‘A Christmas Carol’: An Interview With Charles Dickens’s Great Granddaughter

The following interview is transcribed from a 1984 interview with Charles Dickens’ great granddaughter, Monica Dickens. The interview was given to Cape Cod, Mass. radio station WQRC and preceded a reading from her great grandfather’s classic, A Christmas Carol. The interview shines some light on how the story was written and how it was read in households as it was steadily released. Monica Dickens died in 1992.

DICKENS: It’s a curious story. As everybody knows, A Christmas Carol is against greed and money making and thought about material things, and [says] money doesn’t matter but love and the spirit [of Chrismas] do. And in actual fact, poor Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol because he badly needed money. He wrote it as a commercial project.

He was loaded down with debts. It’s hard to believe now that a bestselling author could be so poor, but he had some bad luck with his publishers and his family was always trying to borrow from him. … And he was on his beam ends and he thought to himself that he must make some money quickly. So he thought to himself that he must make some money quickly. This was in October. So he thought to himself, I’ll write a Christmas story, it will be published, people will buy it for Christmas, and I will make enough money to pay my bills.

This was October of the same year in which the Carol was published, which shows you how far we’ve progressed — it now takes at least a year to get a book published after you’ve finished it. But he wrote the thing and it was published within the space of about two months.

And of course, although it started as a purely commercial thing, as he got into the writing, he got so caught up in it. And as he described it himself, he finished in a white hear of enthusiasm that got him walking the streets at night when many sober folks had gone to bed. He said he fell in love with it. He forgot about needing to make money, he was just caught up in the story.

And his readers were caught up too. It was an instant success. Ironically, he didn’t make much money out of it, because having quarreled with his publishers, he insisted on publishing it at his own expense. He had three color illustrations, which was very extravagant, and gold leaf at the end of the pages. And he ended up with something like 1,000 pounds. God knows how many millions of dollars and pounds the Carol has earned since.

WQRC: Did your grandfather ever mention that he had listened to Charles Dickens read portions of this?

DICKENS: These books were read aloud at most homes because not everybody in the family could read. And each week as the installments came out, the father of the family would gather everybody around and read the next installment — which is one reason why, it’s said, there isn’t any sex in Dickens. …

All the family always sat and Dickens read A Christmas Carol to them when they wre children. And then, when we were children, my grandfather would always read the Carol to all of us. And I got the feeling that since he had listened to his own father reciting, he was giving us a pretty good imitation of Charles Dickens.

WQRC: What do you consider the secret ingredient that made it not only a hit in Britain but that has also led it to be adopted by Americans. I don’t think Christmas is complete without watching it on television or hearing it recited. What do you think makes it such a universally loved story?

DICKENS: Maybe it’s something slightly different to everyone. The story when y0u an analyze it is very simple, perhaps corny, a very obvious sentiment. But I think why I like it and why I enjoy reading it is because it gives one an opportunity to indulge in sentiment. Plain old fashioned sentiment. I think that’s why people like it. They can laugh and cry.

The words are so marvelous. Dickens’s choice of words is just so unbelievable. I’ve always been convinced that if Dickens had lived later in time, he would have written for the movies and television, because his choice of words is so visual. When you’re reading it or listening to it, it’s creating pictures that run through your head, which is what he did with words. If you analyze his choice of adjectives, he never picks the easy, ordinary, flat, commonplace adjective. It’s always something with color or smell or feel to it.

WQRC: And I think, too, he has captured the essence of what Christmas signifies to so many people. The redemptive spirit that exists at this time of year.

DICKENS: That’s right. And Dickens said that Scrooge continued to live the spirit of Christmas all year ’round. I hope he did. How many of us enjoying our family Christmas says, “Oh, I’m going to be like this always now”? And how many of us flop the day after Christmas Day, back into our old ways?

photo credit: Howard Lake, Creative Commons/flickr