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Gift-Wrapping the Hungry Forties: Format vs. Text in Dickens's Christmas Books

Patrick Scott, University of South Carolina

This paper grows out of my bifurcated career, as both a Victorianist and a rare book curator. I am not a Dickensian, but I was taught by and taught with two of the greatest of modern Dickensians, Philip Collins and K. J. Fielding; I often used to include Dickens in Victorian courses; and two or three times since I moved to the library in 1995 I’ve mounted a holiday exhibit on Dickens and Christmas. What has struck me when I lay out the exhibit is the relatively ornate physical format of Dickens’s five Christmas books, quite different from the ephemeral, advertisement-carrying, paper covers of his most characteristic novels. The lavishness of the format, which to my eyes obviously derives from contemporary illustrated gift books and literary annuals, seems somehow at odds with Dickens's ostensible seasonal message, of remembering the poor and of seasonal good will to the less fortunate. The paradox foregrounded in the exhibit, between social message and physical format, might be described in Jerome McGann's terminology as the conflict between lexical and bibliographical encodings (McGann 13-14).
There has, of course, been significant scholarship on the formats for which Dickens wrote his fiction, and commentary on Dickens and illustration often includes discussion of the illustrations for the Christmas books by John Leech and others (see esp. Solberg; Cohen 141-173). But there is very little traceable comment on the origin of the Christmas books’ format—which was also their market positioning. Repeated searches over the years have found no entries for annuals or gift books in the standard bibliographies of Dickensian scholarship, there is no discussion of the topic in Robert Patten's excellent standard study of Dickens and his publishers, and I still turn up no entry in the MLA database linking the keywords Dickens and gift book or Dickens and annual. I have located only one brief contemporary comment on the topic, in a magazine essay from 1851, and I've come on only one brief dictionary entry (Taylor, 1999) that points to Dickens's own brief, rather shame-faced involvement with a literary annual in the months before the Carol. The mention of Dickens’s Christmas books in Lorraine Kooistra’s recent monograph on mid-Victorian gift books discusses his role as the creator of the Victorian Christmas, not his own use of the annual format (Kooistra, p. 26). This paper reviews the pivotal importance of the Christmas books in Dickens's career and explores the role Dickens's chosen physical format for the Christmas books came to play in critical response. His textual message changed, but his books' appearance stayed remarkably constant, while the hungry forties grew unignorably hungrier.
The Christmas books have a special place in the development of Dickens's own fictional craft. For Dickens as writer, the 1840's were the pivotal decade in which, after the prodigious productivity and success of his early novels, Dickens languished and struggled before turning his career around with the first of his mature, middle-period novels, Dombey & Son. As John Butt and Kathleen Tillotson long ago argued, the very shortness of the Christmas books brought Dickens a new consciousness of fictional structure, a consciousness he would develop through the number-plans he used for his novels from Dombey on. It was early in 1844, immediately after A Christmas Carol, that Dickens proposed to his prospective publisher that he wanted to abandon his trade-mark part-issue serializations and produce a regular three-volume novel; he wanted, he wrote, to go away for a whole year, "bag and baggage," write the full novel, and then come out ''with such a story, ... all at once, no parts, sledge-hammer blow" (Patten, p. 153). It is no accident that the earliest surviving example of Dickens outlining a work of fiction is for A Christmas Carol.
The 1840's, the hungry forties, were also significant for the development of Dickens's political consciousness, as the darkening economic context challenged the individualized social and moral vision of his earlier books. In the Christmas books, a full decade before Hard Times, Dickens spelled out the great conflicts of class and social philosophy that drew reactions also from Carlyle (Past and Present, 1843), Engels (Condition of the Working Class, 1844), and Marx (Communist Manifesto, 1848). Indeed, Michael Slater notably argued that it was from the response to the political caricatures of his second Christmas book, The Chimes (1844) that Dickens first discovered how much his sharpening political commentary could alienate rather than persuade his critics and readers.
And the Christmas books are texts of the 1840's in the social work that they do, in constituting or recuperating or anticipating a mid-Victorian cultural structure that had been deeply damaged or disrupted by the processes of urbanization. If Dickens virtually invented the Victorian Christmas, it was a Christmas of willfully false consciousness, replacing or displacing the concerns of politics and economics, of the merchant and the entrepreneur, with those of family and domesticity, of the home-owner and the parent. The positive values of the Dickensian Christmas--food, kinship, gift-giving, reconciliation--are more anthropological or quasi-religious than political or economic, and his books create or recreate for British urban society the essentialist seasonal rituals that would underpin the political stabilization of the decade after 1848, W.L. Burns's age of equipoise (cf. Kooistra, p. 26, referencing Connelly and Moore). The very books themselves, and their seasonal recurrence for the Christmas gift-market, symbolized, for Dickens himself as much as for his readers, the continuity and survival of a social ideal constantly called into question by the appalling concomitants of individual or collective suffering, the staggering irregular series of apparently unanticipable economic and social crises, as recorded in newspaper reports or government bluebooks.
Dickens had asserted his vision of Christmas in some of his earliest writings (cf. Collins, English Christmas; Scott). His essay "Christmas Festivities," first published in 1835 in Bell's Life in London and Sporting Chronicle, had asserted that family Christmas dinners do more to arouse human sympathy ''than all the homilies that have ever been written, by all the Divines that have ever lived" (though one should recall also his later, bleaker view of a family Christmas dinner in Great Expectations). It is in that 1835 essay that Dickens exclaimed ''Would that Christmas lasted the whole year through (as it ought)!" In Pickwick Papers, in 1836, he had depicted at Dingley Dell an archetypal pre-railway country Christmas, emphasizing the social benefit of stepping back from one's normal roles and responsibilities: "Happy, happy Christmas," his narrator exclaimed, " happy, happy Christmas, that can win us back to the delusions of our childish days." In the mid-1840's, in discussing plans for a new weekly periodical, he had summarized his editorial agenda as "Carol philosophy, cheerful views, ... jolly good temper ... and a vein of glowing, hearty, generous, mirthful, beaming reference in everything to Home and Fireside" (Patten, p. 162). At the end of the 1840's, in his first issue of Household Words, he would enthusiastically apostrophize Prince Albert's introduction to Windsor Castle of' “that pretty German toy, a Christmas tree,” surrounded both by family and by a plenitude of seasonal gifts.
The paradox and the genius of Dickens's Christmas books is that, while they were about giving, they were at the same time designed to be gifts. With increasing sharpness, their text called attention to social need, and preached the virtue of unconditional and spontaneous generosity, while simultaneously the idea of generosity was encoded in their physical format as the more ambiguous values of class status, social ambition and showy middle-class consumerism.
Quite as much as their fictional structure, political consciousness or social message, the physical format of Dickens's Christmas books represented a dramatic departure from any of his earlier publications. The format was not, of course, original. It was adapted from the established format of the annual or gift book. Early Victorians used the two terms more or less interchangeably, but Kooistra has recently, and in many respects persuasively, remapped the history of the nineteenth-century giftbook, drawing a strong distinction between early Victorian literary annuals and the less-well-known known gift books of the mid-Victorian period, a distinct publishing genre of fine-bound illustrated anthologies, often marketed for Christmas but not tied to a single year. Kooistra dates the beginning of the new genre quite specifically to James Burns’s giftbook Poems and Pictures (1846), so, if her remapping is accepted, Dickens’s first Christmas books come at a pivotal period, not only for his own development but also for bibliographical development, between the decline of the annuals in the late 1830’s and the rise of the new giftbooks in the later 1840’s.
It is the annuals that provide the more significant bibliographical reference point. The annuals of the 1820's--Forget Me Not, The Gem, Friendship's Offering--had attracted some of the best authors and artists of their time, and they had been genuinely innovative in creating a gift market for the illustrated literary miscellany. From quite early on, such annuals often bound in before the title-page a special engraved presentation leaf, where a sentimental donor might inscribe everlasting affection to his or her selected donee. The early annuals had been innovative also in the publisher's ready embrace of changing book-technology, both in steel-engravings for long-print-run illustration, and in the evolution of the publisher's decorative binding styles, from the printed paper boards and card sleeves of the first annuals, to silken bindings, embossed leather, and finally the gilt-embossed cloth of the larger-format annuals of the later 1830's.
But by the 1830's, despite the huge profits that could still be made, and the larger fees that editors and high-profile "name" contributors could still demand, many authors with mainstream literary ambitions shied away from involvement with the annuals. Indeed, as a publishing genre, annuals, previously able to attract Scott, Coleridge, Tennyson, de Quincey, became in the 1830's increasingly stigmatized as frivolous and feminine. It was a self-realizing stigma. As a contemporary critic commented on the heyday of the genre, and the change that followed:
it was a great era for fantastical bookbinders, dancing poets, and sentimental artists...Year after year the tender passions of the country were regularly thrown into a white heat... however,...we got weary of looking at oval faces in meretricious head-dresses, with long arms hanging over balustrades; and began to desire something else.
By the 1830's, at least in George Eliot's retrospective view, a naive and provincial social climber like Rosamond Vincy might still swoon over an annual, and identify in her dreams with its aristocratic editress, but her better-educated, better-traveled brother Fred would not. Ambitious young Victorian male readers such as Rosamond's targeted beau Dr. Tertius Lydgate simply dismissed the annuals as all cover and no content, once-fashionable but now passé, quite irrelevant to any serious scientific analysis of life.
But in the first flush of his success, Dickens had been attracted to the fashionable silverfork world from which the annuals increasingly drew their contributors. Dickens's friends included not only the scourge of the dandiacal, Carlyle, but also "the dandy of dandies," Alfred Guillaume Gabriel, Count D'Orsay. D'Orsay's circle provides Dickens's only direct involvement with a literary annual, for it was D'Orsay's patron (and briefly step-mother-in-law) Marguerite, Countess of Blessington, who in the summer of 1843 prevailed on Dickens to fulfill an earlier promise and give her something for the annual she edited, The Keepsake. The prospect of appearing in The Keepsake seems to have embarrassed him, for as soon as he mailed off his contribution, he wrote to his friend John Forster, editor of a new and politically-conscious newspaper, the Examiner, enclosing the lines that “I have this morning penned” for Lady Blessington, adding:
But I have only done so to excuse myself, for I have not the least idea of their suiting her; and I hope she will send them back to you for the Ex (Letters, III: 520).
In form at least, and in its first stanza, what Dickens penned for Lady Blessington and The Keepsake was almost a parody of an annual contribution, a four-stanza, thirty-two line poem, which opened with a description of Eastern reverence for the divine name:
They have a superstition in the East
    That ALLAH, written on a piece of paper,
Is better unction than can come of priest,
    Of rolling incense, and of lighted taper ...
                            (Keepsake, 1844,73)
But the verses go on sarcastically to compare oriental religion with the superstitions and controversies of contemporary British religion, and to contrast the reverence both paid their sacred books, and the zeal both showed against unbelievers, with the true religion of the charitable "Christian Pariah," who faced with the hardships of urban poverty "does all the good he can, and loves his brother."
So have I known a country on the earth [that is, England]
    Where darkness sat upon the living waters,
And brutal ignorance, and toil, and dearth,
    Were the hard portion of its sons and daughters:
And yet, where they who should have ope'd the door
    Of charity and light, for all men's finding,
Squabbled for words upon the altar-floor,
    And rent The Book, in struggles for the binding.
The anti-ecclesiastical message is vintage Dickens, and as Michael Slater points out in his recent biography, Dickens was especially angry in these months at the sectarianism he thought was diverting religious zeal from charitable work (Slater [2009] 214), but that last image, of the book and the binding, seems peculiarly apposite, not just to religion in the hungry forties, but to the more general dilemma of middleclass culture in its bookish materiality. Dickens's derision over bindings appeared before the public in a volume that would itself be issued in gilt-stamped red silk, at a price the sons and daughters of dearth could never afford.
Starting that same Christmas season, on the heels of his own first contribution to Lady Blessington's Keepsake, Dickens hijacked and regendered the gift book. He set the pattern with A Christmas Carol (1843), taking the annual gift book format, and modifying it, so that in place of the conventional pot-pourri of shorter pieces, he offered a single extended story. (One might note that his friend Thomas Hood moved towards a similar development when the final volume of his
Comic Annual, 1843, was largely devoted to his major poem Miss Killmansegg and Her Precious Leg, though that had previously been serialized in magazine format.) As with the earlier literary annuals whose form it mimicked and modified, a large proportion of the Carol's production costs went into binding, illustrations and advertisement. Because Dickens was disappointed by the profit-level from his current serial novel, Martin Chuzzlewit, he took personal control of publication for the new Christmas venture, with Chapman and Hall working for him on commission.
From the production standpoint, Dickens might reasonably be described as the Author from Hell. Certainly, he struggled for the binding. The Carol was a last minute affair, both in writing and production, but as Robert Patten shows in Dickens and his Publishers, design issues had high priority in the author’s mind. On November 10th, with the actual writing of the book not yet finished, Dickens wrote to Forster: "Will you come here at six? I want to say a word or two about the cover of the Carol," and a month later on December 6th, les than two weeks before publication, he wrote to Thomas Mitton: "The title-page I have had materially altered. They always look bad at first" (Letter III 595, 605). The change to the title-page involved also substituting the actual year 1843 for the original 1844, a post-dating that had become standard in pre-Christmas publications like annuals and that Dickens had previously criticized in Blessington's Keepsake. The binding Dickens selected was a ribbed mid-brown cloth, blocked and gilt, with a colored engraved title-page and specially tinted endpapers that had to be changed at the last minute. In addition to numerous wood-cut illustrations in the text itself, there were four separately-printed hand-colored engraved plates from drawings by John Leech. As late as December 14, he was writing to his illustrator John Leech, who was complaining about the hand-colouring: ''you unconsciously exaggerate the evil done by the colourers ... But I have written a Strong Dispatch to C and H[i.e. Chapman and Hall]... I quite agree with you that it is a matter of great importance" (Letters III 608). According to Patten's figures, a full 20% of the production costs went on binding, another 20% on illustrations, and 20% more on advertisement, though Dickens vehemently criticized Chapman and Hall's advertising as inadequate. Since he set the retail price for this attractively-produced volume at 5 shillings (less than half that of fashionable annuals like Lady Blessington’s), and booksellers got a 30% discount off retail, Dickens's immediate profits on the first edition were really quite small, even though sales kept going for many months (Patten, p. 149). The financial success of the new Christmas venture, Dickens in gift book format, only developed in later years.
With A Christmas Carol, Dickens, improbably, if temporarily, transformed the seasonal gift book into a format for social critique. In the words of Fraser's Magazine for January 1851 (the only contemporary comment I know on A Christmas Carol as gift book), Dickens had created a new class of gift book, one with ''the profession of a purpose," consumerism with a conscience. A Christmas Carol was immediately recognized as a kind of prestige publication, different from Dickens’s commercially-published serial novels, almost hors de commerce, a present from the author to his readers. In Thackeray's well-known judgement, "such a book as every man and woman who reads it a personal kindness" (Fraser's, 1844, in Critical Heritage, p. 142).
Yet, by adapting the gift book format, Dickens had painted himself into a comer. It is a commonplace of Dickensian critique that "Carol philosophy, cheerful views" was palpably inadequate as a solution to the radical social and economic disruptions of the 1840's. These moral ambiguities of bibliographical format match well with some of the textual ambiguities over the commodification of Christmas good will explored by Audrey Jaffe in her PMLA article in 1994. To what extent could the ritual of middle-class gift-giving, or even the outsized turkeys of Scrooge's post-vision generosity, do more than mitigate or temporarily relieve the problems even of the respectable working poor, let alone create viable futures for the rootless and workless of 1840's Britain? And the gift book format itself, though nowhere mentioned within Dickens’s text, is implicated and indicted by Jaffe’s neatly-stated indictment of Dickens’s moral prescription for Scrooge, that Scrooge learn “a gift-giving defined as the purchase and exchange of commodities” (p. 261).
For his second Christmas book, The Chimes, planned well in advance for publication at Christmas 1844, Dickens took up and exacerbated this problem, mounting a much fiercer attack on Victorian attitudes to the problem of poverty. Instead of centering the book on the employer Scrooge and his supernatural conversion to Christmas charity, Dickens now focused on an aging, economically-redundant, not very bright, city messenger or ticket porter, one Trotty Veck, running hard in life and getting nowhere, gazing helplessly at the non-future that the forties were offering his much-loved daughter, her long-time boyfriend, and others of their class. Where the literary annuals had commonly evaded sex and violence, or distanced it picturesquely to other times or cultures, Dickens's new book dealt with Malthusianism, prostitution, poverty and credit, homelessness and slum housing conditions, drunkenness and domestic violence, aging and social redundancy.
Its fiercest satire is, Carlyle-like, against the political economists, but it is equally scathing about upper-class female do-gooders, who expect to tame unemployed male farm-laborers by retraining them to sew fancy woolwork, and about paternalist landowners who stage social events with their captive tenantry: “and everybody said that . . . , when a Baronet and the Son of a Baronet played at skittles, the country was coming round again, as fast as it could.” The Chimes is a departure from The Carol not only in tone, in fierceness, even bitterness, but in structure, in secularizing the supernatural, in abandoning Christmas and a linear time-structure of conversion and substituting the secular New Year, the benchmark of statisticians and accountants, and a wildly-conflicted time-structure of alternative futures. The clearly guilty Scrooge now gives way as protagonist to the guilt-ridden, self-blaming, but essentially innocent and selfless Trotty. The whole argument of the new book denies, undercuts, certainly darkens, the pathetic small-scale hopes and faith of what is still an ostensibly happy ending. The Chimes is a Christmas story where feasting, generosity, even self-indulgence, no longer mean the biggest turkey in Norfolk, or even the Cratchit family’s modest goose, but stewed tripe or a single rasher of bacon.
But in physical format, The Chimes was still a Christmas giftbook. The hobgoblins that haunted the windy bell tower and Trotty's nightmares were dropped into Dickens's text as elegant wood-engravings. The darkest social analysis was now presented bound in a rich gilt-stamped scarlet. Dickens had even gone back to the literary annual convention of post-dating the title-page, which now read 1845, even though The Chimes was published for Christmas 1844. The new book sold enormously well, much better than A Christmas Carol, but it aroused in reviewers extremely mixed responses--in part, I would argue, just because the conflict of lexical against bibliographical encodings was now too deeply disturbing. None of Dickens's later Christmas books, and none of the Christmas stories he subsequently wrote for his magazines, would risk so bleak a contradiction of the cheerful views he himself had made central to the Victorian Christmas.
The paradox, therefore, of Dickens's Christmas books is not just that he preached a gospel of feel-good unreality and escapism, of holiday excess, to the troubled consciences of the hungry forties, but that he did it by adapting a physical format connoting the previous decade's silk-bound self-absorption. The great literary advocate of the gift-relationship, of Carol philosophy and cheerful views, invited his readers to purchase books that were clearly gift-wrapped, bearing well-understood markers of disposable income and at-least-aspirant gentility. But this physical embodiment of one chief strand in his message seemed increasingly incongruent with the other strand in his thought in the mid-1840's, his darkening pessimism about the condition of England, an England where only the parlor-boarding daughters of Carlyle's gigocracy could take gift books seriously. The disillusion, the disenchantment, of the reviewers with Dickens's Christmas books after A Christmas Carol demonstrates how powerfully the format of his first Christmas book had encoded a social optimism, a class ambition, a season of goodwillfulness, in which neither he nor they any longer wholly believed.
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