A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost Story of Christmas, to give the work its full title, was the first, and the most popular, of Dickens’s series of Christmas books. The volume, published by Chapman and Hall on 19 December 1843, was an immediate success and the initial print run of 6,000 copies sold out within a matter of days. Dickens had hoped the book would clear his debts with Chapman and Hall but the lavish production, including four woodcuts and four colour plates by John Leech, meant Dickens only made £230 from the first printing. Worse was to follow when a plagiarized version of the book appeared in January 1844. Dickens took the publishers of the pirated edition to court but, even though he won the case, he found himself liable for costs of around £700 when the guilty party declared bankruptcy. His bitterness at the whole affair resurfaced years later when he came to describe the labyrinthine and corrupt workings of the Court of Chancery in Bleak House (1853).
A Christmas Carol concerns a cold-hearted miser, Ebeneezer Scrooge, who is visited on Christmas Eve by the ghost of his dead partner, Jacob Marley. During the night three further spirits - the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future - also appear to Scrooge, each holding a mirror to his behaviour and highlighting the unhappiness resulting from his misanthropy. The Ghost of Christmas Future, the most sinister of the three spectres, also reveals the gloomy consequences for Scrooge, and those like Bob Cratchit and his son Tiny Tim whose livelihoods depend upon him, should he fail to mend his ways.
In addition to Scrooge’s own plight the story also addresses wider social issues, particularly in the scene where the Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge the two children Ignorance and Want: ‘From the foldings of its robe, it brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt down at its feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment’ (Stave III). Both children are the direct result of the poverty afflicting much of Victorian society. Dickens was a fierce defender of children, and took every opportunity to highlight the disastrous implications of neglect, financial hardship and a lack of education on their wellbeing.
Dickens had written about misanthropes, Christmas and the supernatural before in the Gabriel Grub episode of The Pickwick Papers (1837), but it was A Christmas Carol which truly caught the public imagination. The associations between Christmas, the supernatural and Dickens have lasted ever since. Names and dialogue from the story have also entered the language. Those who dislike Christmas are given the name ‘Scrooge’, but they do of course have the option of replying with Scrooge’s vehement ‘Bah, humbug!’ to any call for seasonal good cheer.