Thanks to Rosie Croft from Pen & Sword for sending me an early hardback copy of this book, which I freely chose to review. Although I’m not a big Christmas fan, I couldn’t resist this book, and I thought it would make a great gift for this time of the year.
The book (which contains a bibliography, a detailed index, and illustrations) is a great read, no matter how much or how little you like Christmas. Liking, or at least being curious about, Dickens would enhance the experience, but I’d dare say that even people who only have a passing acquaintance with his word can enjoy it.
The structure of the book, written by Dickens great great great granddaughter, follows his life, although it is not a detailed biography. We look at the tradition of the Christmas holiday, mostly in the UK (although we hear about Christmas celebrations in the USA when Dickens embark on his lecture tours in America, later in the book), as it was (or wasn’t), and I found it an invaluable source of information from a historical point of view. Although I was familiar (or so I thought), with the elements of what we consider a traditional Christmas and their origin, I have learned plenty about it, from the fact that the celebration in the early XIX century used to focus on the 12th day of Christmas (with a big cake and parties where people played different parts), Christmas trees, Father Christmas, Christmas card… to the first introduction of the Christmas cake and the way the Christmas pudding and the mince pies have changed over the years (yes, I think most of us had heard that originally the mincemeat contained real meat… and that’s true).
I am not an expert on Dickens, although I’ve read a number of his novels (and A Christmas Carol, of course), and I don’t think much of the biographical information about him will be new to those who have studied his work and life (although as it is written by one of his relatives, and as we all know stories about family members circulate and are passed on through generations, it is always possible that if not the facts, the details and anecdotes might be more vividly portrayed), but I did learn much about him, his childhood (that I was familiar with), his struggles, his friendships… The book centres on the writing of A Christmas Carol, which was hugely successful and Dickens wrote in an attempt at raising people’s social awareness of the plight of the poor and the terrible conditions of the working classes in Victorian England, and how it would become the beginning of a tradition (still followed by many authors) of publishing novels and books in time for Christmas. Initially, in the years after Carol, he would write a new story for publication at that time, but later he would publish Christmas books, compiling his own stories and those of writer friends and collaborator, mostly not on the subject of Christmas. These proved popular, and as his fame grew, he spent more and more of his time touring, reading fragments of his books or some of his novellas in full (A Christmas Carol remained popular and still is), and also preparing the Christmas number. There are titbits of information that bring Dickens, the individual, to life (he had pet ravens and loved his dogs), with his qualities and defects (his behaviour towards his wife was horrendous, even if it was not uncommon for the period, and women had little in the way of legal rights at the time), and the focus of this volume on the yearly Christmas celebrations fits in with his enthusiasm and his interests. I loved the way he would get involved in pantomimes, which grew more and more elaborate over time, to the point of writing what sound like true plays to perform with his children and friends.
The book is peppered with fragments from his stories, which are set apart from the rest of the text, also quotes from his letters, and passages from newspapers of the period reviewing his work and/or his lectures. One of the aspects I particularly enjoyed —and I think most writers or people interested in the writing business will also appreciate— is the insider information about the publishing industry of the era. How Dickens would change publishers, his fight against piracy (oh, yes, it’s nothing new), his anger on seeing so many versions of his books turned into theatrical performances without his authorisation, the fact that there was no international copyright law, so although his books were very popular in the USA he did not receive a penny from the sales (and of course, they tried to tax his gains from lecturing, but he managed to escape the American taxmen), and other juicy bits. There is also plenty of material about his writing methods, and he often talks about it in his correspondence.
There are some photographs included, but my favourite illustrations are those taken from Dickens’s stories and others that capture the Christmas period of the era. They are a joy and further enhance the reading experience.
This is a book for lovers of Christmas, for people interested in the Victorian period and its traditions, for people who want to learn more about Dickens, and it will be of particular interest to writers who want to learn more about what writing was like at the time. I loved the fragments of Dickens’s stories that exemplify why he continues to be love, valued and appreciated. A fabulous gift, for you or for those you love. Merry Christmas, and God bless Us, Every One!