This Festive New Exhibition Reveals How Charles Dickens Transformed Christmas

By Maire Rose Connor Last edited 22 months ago

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This Festive New Exhibition Reveals How Charles Dickens Transformed Christmas

Happy, happy Christmas, that can win us back to the delusions of our childish days; that can recall to the old man the pleasures of his youth; that can transport the sailor and the traveller, thousands of miles away, back to his own fireside and his quiet home!

- The Pickwick Papers

Charles Dickens wrote a lot about Christmas. But did you know that he also helped birth the festive season as we know it?

The beloved British author wrote A Christmas Carol in six short weeks during the run up to Christmas 1843. Thanks to his speedy scribbling and technological advances that hastened the printing process, this ensured that the now-classic tale was published during the gift-giving season — itself a relatively novel phenomenon driven by the increased spending power of the middle classes.

Trial edition of A Christmas Carol

Bound in gilded, salmon-brown leather and cheaper than the annuals it shared bookshelf space with, this compact book made for an ideal Christmas present. It also kickstarted a yearly tradition for Dickens, who — with just two exceptions — published special texts and stories for his readers for the next 24 Christmases.

From 20 November, you can peruse some of these for yourself at Charles Dickens Museum's new exhibition. Beautiful Books: Dickens and the Business of Christmas explores the author's impact on the commercialisation of the holiday season — and how an oversaturated market ironically turned him into a bit of a Scrooge.

Frontispiece to Charles Dickens' The Cricket on the Hearth

Exhibition highlights include an early 'trial' edition of A Christmas Carol, as well as a first edition inscribed by Dickens to his friend William Macready on New Year’s Day 1844. Visitors will also see the earliest sketches and illustrations of Scrooge, Fezziwig and the Christmas ghosts by John Leech, which would eventually adorn the first edition of the work.

Discover how technological advances changed the reading experience as you ogle Dickens' own taper stand and oil lamp, and feast your eyes upon literary artefacts, procured by antiquarian booksellers Maggs Bros Ltd.  You can also see the world's first ever printed Christmas card, produced the same year as A Christmas Carol.

The world's first printed Christmas card, designed by Henry Cole. Image © The Brick Row Bookshop (San Diego, California)

If all that's got your bibliophile heart aflutter, don't forget that 48 Doughty Street — the building that houses Charles Dickens Museum  — is itself a place of literary significance. It was here that Dickens wrote Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby, completed The Pickwick Papers and began Barnaby Rudge. So, whether you're crazy about Christmas, devoted to Dickens, or just appreciate beautiful tomes, this is a dream of an exhibition.

Beautiful Books: Dickens and the Business of Christmas, until 19 April 2020 at Charles Dickens Museum. Exhibition entry is included in museum entry, which costs £9.50 for adults and £4.50 for children aged 6-16.

Last Updated 05 December 2019