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.

5 Facts About Edgar Allan Poe on His 210th Birthday

You’ve read Edgar Allan Poe’s terrifying stories. You can quote "The Raven." But how well do you know the writer’s quirky sense of humor and code-cracking abilities? Let’s take a look at a few  things you might not know about the acclaimed author, who was born 210 years ago today.

1. He was the original balloon boy.

You probably remember 2009’s infamous “Balloon Boy” hoax. Turns out the Heene family that perpetrated that fraud weren’t even being entirely original in their attempt at attention-grabbing. They were actually cribbing from Poe.

In 1844 Poe cooked up a similar aviation hoax in the pages of the New York Sun. The horror master cranked out a phony news item describing how a Mr. Monck Mason had flown a balloon flying machine called Victoria from England to Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina in just 75 hours. According to Poe’s story, the balloon had also hauled seven passengers across the ocean.

No balloonist had ever crossed the Atlantic before, so this story quickly became a huge deal. Complete transatlantic travel in just three days? How exciting! Readers actually queued up outside the Sun’s headquarters to get their mitts on a copy of the day’s historic paper.

Poe’s report on the balloon was chock full of technical details. He devoted a whole paragraph to explaining how the balloon was filled with coal gas rather than “the more expensive and inconvenient hydrogen.” He listed the balloon’s equipment, which included “cordage, barometers, telescopes, barrels containing provision for a fortnight, water-casks, cloaks, carpet-bags, and various other indispensable matters, including a coffee-warmer, contrived for warming coffee by means of slack-lime, so as to dispense altogether with fire, if it should be judged prudent to do so.” He also included hundreds of words of excerpts from the passengers’ journals.

The only catch to Poe’s story was that it was entirely fictitious. The Sun’s editors quickly wised up to Poe’s hoax, and two days later they posted an understated retraction that noted, “We are inclined to believe that the intelligence is erroneous.”

2. He dabbled in cryptography.

If you’ve read Poe’s story “The Gold-Bug,” you probably know that he had a working knowledge of cryptography. But you might not know that Poe was actually a pretty darn good cryptographer in his own right.

Poe’s first notable code-cracking began in 1839. He sent out a call for readers of his Philadelphia newspaper to send him encoded messages that he could decipher. Poe would then puzzle over the secret messages for hours. He published the results of his work in a wildly popular recurring feature. Poe also liked to toss his own codes out there to keep readers busy. Some of the codes were so difficult that Poe professed utter amazement when even a single reader would crack them.

Poe was so confident in his abilities as a cryptographer that he approached the Tyler administration in 1841 with an offer to work as a government code cracker. He modestly promised, “Nothing intelligible can be written which, with time, I cannot decipher.” Apparently there weren’t any openings for him, though.

3. The "Allan" came later.

It would sound odd to just say “Edgar Poe,” but the famous “Allan” wasn’t originally part of the writer’s name. Poe was born in Boston on January 19, 1809 to professional actors, but his early childhood was fairly rotten. When Poe was just two years old, his father abandoned the family—leaving the toddler's mother, Elizabeth, to raise Edgar and his two siblings. Not long after that, Elizabeth died of tuberculosis.

Poe actually had a little luck at that point. John and Frances Allan, a well-to-do Richmond family, took the boy in and provided for his education. Although the Allans never formally adopted Poe, he added their surname to his own name.

Like a lot of Poe’s fiction, his story with the Allans didn't have a particularly happy ending. Poe and John Allan grew increasingly distant during the boy’s teenage years, and after Poe left for the University of Virginia, he and Allan became estranged. (Apparently the root of these problems involved Poe’s tendency to gamble away whatever money Allan sent him to subsidize his studies.)

4. He had a nemesis.

Like a lot of writers, Poe had a rival. His was the poet, critic, and editor Rufus Griswold. Although Griswold had included Poe’s work in his 1842 anthology The Poets and Poetry of America, Poe held an extremely low opinion of Griswold’s intellect and literary integrity. Poe published an essay blasting Griswold’s selections for the anthology, and their rivalry began.

Things really heated up when Griswold succeeded Poe as the editor of Graham’s Magazine at a higher salary than Poe had been pulling in. Poe began publicly lambasting Griswold’s motivations; he even went so far as to claim that Griswold was something of a literary homer who puffed up New England poets.

Poe might have had a point about Griswold’s critical eye, but Griswold had the good fortune to outlive Poe. After Poe died, Griswold penned a mean-spirited obituary in which he stated that the writer’s death “will startle many, but few will be grieved by it” and generally portrayed Poe as an unhinged maniac.

Slamming a guy in his obituary is pretty low, but Griswold was just getting warmed up. He convinced Poe’s aunt, Maria Clemm, to make him Poe’s literary executor. Griswold then published a biography of Poe that made him out to be a drug-addled drunk, all while keeping the profits from a posthumous edition of Poe’s work.

5. His death was a mystery worth of his writing.

In 1849 Poe left New York for a visit to Richmond, but he never made it that far south. Instead, Poe turned up in front of a Baltimore bar deliriously raving and wearing clothes that didn’t fit. Passersby rushed Poe to the hospital, but he died a few days later without being able to explain what happened to him.

Poe’s rumored causes of death were “cerebral inflammation” and “congestion of the brain,” which were polite euphemisms for alcohol poisoning. Modern scholars don’t totally buy this explanation, though. The characterization of Poe as a raging drunk mostly comes from Griswold’s posthumous smear campaign, and his incoherent state of mind may have been the result of rabies or syphilis.

Some Poe fans subscribe to a more sinister theory about the writer’s death, though. They think he may have fallen victim to “cooping,” a sordid 19th century political practice. Gangs of political thugs would round up homeless or weak men and hold them captive in a safe place called a “coop” right before a major election. On election day—and there was an election in Baltimore on October 3, 1849, the day Poe was found—the gangs would then drug or beat the hostages before taking them around to vote at multiple polling places.

This story sounds like something straight out of Poe’s own writing, but it might actually be true. Poe’s crummy physical state and delirium would be consistent with a victim of cooping, and the ill-fitting clothes jibe with gangs’ practice of making their hostages change clothes so they could cast multiple votes. With no real evidence either way, though, Poe’s death remains one of literature’s most fascinating mysteries.

This post originally appeared in 2011.

This Test Will Tell You How Many Books You Can Read in a Year

iStock.com/elenaleonova
iStock.com/elenaleonova

It's tempting to compare yourself to others when pursuing a reading goal. According to the Pew Research Center, the average person in the U.S. reads about 12 books per year—but that number won't help you if you read at a different pace than the average American. To figure out how many books you should read in a year, Lenstore has come up with a test that measures your individual reading skills.

To start, click on the test below and read the passages that pop up at your natural reading speed. Once you've finished, you'll be asked a few questions about the reading to prove you understood it.

Lenstore gave the test to 1600 people and found that the average participant took 101 seconds to complete the passage. If a person reads for 30 minutes a day at that speed, they can get through 33 books a year (assuming book lengths average out to 90,000 words). Speedy readers who blast through the passage in 60 seconds can read 55 books in a year with 30 minutes of daily reading time—which comes out to just over one book a week.

If half an hour of reading a day sounds overly optimistic, you can see how your book goal would change based on your reading schedule. Lenstore also shows you how long it would take to read specific books based on your reading speed. They give examples of long reads that require many hours of commitment, like War and Peace, as well as quick books like The Color Purple.

After taking the test, check out our list of the best books of 2018 for some suggestions of what to read next.

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