of Dickens, (about 1200 pages!) which is sadly out of print, but I was intrigued enough to check it out of the library despite its length.
I'm also hoping that this book will inspire me to return to Dickens. Reading his entire works is one of my lifelong goals, but I got discouraged with my most recent attempt, The Old Curiosity Shop, which I haven't touched in weeks. I started it and I found Quilp so repulsive I haven't picked it up again.
This is book #9 for Our Mutual Read Challenge.