“My own, and only manuscript,” scrawled Charles Dickens on the final page of his handwritten draft. He was referring to his little story of 1843 that became the colossal hit, A Christmas Carol.
Now little Levenger Press brings readers the one and only full-color facsimile of these manuscript pages. We did so in partnership with The Morgan Library & Museum, which owns the manuscript. (If you’re in New York between now and February 12, 2012, go see the Morgan’s superb Dickens exhibit.)
What makes this facsimile extraordinary is the Morgan’s painstaking restoration of each page. As our friend Declan Kiely, Morgan curator and Dickens scholar, says, the result is as close as science can get to the pages looking exactly as they did when Dickens rushed them to his printer shortly before Christmas, 1843.
How do great thinkers and writers think? That’s what we try to reveal for readers in the facsimile editions we publish. The way Dickens wrote—not only stylistically but physically—reveals much about the maestro behind the masterpiece.
Come eavesdrop on our conversation with Declan and Levenger Press editor Mim Harrison, as Declan takes you deeper into the mind of Dickens.
Levenger Press: Why will lovers of A Christmas Carol want to read this version of it—a kind of “Christmas Carol in the raw”? What do we gain by watching how the writer wrote?
Declan Kiely: A Christmas Carol is such an iconic story—it has been referred to as a “culture-text” for the world at large—and has been adapted so many times, that it is easy to lose sight of its origin. What readers gain by reading this story in manuscript is the excitement of seeing the first product of Dickens’s imagination, his first thoughts and second thoughts, the false starts and revisions, and the sheer toil of the literary mind at work. The manuscript is literally crammed with small and large-scale revisions that are vividly evocative of Dickens’s working methods. To see them is to witness at first-hand, and to be enthralled by, his fierce creative energy.
LP: Dickens wrote this story in just six weeks. How was he able to just dash off a classic?
DK: There was a popular misconception during Dickens’s lifetime, which continued for a surprisingly long time afterward, that he wrote easily and carelessly, that he was a writer with a facility rather than genius. It is quickly apparent, when looking at the manuscript, that this was not the case, and that Dickens wrote, as he told one correspondent, “with great care and pains (being passionately fond of my art, and thinking it worth any trouble).” I think that the original manuscript, inasmuch as it allows us to see how the writer wrote, deepens rather than dispels the essential mysteriousness of the creative process.
LP: Did Dickens’s other stories help him in writing this one?
DK: It is worthwhile to remember that for Dickens, A Christmas Carol was an experimental work of fiction. By 1843 he had, of course, been writing for several years, beginning with his Sketches by Boz, going on to write his first novel, The Pickwick Papers, followed quickly by Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby, all published serially over many months. What he had never written before was a story that would be published in a single volume and that aimed to capitalize on the Christmas holiday market. The whole enterprise was, to a certain extent, like so much of Dickens’s early work, a brilliant improvisation and also consciously and necessarily opportunist in nature.
LP: What do Dickens’s strike-outs and changes reveal most compellingly to you?
DK: When Dickens sat down to write A Christmas Carol in October 1843 he was writing with his back against the wall, conscious of the clock ticking down to December 25, and knew that he couldn’t allow himself the same freedoms that a much more capacious, novel-length narrative permitted. So the manuscript reveals Dickens’s rigorous discipline and his sharpest wit. The story represents Dickens’s literary genius in its most concentrated form. His changes are indicative of an author consciously reining himself in, cutting off digressions—as he does on the very first page, when he decided against an extended meditation on the character of Hamlet in the interests of moving his story along at a brisker pace. A tight narrative was essential to his purpose, and so his revisions seek to achieve concision, and increase vividness and immediacy. A Christmas Carol is a lean book, there is no superfluity, and that’s why it can and has been so well adapted—initially for the stage and, in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the big screen.
LP: How does this manuscript compare with other manuscripts of Dickens?
DK: There is more revision evident on each page of A Christmas Carol. As Dickens matured as an artist, he became more deliberate, writing in a slower and more deeply considered way. By the time he wrote his last completed novel, Our Mutual Friend (the manuscript of which is also at the Morgan), his writing had shrunk in size, and many more revisions appear on every page. Indeed, the pages are so clotted that one early commentator wrote that “the fineness and closeness of writing are enough to render the most amiable of experienced printers temporarily insane.”
LP: So in other words, the better he got as a writer, the more he revised?
DK: Absolutely. Dickens said of his early writing that he did not know the source of his ideas and inspiration, that they came “ready made to the point of the pen.” He seems to have made no outline or plan for A Christmas Carol—at least, none survives. He certainly made no plan for his first novel, The Pickwick Papers, which, like all of his subsequent novels, he composed serially as well as published serially. The same can be said for Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby, so it was not until he came to write The Old Curiosity Shop that he began to write plans—or “mems,” as he called them—to guide his own progress from the story’s beginning until its end, which was published eighteen months later. Perhaps the reason he revised his earlier work less than his later work is because, as he told a friend, “the plot, the motive of the book, is always perfected in my brain for a long time before I take up my pen. I add a great deal to the original idea as I work on, but, as I always know the end from the beginning, I can safely commit my work in parts to the press.” It’s likely that this is true of A Christmas Carol: Dickens knew precisely the plot, characters, and themes of the story before he put pen to paper. The manuscript is fascinating because, following his revisions, we can see the ways in which Dickens improved upon his original conception as he shaped his narrative.
LP: Why was Dickens so keen on using good paper for something that would be transmuted to print?
DK: Dickens had very high standards in just about every aspect of his life. He was extremely orderly and fastidious. He could not write unless everything on his desk, and in his work space, was “just so.” That included his paper and ink. He kept a collection of carefully prepared goose quills that he shaped with his pen knife (which is where the term originated), so that he would not be distracted if he needed to change quills when writing. The manuscripts of his early novels survive in fragmentary form only, but as his writing developed it is clear that he took a closer interest in the preservation of his working papers. Anyone who wants their work to last chooses the best available writing materials, the finest tools for the job. Dickens was discerning in his selection of paper, using “superfine” cream-colored paper for A Christmas Carol, and black iron gall ink. Later in his career he switched to blue paper and blue ink, which dried more quickly.
LP: Do you think Dickens somehow knew there would be value in his “own and only manuscript”?
DK: As far as I know there is no other manuscript that Dickens pointedly annotated “my own and only manuscript.” This quite clearly suggests his own fondness for the story and his estimation of its value. He gave it to one of his oldest friends, Thomas Mitton, both as a token of close friendship and in gratitude for his financial and legal assistance. Today, A Christmas Carol is one of the most highly valued literary manuscripts, in both the materialistic and artistic senses, in the Morgan’s collection.
LP: What do we lose, in terms of understanding a writer’s creative process, now that we have keyboards instead of quills?
DK: The arrival of word processors has led to the disappearance of any evidence of creative process. Word processors were invented, after all, to facilitate the creation of seamless, sophisticated, professional-looking, “finished” documents that can be infinitely replicated. Even with typewritten texts it is possible to compare typed drafts, to follow the evolution of a work through the author’s literal cut-and-paste insertions, or revisions made by hand onto the completed typescript. But an electronic document, even when changes can be tracked, does not convey the same vivid sense of something hand-made, or allow the development of the work to be as easily traced.
Handwritten manuscripts have an indisputable uniqueness and a special aura because they are the closest we can now come to their creator, and represent the creative spirit. We have gained in efficiency and convenience but we have lost the personality of a handwritten text in which it is possible, in some cases, to gauge the speed of writing, the difficulties (or otherwise) involved in achieving a certain effect or particularly successful sentence or paragraph, or the emotional temperature of the author at the time of writing.
Computer-generated documents are impersonal, and completely mute in terms of what they can tell us of the struggles of composition. A handwritten manuscript tells the story of its composition in the same way that the age lines of the human face can reveal the story of a person’s life.
LP: What was the most surprising development in the Morgan’s restoration of the manuscript?
DK: When carrying out conservation treatment, as with any carefully controlled activity, the last thing one wants is surprises! So the treatment progressed very much as our very experienced conservators expected. I think it is true to say that the appearance of the treated manuscript exceeded all of our expectations—it looks much fresher and, overall, much better than any manuscript that has not been so extensively restored. The removal of the silk backing from each sheet, which was probably attached in the 1920s as a preservation measure, returned the manuscript to its original state; it is an exciting development, restoring its physical authenticity. The conservation treatment reaffirmed that the “silking” of the manuscript was an unnecessary act of preservation in this case – but that’s because Dickens chose such good quality paper for his writing.
LP: What’s the most striking difference between how the restored manuscript looks and how it had looked before it was cleaned?
DK: The manuscript of A Christmas Carol had acquired the patina of age but had become dull and a bit muddy-looking. The acidity of the iron gall ink was partly responsible for this, and one of the primary reasons for washing any manuscript written in iron gall ink is to de-acidify it and prevent any further deterioration. The result is that the paper color and brightness return to something much closer to its original color – cream, in this case— and the text becomes crisper and clearer. The paper’s texture is also restored, making it less brittle and more flexible, just as it was when Dickens took a sheet and began writing. What we see today, in Levenger’s facsimile edition of the manuscript, is as close as scientifically possible to the physical appearance of the manuscript when Dickens sent it to the printer at the start of December 1843.
And now to you, dear reader: Does seeing the author at work enhance your appreciation of that author’s work? I’d love to hear your comments. Just click on the Comments link below. (If you’re reading this as an email, click here and you'll connect to Comments).