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.

Where Did the Phrase 'Red Herring' Come From?

iStock.com/Mathias Darmell
iStock.com/Mathias Darmell

You may have seen a red herring in a recent book or movie, but you probably only realized it after the fact. These misleading clues are designed to trick you into drawing an incorrect conclusion, and they're a popular ploy among storytellers of all stripes.

If you've seen or read the Harry Potter series—and really, who hasn’t?—then you may recall some of the many instances where J.K. Rowling employed this literary device. That endearing plot twist about the nature of Snape's character, for example, is likely one of the longest-running red herrings ever written.

Sometimes they aren't even subtle. Agatha Christie's murder mystery And Then There Were None directly mentions red herring in reference to a character's death, and a statue of a red herring appears in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. Perhaps most blatantly, a character in the cartoon A Pup Named Scooby-Doo who was constantly being blamed for myriad crimes was named—you guessed it—Red Herring.

But where does this literary device come from, and why is it named after a fish? For a bit of background: herring are naturally a silvery hue, but they turn reddish-brown when they're smoked. Long before refrigerators were invented, this was done to preserve the fish for months at a time. They can also be pretty smelly. As Gizmodo's io9 blog points out, it was believed that red herring were dragged against the ground to help train hounds to sniff out prey in the 17th century. Another theory was that escaped prisoners used the fish to cover their tracks and confuse the dogs that tailed them.

However, io9 notes that red herring were actually used to train horses rather than dogs, and only if the preferred choice—a dead cat—wasn't available. The idea was that the horses would get used to following the scent trail, which in turn would make them less likely to get spooked while "following the hounds amid the noise and bustle of a fox hunt," notes British etymologist and writer Michael Quinion, who researched the origin of the phrase red herring.

The actual origin of the figurative sense of the phrase can be traced back to the early 1800s. Around this time, English journalist William Cobbett wrote a presumably fictional story about how he had used red herring as a boy to throw hounds off the scent of a hare. He elaborated on this anecdote and used it to criticize some of his fellow journalists. "He used the story as a metaphor to decry the press, which had allowed itself to be misled by false information about a supposed defeat of Napoleon," Quinion writes in a blog. "This caused them to take their attention off important domestic matters."

According to Quinion, an extended version of this story was printed in 1833, and the idiom spread from there. Although many people are more familiar with red herrings in pop culture, they also crop up in political spheres and debates of all kinds. Robert J. Gula, the author of Nonsense: Red Herrings, Straw Men and Sacred Cows: How We Abuse Logic in Our Everyday Language, defines a red herring as "a detail or remark inserted into a discussion, either intentionally or unintentionally, that sidetracks the discussion."

The goal is to distract the listener or opponent from the original topic, and it's considered a type of flawed reasoning—or, more fancifully, a logical fallacy. This application of red herring seems to be more in line with its original usage, but as Quinion notes: "This does nothing to change the sense of red herring, of course: it's been for too long a fixed part of our vocabulary for it to change. But at least we now know its origin. Another obscure etymology has been nailed down."

8 Facts About Shel Silverstein

Shel Silverstein was a multi-talented children’s author, comic artist, poet, playwright, and songwriter, and above all else, a rule-breaker. From The Giving Tree to Where the Sidewalk Ends, his titles are beloved by children and adults alike. At the time they were written, though, they defied common notions about what a "children’s" story could and should be. This isn’t all that surprising, considering that the Chicago-born author, who passed away in 1999, led a pretty unconventional life. Here are eight things you might not know about him.

1. One of Shel Silverstein's first jobs was selling hot dogs in Chicago.

Shel Silverstein didn’t always want to be a writer, or even a cartoonist or songwriter. His first love was baseball. "When I was a kid—12, 14, around there—I would much rather have been a good baseball player or a hit with the girls," he once said in an interview. "But I couldn’t play ball, I couldn’t dance. Luckily, the girls didn’t want me; not much I could do about that. So I started to draw and to write.” The closest he came to his MLB dream was when he landed a stint at Chicago’s Comiskey Park, selling hot dogs to White Sox fans.

2. Silverstein never finished college.

Silverstein was expelled from one school (the University of Illinois) and dropped out of another (the School of the Art Institute of Chicago). Finally, he managed to get through three years of the English program at Chicago's Roosevelt University, but his studies came to an abrupt end when he was drafted in 1953.

3. Silverstein was a Korean War veteran.

In the 1950s, Silverstein was drafted into the U.S. armed service. While he was stationed in Korea and Japan, he also worked as a cartoonist for the military publication Stars and Stripes. It was his first big cartooning gig. "For a guy of my age and with my limited experience to suddenly have to turn out cartoons on a day-to-day deadline deadline, the job was enormous,'' Silverstein told Stars and Stripes in a 1969 interview.

4. Silverstein worked for Playboy magazine and was Part of Hugh Hefner's inner circle.

That’s right: the lovable children’s author was on Playboy’s payroll for many years. He started drawing comics for the men’s magazine in the 1950s and ended up becoming close friends with Hugh Hefner. In fact, he often spent weeks or even months at the Playboy Mansion, where he wrote some of his books. His cartoons for the magazine proved so popular that Playboy sent him around the world to find the humor in places like London, Paris, North Africa, and Moscow during the Cold War. Perhaps his most off-color assignment, though, was visiting a nudist camp in New Jersey. These drawings were compiled in the 2007 book Playboy's Silverstein Around the World, which includes a foreword from Hefner.

5. Silverstein wrote Johnny Cash's hit song "A Boy Named Sue."

Few people know that Silverstein was a songwriter, too. One of his biggest hits was the comical tale of a boy who learned how to defend himself after being relentlessly bullied for his feminine-sounding name, Sue. The song was popularized by Johnny Cash and ended up being his top-selling single, while Silverstein was awarded a Grammy for Best Country Song. You can watch Silverstein strumming the guitar and shouting the lyrics alongside Cash on The Johnny Cash Show in the video above. Silverstein also wrote a follow-up song from the dad’s point of view, The Father of a Boy Named Sue, but it didn't take off the way the original did.

6. Silverstein is in the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Three years after his death, Silverstein was inducted posthumously into this exclusive society of songwriters. He wrote more than 800 songs throughout his career, some of which were quite raunchy. But his best-known songs were performed by country legends like Loretta Lynn and Waylon Jennings. “His compositions were instantly identifiable, filled with elevated wordplay and captivating, humor-filled narratives,” the Nashville Songwriters Foundation said of Silverstein's music.

7. Silverstein wrote the first children’s book to appear on The New York Times best sellerS list.

A Light in the Attic (1981) was the first children’s book to ever make it onto the prestigious New York Times Best Sellers list. It remained there for a whopping 182 weeks, breaking all of the previous records for hardcover books at that time.

8. Silverstein wasn't a fan of happy endings.

If you couldn’t already tell by The Giving Tree’s sad conclusion, Silverstein didn’t believe in giving his stories happy endings. He felt that doing so would alienate his young readers. "The child asks why I don't have this happiness thing you're telling me about, and comes to think when his joy stops that he has failed, that it won't come back,” the author said in a 1978 interview. This turned out to be a risky move, and The Giving Tree was rejected several times for being too sad or too unconventional. Fortunately, after four years of searching for a publisher, it found a home at HarperCollins (then Harper & Row) and has gone on to become one of the best-selling—and most beloved—children's books of all time.

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