Even though Christmas is a couple of months behind us, it’s time to reflect on a British Christmas tradition from the Victorian era, one that’s as festive as mistletoe and Christmas crackers. Whether you’ve read the original story, (published in 1843), seen it on stage, or watched one of the movie adaptations, most of us will have encountered Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in some form or another. Telling the story of a miser, who is visited by four ghosts that teach him about Christmas spirit and goodwill, it’s one of Dickens’ most successful works and hasn’t been out of print since it was first published 179 years ago. However, his other Christmas stories have declined greatly in popularity since their release. Curator of The Charles Dickens Museum, Emily Smith, told the press: “they were really popular during the 19th century, but they have lost that connection today.”
After the success of A Christmas Carol, Dickens went on to write four Christmas stories in subsequent years: The Chimes (1844), The Cricket on the Hearth (1845), The Battle of Life (1846) and The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain (1848). These were intended to capitalise on the success of A Christmas Carol, since Dickens was struggling for money following the decision to sue a publishing company on the basis of copyright infringement. Like their predecessor, Dickens’ Christmas stories focused on social problems that still needed to be addressed, while acknowledging the progressive societal changes that had been made since the publication of A Christmas Carol. While his other Christmas stories were received well by the public, (descendant Lucinda Hawksley stated that “each was even more popular than the last”), they were scorned by critics and never gathered the same acclaim that A Christmas Carol did.
Once The Haunted Man (1848) was published, Dickens went on to write David Copperfield and Great Expectations, some of his most successful works, and seemed to lose interest in writing Christmas stories anymore
While Dickens’ other festive stories have faded into obscurity, The Charles Dickens Museum is hoping to draw attention to follow-up story, The Cricket on the Hearth, by displaying some of the original illustrations. Published in 1845, The Cricket also follows a miserly gentleman during the Christmas season, a toymaker who himself hates toys, that eventually finds redemption. Smith pointed out the shared similarities with A Christmas Carol, arguing “a lot of the other Christmas stories that he writes are based around the same sort of idea, with a moralistic tone to them”. She suggests that the other stories are less well regarded because they follow such a similar pattern, but doesn’t think this makes the other Christmas stories less enjoyable. The museum currently has three sketches from The Cricket on the Hearth on display, which were drawn by illustrator John Leech, (who worked with Dickens primarily on his Christmas stories, most famously on A Christmas Carol), and were among a collection of drawings donated to the museum in 2019.
It’s not uncommon for famous authors to struggle with this problem: their most popular books greatly overshadowing the rest of their works, even those that they view as being better-crafted
Once The Haunted Man (1848) was published, Dickens went on to write David Copperfield and Great Expectations, some of his most successful works, and seemed to lose interest in writing Christmas stories anymore. Hawksley noted that “the other Christmas books have [since] fallen out of currency as it were, even though they were so widely known in their own time”, which has led to an effort by The Charles Dickens Museum to restore interest in Dickens’ festive stories. While A Christmas Carol has remained a Christmas classic, most people aren’t even aware that it was the first in a series of five short stories and they fade in comparison to Dickens’ other works.
It’s not uncommon for famous authors to struggle with this problem: their most popular books greatly overshadowing the rest of their works, even those that they view as being better-crafted. For example, Vladimir Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading (1936), which is a surrealist and Kafkaesque novel that Nabokov himself considered his greatest work, is not as well known as Lolita (1955). Similarly, George Eliot’s Romola (1863), which critic Richard Hutton called “one of the greatest works of modern fiction … probably the author’s greatest work”, is rarely listed among her other, more popular works. So, if you’re looking for something new to read this year, be sure to check out lesser known books by famous authors, as you might be pleasantly surprised.