Dr. Katherine Charles delivers Dickens talk on “The Making of a Christmas Carol”

By Logan Monteleone

Elm Staff Writer

As part of Chestertown’s annual Dickens Festival, students and community members gathered at 11 a.m. on Saturday, Dec. 2, in the newly renovated Raimond Cultural Center for Associate Professor of Eighteenth and Nineteenth-Century Literature Dr. Katherine Charles’ lecture on “The Making of a A Christmas Carol.”

The Bookplate and Kent Cultural Alliance hosted and co-sponsored the event.

Director of the Kent Cultural Alliance John Schratwieser — a former director of Garfield Center of the Arts and a former lobbyist for Maryland Citizens for the Arts — was eager to hear Dr. Charles’ discussion of “A Christmas Carol,” and to promote future events hosted by KCA.

“We [at the KCA] have a really exciting year planned for 2024,” Schratwieser said. “We’re launching a brand-new visiting artist residency program that will begin in the early spring, and it’s going to bring very fun and exciting and interesting and educational things to Kent County — so stay tuned and look forward to that.”

Anyone interested can learn more about the initiatives at the KCA’s website, kentculture.org.

Current director of the Garfield and manager of the Bookplate Tess Jones explained that the bookstore hosts numerous author events every month.

“They are very casual events that we do, and there is no reservation system right now — you just come,” Jones said.

Information about upcoming author talks, featuring famous journalists and local poets alike, can also be found on their website.

Schratweiser and Jones welcomed Dr. Charles to the podium.

“It’s always a real pleasure to me to see that Dickens can pack a room,” Dr. Charles observed. “So good for you Charles [Dickens]!”

“If I were Charles Dickens here speaking to you, I would’ve brought my own podium, which would’ve been designed to very particular specifications, and…there would be a cash register at the door because his readings were not free,” Dr. Charles began.

Dr. Charles outlined the questions that captivate her as a reader and scholar of Dickens.

“Why was writing A Christmas Carol such a frenzied process, simultaneously productive and painful? What sorts of context, both historical and personal, converged to shape and prickle this act of composition?” Dr. Charles said. “What identifiable elements of inspiration have Dickens and his many, often similarly obsessive, biographers, scholars, and common readers been able to isolate out of the welter of raw material absorbed from by any author?”

According to Dr. Charles, despite the prevalence of “A Christmas Carol” in popular culture, many readers are unaware of the “complexity of its authorial motivations and their relations to a similarly complex weave of social and autobiographical factors.”

“This talk aspires to give a relatively brief introduction to some of this complexity, in the hopes of providing a key that might help contemporary readers unlock the ‘ghost of an idea’ raised by Dickens,” Dr. Charles said.

The topics of the lecture were organized into four parts. The first covered the social and historical context of the novel’s publication in 1843.

Dr. Charles provided insight into Dickens’ biographical information — including the adversity of his childhood, the financial and marital struggles of his adult life, and his peculiarities as a writer — and how his personal experiences influenced his writing.

She explained that the absence of child labor laws in the harsh working conditions of Victorian England, combined with Dickens’ childhood experience in a bootblacking factory to pay his father’s debt, compelled Dickens to write a piece to impact reform.

Dr. Charles described “A Christmas Carol” as a “public call to action on behalf of impoverished children.” “A Christmas Carol” brought attention to issues of child labor and influenced legislation to limit working hours.

The second subject of the lecture Dickens’ literary inspiration for the novel. After listing the names of numerous well-known Dickens characters and explaining the direct sources of the famous name “Scrooge,” Dr. Charles said that Dickens was “an adept collector of names.” Dickens mastered the use of charactonyms, or names that suggest personality traits of the character they denote, Dr. Charles explained.

Dr. Charles’ third topic discussed financial elements of the publication and sales of “A Christmas Carol”.

She explained that Dickens had strong opinions about the publication process and described his costly and meticulous care of the release of his own books. At his own limited expense, for example, Dickens demanded “A Christmas Carol” reprinted numerous times until he was satisfied with the shade of green used on the cover pages.

“Dickens was, as well as a mesmerizing and inventive storyteller, also a micromanager and a perfectionist, tendencies that further delayed publication of his tale,” Dr. Charles said. Dickens did not receive a large portion of the profit for his story, as copyright was nonexistent or ineffective, and reproductions of the tale were sold at a cheaper price than the original. Dickens lost substantial finances in lawsuits related to piracy.

“He was considered one of the great public speakers of his day, and [much] of his income was derived from public speaking tours because that work couldn’t be pirated,” Dr. Charles said.

“That’s all very directly related to his experiences of trying to make a buck off of a “A Christmas Carol”, which, as you see, we continue to do here today.”

The fourth and final subject of Dr. Charles’ lecture covered the legacy of “A Christmas Carol”.

Dr. Charles cited the “cinematic and theatrical imagination” of Dickens as an element that has kept his story so vivid in the minds of readers and in the memories of those who have seen visual adaptations.

Quoting Dickens’ descriptions of Scrooge and Tiny Tim from the annotated margins of his personal copy of the novel used during performative readings, Dr. Charles closed her lecture by reflecting on the lasting messages provided by the characters in ‘A Christmas Carol”.

“[Dickens] left behind a host of characters — ‘sulky growled’ and ‘childish-trebled’ — to remind us all to opt out of humbug, and instead opt into holiday merriment, charitable hearts, and a good roast turkey big enough to share.”

During the commentary and Q&A period, Schratwieser shared that as a child involved in theatre, his older brother was cast as grown-up Scrooge while he was young Scrooge in their school play. Dr. Charles’ talk illuminated the fond memory for him, and as Dr. Charles noted, “‘A Christmas Carol’ has nostalgic relevance for many English and American readers.

Upon being asked of her personal inspiration for studying Dickens, Dr. Charles responded that the first Dickens novel she encountered was in 4th grade, when she read “A Tale of Two Cities” “purely out of ambition because I had heard someone else in my class was reading Dickens,” which “planted the seed” of Dickens scholarship.

“It’s remarkable easy it is to forget when [‘A Christmas Carol”] was written when you read it…It speaks to our humanity so well,” Jones, who was selling different copies of ‘A Christmas Carol’” at the talk, said.

Dr. Charles closed the Q&A with another reflection on the legacy of the classic tale.

“Certainly, part of this tale is that everyone has a little bit of Scrooge in them — I think for Dickens, he had a lot,” Dr. Charles said. “Scrooge is such an extreme, unloving character and he still gets his second chance, he can change — and I think many of us love to hear that story around Christmas time.”

“It’s fairly rare for a nineteenth century novel to have that kind of popular culture awareness.”

Dr. Charles finds the endurance of “‘A Christmas Carol” “hope-giving” proof that “when we find the right words and a character that connects, they can live on.”

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