Charles Dickens: The man who gave us Christmas

By Alan Hustak on December 16, 2011

In the spring of 1842 Charles Dickens took a steamboat from Kingston, Ont. and sailed down the St. Lawrence intoMontreal with his wife, Catherine, and found the town  “full of life and bustle.”  Dickens was 30 and had already written six books, including Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby. No other novelist has had such a spectacular success. Two hundred years after he was born in 1812, Dickens remains as immortal as Shakespeare.  It  is probably fair to say more people know of Oliver Twist, the artful dodger, Syndey Carton, Miss Havisham, Micawber, Scrooge and Tiny Tim from the endless  television mini-series, movies and Broadway musicals based on his novels than they do from reading his books.

Dickens didn’t invent Christmas, but with a Christmas Carol he raised it as a holiday in the public consciousness. “He put out a Christmas book every year for five years.” said Goldie Morgentaler, an associate English professor at the University of Lethbridge and Vice-President of the Dickens Society. ““He was a great writer, he wasn’t a very nice man, but he was a great writer,” He’s never gone out of print.  He is such a popular figure. He is the first novelist to write about children in books intended for an adult audience.”

His was not exactly a household name in Lower Canada when he arrived in Montreal in 1842, but he had a huge following in the United States.  But because of the absence of a copyright law in America his works were being pirated and he couldn’t collect royalties.  Dickens made the trip to lobby for his fair share of the sales receipts.

Dickens extended his American tour to come to Montreal for 19 days at the invitation of the Earl of Musgrave, then an officer in the Scots Fusilier Guards, whom he met on the transatlantic crossing. The Earl, who would later serve as Nova Scotia’s Governor-General, persuaded Dickens to direct three plays for the amusement of the British regimental officers and their wives in the local garrison. It didn’t take much to persuade him to make his stage debut as an actor in Montreal as well. As a stagestruck clerk in England Dickens went to the theatre every night for three years and longed to be an actor.

dickens.jpgMontreal, when he arrived was a pretty tense and anxious place with the memories of the 1837 rebellion still fresh, in everyone’s mind, especially the burning alive by the British of French Canadian civilians in Ste. Eustache, and the hangings of the rebels in 1839. Dickens's found the accommodation at Rasco’s Hotel on St. Paul St. deplorable, one of the worst hotels he had ever encountered. “The Inns are usually bad in Canada because the custom of boarding at hotels is not so general here as in the States,” he complained, “And the British officers, who form a large portion of the society live chiefly at the regimental messes.”  Dickens left his wife at the hotel and spent much of his time in Sorel with Sir Richard Downes Jackson, the chief military administrator.  Fearing a U.S. invasion, Jackson was building up the troop strength of the British garrison, of whom there were about 12,000 that spring. In her biography, one of two new books timed for the Dickens bicentenary in February, Claire Tomalin tells us Dickens threw himself enthusiastically into stage managing, acting and directing. His choice of material in Lower Canada was limited, and scripts were hard to find, but he decided upon three farces:  A Roland For an Oliver, by John Morton, Past Two O’Clock in The Morning, A French farce in translation, and John Poole’s Deaf As a Post.  For his role as Alfred Hyflyer in the first play he ordered a comic wig from New York, “light flaxen with a half whisker down the cheek.” He described his costume in a letter to Henry Austin, a friend back in England. “Over this I mean to wear two night caps, one with a tassel and one of flannel, a flannel wrapping, drab tights, and slippers.” The shows were staged, and went off without a hitch. Some officers who saw the plays claim they didn’t recognize Dickens at all, he was made up and acted so well. Catherine acted her part” devilishly well,” he wrote, and he himself was pleased with the effort, “I really do believe I was very funny,” he said later. Unlike the United States, which, for the most part he didn’t like, he wrote that “Canada has held and will retain a foremost place in my remembrance. ..nothing of flush or fever in its system but health and vigour throbbing in its steady pulse. It is full of hope and promise. To me – who had been accustomed to think of it as something left behind in the strides of advancing society, as something neglected and forgotten, slumbering and wasting in its sleep – the demand for labour and the rates of wages; the bust quays of Montreal, the vessels taking in their cargos and discharging them; the amount of shipping in the different ports; the commerce, the roads and public works, all made to last, the respectability and character of the public journals, and the amount of rational comfort and happiness which honest industry may earn, were very great surprises.”

In his  new biography, Becoming Dickens, The Invention of a Novelist, Robert Douglas Fairhurst  reveals for the first time Dickens. Meeting Fyodor Dostoyevsky in 1862, Dickens told the Russian writer  that “all the good simple people in his novels are what he wanted to have been, and his villains were what he found in himself, his cruelty, his attacks of causless enmity towards those who were helpless and looked to him for comfort, his shrinking from those whom he ought to have loved.. there were two people in me,” he told Dostoyevsky, “One who feels as he ought to feel, and one who feels the opposite. From the one who feels the opposite I make my eveil characters, from the one feels as a man ought to feel, I try to live my life.”


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