In honour of the festive season, the College Library is pleased to announce the opening of its new exhibition, Christmas Tales. Open to all current members of Magdalene College, the exhibition offers a first-hand opportunity to explore the dark and ethereal world of Charles Dickens’s Christmas novellas.
Many people today will have heard of A Christmas Carol, but fewer will know that Dickens’s well-loved seasonal story was in fact one of five Christmas tales to have been published during the 1840s. Following the success of A Christmas Carol in 1843, Dickens went on to write a series of novellas, which include The Chimes (1844); The Cricket on the Hearth: a fairy-tale of home (1845); The Battle of Life: a Love Story (1846); and The Haunted Man & The Ghost’s Bargain: a fancy for Christmas-Time (1848). Similar to A Christmas Carol, the later stories are typically set in domestic spaces and involve encounters with supernatural beings that serve as a means to explore questions of human morality and the politics of social justice. Each pocket-sized volume was published in a distinctive crimson binding that was recognisable to readers.The industrial revolution of the nineteenth century was central to the commercialisation of Christmas in Britain. New technologies and mechanised methods of production meant that material objects, including books, could now be produced more quickly and more efficiently than they had been. Manufacturers began to create novelty toys and trinkets that were eagerly purchased as gifts. The mid-1840s, in particular, saw a boom in Christmas culture, with the appearance of Christmas cards, special themed publications, and even the first Christmas cracker, designed by a sweet-shop owner called Tom Smith.
Dickens’s Christmas stories appeared on the market alongside these Christmas commodities, as literary treats to be shared, read and consumed during the festive season. Both the external and internal aesthetics of the volumes were very important to Dickens. All five books, printed in octavo, were beautifully-illustrated and bound in handsome crimson bindings, with blind and gold tooling and gilt edges. Such sumptuous books were not cheap to produce, however, and this was in turn reflected in the value of the volumes, which were to be sold at a price of five shillings each.
The first volume in Dickens’s Christmas quintet, A Christmas Carol, was an immediate bestseller. The first edition, which was initially published on 19th December 1843, sold out by Christmas Eve, and was succeeded by a number of subsequent editions the following year. The book has remained in print ever since and has been adapted variously for television, film, theatre and radio.
At the centre of A Christmas Carol is the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge – a mean and ill-spirited man who, over the course of the novel, is persuaded to reform his ways and embrace the kindness, compassion and generosity of the Christmas spirit. The novel focuses especially on the treatment of the poor and the importance of sharing what we have with others. It is also popularises certain Christmas traditions, such as giving to charity, playing festive games, and consuming seasonal food and drink with friends and family. For Dickens, Christmas is a time of joy and celebration. However, it is also a time for reflection and re-evaluation of how we live our lives and how we might show greater munificence towards those less fortunate than ourselves.
Together with a complete set of Dickens’s Christmas stories, the College Library also holds a copy of a curious work called The Faces in the Fire: a story for the season (1849), written by ‘Redgap’ i.e. George Frederick Pardon (1824-1884). Pardon was an English writer and journalist, who was engaged as an editor for, at various points during his life, publications including The People’s and Howitt’s Journal, Working Man’s Friend, Illustrated Exhibitor, and Home Companion.The Faces in the Fire mimics the format of Dickens’s Christmas books, having been written and published in much the same style. The 1849 edition, displayed here, is bound in a similarly distinctive red rib-grain and gold-stamped cloth binding, with gilt edges and engravings, and, in this way, satisfies what readers had by the late 1840s come to expect from their Christmas stories. The imitative material design of the volume clearly identifies The Faces in the Fire as a piece of festive literature, while thematically, the narrative picks up on the supernatural and domestic threads that may be found in the works of Dickens.
The exhibition will run until January. For further information, members are advised to contact College Library staff at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This post is a revised version of a previous post published in December 2018.
By Ellie Swire
Libraries Assistant and Invigilator
Hughes, K. “Review: God bless Tiny Tim: Lives & letters: Charles Dickens is often credited with ‘inventing’ the modern festive season with his 1843 hit A Christmas Carol . But we should not forget his other seasonal stories, argues Kathryn Hughes.” The Guardian. 22 December 2007: p.16.
Moore, T. Victorian Christmas in Print. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.
Parker, D. Christmas and Charles Dickens. Michigan: AMS Press, 2005.
Slater, M. A Christmas carol and other Christmas writings. London: Penguin, 2003.
Sutherland, J. “The origins of A Christmas Carol”. The British Library. 15 May 2014. https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/the-origins-of-a-christmas-carol