7 Real-Life Inspirations For Dickens’s A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol was published 174 years ago this month, on December 19, 1843. The book took Charles Dickens just six weeks to write, during which time he wrote intensely and fanatically, only stopping to take occasional long walks through London in the early hours of the morning to clear his head. Less than two weeks after he completed it, the manuscript went to print; the first 6000 copies had sold out by Christmas Eve.

Despite the early success, the publication of A Christmas Carol was far from smooth. Having fallen out with his publisher, Dickens funded the print himself to ensure all profits were his, but his insistence on top-quality paper and an expensive leather binding meant that the total cost of production was eye-wateringly high. From the initial 6000 sales, he made just £230 profit (around £20,000/$30,000 today), having expected to earn closer to £1000. Worsening his financial woes, the book was pirated by a rival publisher named Parley’s Illuminated Library two months later. Dickens sued, but in response Parley’s merely declared themselves bankrupt, leaving him to pay his own legal costs, which amounted to £700 (around £56,000/$85,000 today).

It may have had a rocky start, but A Christmas Carol soon established itself as one of Dickens’ most popular books, both with readers and its author alike—in fact, Dickens chose A Christmas Carol for his final public reading on March 15, 1870, just three months before his death. But what had inspired Dickens to write it in the first place?

1. A CHARITY FUNDRAISER IN MANCHESTER

On October 5, 1843, Dickens spoke at a fundraising event at the Manchester Athenaeum, a local society engaged in promoting education in the city. At the time, Manchester was renowned across the world as one of the most important hubs of the Industrial Revolution, but its sudden growth had been at great social expense, and it’s believed that the strict utilitarian rules and poor pay imposed by factory owners on the city's workers inspired Ebenezer Scrooge’s own lack of charity and empathy—as he famously says, “Are there no prisons? … And the Union workhouses? Are they still in operation?”

2. THE TOWN OF MALTON, NORTH YORKSHIRE

Not long before beginning work on A Christmas Carol, Dickens vacationed in the town of Malton in Yorkshire. The town is said to have inspired a number of details in the book, including its numerous recurring references to church bells, which Dickens is believed to have modeled on the bells of Malton’s St. Leonard & St. Mary Catholic Church. In 2012, the town purchased a signed copy of A Christmas Carol from a collector in New York.

3. CHARLES SMITHSON

While in Malton, Dickens stayed with a friend named Charles Smithson, who worked as a solicitor there from offices on Chancery Lane—which is believed to have inspired Dickens’ description of Scrooge’s own counting-house. The two Charleses had met more than a decade earlier while Smithson was working at the London office of his family’s firm, when a friend of Dickens for whom he was acting as guarantor bought into the business. The pair remained close friends for the rest of their lives, even after Smithson returned home from London to Yorkshire.

4. “THE STORY OF THE GOBLINS WHO STOLE A SEXTON”

Dickens often had the characters in his novels tell their own stories and fables, and his debut novel The Pickwick Papers was no exception. In it, Mr. Wardle recounts a tale called “The Story of the Goblins Who Stole A Sexton” about “an ill-conditioned, cross-grained, surly fellow” named Gabriel Grub, who is visited by goblins on Christmas Eve who try to convince him to change his ways by showing him images of the past and future. Sound familiar … ?

5. “HOW MR. CHOKEPEAR KEEPS A MERRY CHRISTMAS”

“The Goblins Who Stole A Sexton” might not have been the only tale Dickens took his inspiration from. Two years earlier, in December 1841, a short story called “How Mr. Chokepear Keeps A Merry Christmas” appeared in the British satirical magazine Punch. Written by Douglas Jerrold, the story recounted in detail a Christmas Day celebrated by a businessman named Tobias Chokepear: He begins by having breakfast with his family, then attends church and enjoys a lavish Christmas lunch before “cards, snap-dragons, quadrilles, country-dances, with a hundred devices to make people eat and drink, send night into morning.” But despite apparently having a very merry Christmas, the story concludes by mentioning that a man Tobias had lent money to is now in a debtors’ prison; that one of Tobias’s daughters is absent from the Christmas feast, as she has been shunned by the family for marrying beneath her; and that while the Chokepear family celebrates inside, crowds of “shivering wretches” pass by their door. Although the uncharitable Mr. Chokepear doesn’t end up having the same Christmas epiphany as Scrooge, it’s likely that Jerrold’s moralistic tale had at least some influence on Dickens, not least because the two were well acquainted—when Jerrold died in 1857, Dickens served as a pallbearer at his funeral, and went on to donate the profits from one of his own short stories to his widow. 

6. WASHINGTON IRVING’S SKETCH BOOK

Washington Irving’s Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., a collection of essays and short stories, was published more than 20 years before A Christmas Carol in 1819. Although its most famous story by far is "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," the Sketch Book also contains a number of festive tales and dissertations presenting an idealized image of Christmas, with gifts, decorations, songs, dances, games, and lavish spreads of food and drink. Irving partly based these descriptions on his experiences staying at Aston Hall, a vast Jacobean stately home on the outskirts of Birmingham, England. It’s believed that those descriptions, in turn, greatly influenced Dickens’ writing—in 1841, two years before he published A Christmas Carol, Dickens (who was just 8 when Sketch Book was published) wrote to Irving, “I wish to travel with you ... down to Bracebridge Hall.”

7. JOHN ELWES MP

For Scrooge's miserly character, Dickens is believed to have turned to an infamously penny-pinching 18th century politician named John Elwes.

Born in London in 1714, Elwes inherited a fortune when his father died just four years later, and when his mother (who was so frugal that despite being wealthy she was said to have starved herself to death) died shortly after that, the entire Elwes estate—worth around £100,000 (£8.8 million/$13 million today)—passed to him. Then again in 1763, Elwes’ entitled uncle Sir Harvey Elwes also died, and his even larger estate—worth more than £250,000 (£22 million/$32.5 million)—also passed to him.

He might have been enormously wealthy, but Elwes began priding himself on spending as little as possible. Despite being elected to parliament in 1772 he apparently dressed in rags, and often looked so shabby that he was mistaken for a beggar and handed money in the street. He only visited doctors when needed, and once after deeply gashing both his legs, he only paid the doctor to treat one—and wagered the doctor’s bill that the untreated leg would heal faster (he won by a fortnight). He let his vast houses become ruins through lack of repair; would go to bed as soon as the sun set to save buying candles; and would even eat molding food to save buying fresh (including once eating a dead moorhen pulled from a river by a rat—although that one is probably just an urban legend…). Through all of his penny-pinching ways, Elwes left an estate worth at least £500,000 (£44 million/$67 million) to his two sons when he died in 1789, having earned himself the nickname “Elwes the Miser.” 

After his death, Edward Topham wrote a very popular biography of Elwes that went through 12 editions over the next several years. But Topham had his own reasons for writing Elwes' story; to him, Elwes represented “the perfect vanity of unused wealth.”

BONUS: ONE PERSON WHO WAS LIKELY NOT AN INFLUENCE—EBENEZER LENNOX SCROGGIE

According to legend, on a visit to Edinburgh in 1841, Dickens took a walk around the city’s Canongate churchyard and there happened to notice a gravestone bearing the unflattering inscription, “EBENEZER LENNOX SCROGGIE—MEAN MAN.” Dickens later wrote that it must have “shrivelled” Mr. Scroggie’s soul to take “such a terrible thing to eternity,” but it was nevertheless all the inspiration he needed to create the miserly character of Ebenezer Scrooge. Except that Dickens had misread the inscription. Born in Kirkaldy in 1792, Ebenezer Scroggie was actually a “meal man,” or corn merchant.

Here's the problem with this tale: That's probably all it is. A representative from the Edinburgh Civic Trust told Uncle John's Fully Loaded Bathroom Reader that it was an "interesting tale, but not necessarily based in fact ... [T]here is no evidence of an Ebenezer Scroggie as a merchant in the post office directories for the period, the grave conveniently no longer exists and there is no parish burial record. I’ve also yet to see where the direct quote from Dickens comes from."

So where did the myth come from? "I find myself complicit in a probable Dickens hoax," Rowan Pelling wrote in The Telegraph in 2012:

On Monday, I was alerted to a letter in The Guardian, which claimed to know the source for the name Ebenezer Scrooge. The correspondent related how Dickens “visited the Canongate churchyard in Edinburgh’s Royal Mile” in 1841 where he “spotted a memorial slab to Ebenezer Lennox Scroggie, 'meal man’ (i.e. corn merchant).” Dickens is said to have misread this as “mean man” and to have been impressed that a man could be so miserly that the trait was recorded for posterity. In the full version of this tale, Scroggie is revealed to have been a licentious bon viveur. How do I know? I published this literary “exclusive” in 1997, in The Erotic Review. As we went to press, the facts were queried and it hit me that its author, Peter Clarke, was probably pulling my leg. No one could find any corroborating evidence, but it seemed a shame to let the facts obstruct a good yarn. The Edinburgh merchant’s fame has continued to spread: in 2010 it was reported that, although Scroggie’s gravestone had been removed in the Thirties, a new memorial was planned in honour of the man who inspired Charles Dickens. I await new developments with bated breath.

The Gruesome Medieval Masquerade That Inspired Edgar Allan Poe

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In March 1849, Edgar Allan Poe published a short story with one of the most macabre dénouements in his entire body of work. Called Hop-Frog, it was the tale of an eponymous court jester who endures repeated humiliations from an abusive king and his ministers before finally exacting his revenge. Like other works of the great horror master, it may have been inspired by historical events—in this case, by a particularly grisly episode from 14th-century France.

In Poe's short story, both Hop-Frog and Trippetta are people with dwarfism stolen from their respective home countries and brought as presents for the king from one of his generals. Hop-Frog is described as having a disability that makes him walk "by a sort of interjectional gait—something between a leap and a wriggle." Forced to be the court's jester, he's the target of the king's practical jokes, and while enduring near-constant humiliations grows close to Trippetta, whose status at the court isn't much better.

One day, the king demands a masquerade, and as the evening draws near, he asks Hop-Frog what to wear. After a scene in which he and Trippetta are abused once again, Hop-Frog sees the perfect chance for revenge. He suggests the monarch and his ministers dress as escaped orangutans chained together, which he calls "a capital diversion—one of my own country frolics—often enacted among us, at our masquerades." The king and his ministers love the idea of scaring their guests, and especially the women. The jester carefully prepares their costumes, saturating tight-fitting fabric with tar and plastering flax on top to resemble the hair of the beasts.

On the evening of the masquerade, the men enter in their special outfits just after midnight. The guests are duly terrified, and amid the hubbub, Hop-Frog attaches the chain that surrounds the group to one hanging from the ceiling that normally holds a chandelier. As the men are drawn upwards, he brings a flame close to their bodies, pretending to the crowd that he's trying to figure out who the disguised men really are. The flax and tar ignite quickly and the noblemen burn to death, suspended above the crowd. "The eight corpses swung in their chains," Poe writes, "a fetid, blackened, hideous, and indistinguishable mass."

Bernard Picart, "Bal des Ardents"
Bernard Picart, "Bal des Ardents"
Rijksmuseum, Europeana // Public Domain

The gruesome scene was likely inspired by a historical event: the Bal des Ardents (literally, "the Ball of the Burning Ones"). This obscure episode took place during the reign of Charles VI of France (1380-1422), known to posterity as "Charles the Mad." His periods of illness are well-documented by contemporary chroniclers, who tell us that he ran through his castle howling like a wolf, failed to recognize his own wife and children, and forbade anyone to touch him because he believed he was made of glass. After his first bout in 1392, when delirium led him to kill several knights, his physician prescribed "amusements, relaxations, sports, and pastimes."

Meanwhile, the royal council was controlled by his brother Louis d'Orléans and his uncle the Duke of Burgundy—who both had their eyes set on the throne. It was also the middle of the Hundred Years' War, and England was seen as a severe threat to national stability. In spite of the unrest, on January 28, 1393, Charles's wife, Queen Isabeau of Bavaria, held a ball in the royal palace of Saint-Pol to celebrate the third marriage of her lady-in-waiting Catherine de Fastaverin. The plan was also to entertain the king, as the royal physician had prescribed. One of the guests, the knight Sir Hugonin (sometimes Huguet) de Guisay, suggested that a group of nobles dress as "wild men" or "wood savages," mythical creatures associated with nature and pagan beliefs. The king liked the idea so much that he decided to join in as one of the masked dancers.

The six noblemen wore garments made of linen covered in pitch and stuck-on clumps of flax, so they appeared "full of hair from the top of the head to the sole of the foot," according to contemporary historian Jean Froissart. Poe preserved these details in Hop-Frog, though his characters weren't dressed as wild men, but as orangutans—an animal he had also used in The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841) to great effect.

Unlike his fictional counterpart, Charles VI was aware that the costumes were highly flammable, so he ordered all torch-bearers to keep to one side of the room. As they entered the ballroom, five of the wild men were chained to one another. Only the king was free. The men probably humiliated the newlyweds, howling and dancing; some historians believe the wild dance was a charivari, a folk ritual intended to shame newlyweds at "irregular" marriages. (As a widow getting married for the third time, Lady Catherine would have been a target.)

But there was an important guest missing: the king's brother, Louis d'Orléans. He arrived late, carrying his own torch, and joined the dance. While the exact sequence of events is unclear, before long his torch had set fire to one of the wild men's costumes. The fire spread quickly. Two of the knights burned to death in front of the guests, and two more died in agony days later. Court chronicler Michel Pintoin, known as the Monk of St. Denis, describes the dancers' "flaming genitals dropping to the floor … releasing a stream of blood."

Only two of the wild men survived. One of them, named Nantoiullet, had reacted to the blaze by throwing himself into a barrel of water, which spared him a horrid death. The other was the king. He was saved by the Duchess of Berry, who used her gown to extinguish his costume before it was too late.

The event shook French society. It was seen as the height of courtly decadence, causing outrage and further unrest. That the king had engaged in this extravagant amusement, and that his life had been spared only by chance, was further proof that he was unfit for the throne.

Meanwhile, the part that Louis d'Orléans played in the tragedy was subject to some debate. Most chroniclers blamed his youth and recklessness for the terrible accident; some reportedly suggested it was a prank to "frighten the ladies" that got out of hand.

Although it seems that the Bal des Ardents wasn't a planned crime, the king's brother must have felt responsible for the fatal accident, since he founded a chapel in the convent of the Célestins shortly afterwards, hoping it would buy him a place in heaven. It didn't save him from a violent end, however: In 1407, Louis was assassinated on the orders of his cousin and recently minted political rival the Duke of Burgundy, which triggered a civil war that divided France for decades. The Duke of Burgundy justified the murder by accusing Louis of having used sorcery and occultism to attempt regicide on several occasions—one of them, he claimed, during the Bal des Ardents.

Regardless of the truth behind the matter, the horror of the event filtered down through the centuries to inspire one of Poe's most macabre works. (It's not clear where the author first heard about it, but it may have been in the pages of The Broadway Journal, where he was soon to become editor, and where a writer likened it to the accidental onstage burning death of the dancer Clara Webster in London.) Today, the shocking historical event lives on in Poe's story—and in Hop Frog's memorable final line: "I am simply Hop-Frog, the jester—and this is my last jest."

Additional source: Chronique du Religieux de Saint-Denys

25 of Oscar Wilde's Wittiest Quotes

By Napoleon Sarony - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
By Napoleon Sarony - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

On October 16, 1854, Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was born in Dublin, Ireland. He would go on to become one of the world's most prolific writers, dabbling in everything from plays and poetry to essays and fiction. Whatever the medium, his wit shone through.

1. ON GOD

"I think that God, in creating man, somewhat overestimated his ability."

2. ON THE WORLD AS A STAGE

"The world is a stage, but the play is badly cast."

3. ON FORGIVENESS

"Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much."

4. ON GOOD VERSUS BAD

"It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious."

5. ON GETTING ADVICE

"The only thing to do with good advice is pass it on. It is never any use to oneself."

6. ON HAPPINESS

"Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go."

7. ON CYNICISM

"What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing."

8. ON SINCERITY

"A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal."

9. ON MONEY

"When I was young I thought that money was the most important thing in life; now that I am old I know that it is."

10. ON LIFE'S GREATEST TRAGEDIES

"There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it."

11. ON HARD WORK

"Work is the curse of the drinking classes."

12. ON LIVING WITHIN ONE'S MEANS

"Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination."

13. ON TRUE FRIENDS

"True friends stab you in the front."

14. ON MOTHERS

"All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his."

15. ON FASHION

"Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months."

16. ON BEING TALKED ABOUT

"There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about."

17. ON GENIUS

"Genius is born—not paid."

18. ON MORALITY

"Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike."

19. ON RELATIONSHIPS

"How can a woman be expected to be happy with a man who insists on treating her as if she were a perfectly normal human being?"

20. ON THE DEFINITION OF A "GENTLEMAN"

"A gentleman is one who never hurts anyone’s feelings unintentionally."

21. ON BOREDOM

"My own business always bores me to death; I prefer other people’s."

22. ON AGING

"The old believe everything, the middle-aged suspect everything, the young know everything."

23. ON MEN AND WOMEN

"I like men who have a future and women who have a past."

24. ON POETRY

"There are two ways of disliking poetry; one way is to dislike it, the other is to read Pope."

25. ON WIT

"Quotation is a serviceable substitute for wit."

And one bonus quote about Oscar Wilde! Dorothy Parker said it best in a 1927 issue of Life:

If, with the literate, I am
Impelled to try an epigram,
I never seek to take the credit;
We all assume that Oscar said it.

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