It’s hard not to love the traditions of the Christmas season. Getting together with loved ones, good food, the exchange of gifts, and our favorite Christmas specials on TV. I always liked a Charlie Brown’s Christmas, and of course there’s the Charles Dickens classic, “A Christmas Carol”, set against the vast brick factory buildings of Lowell, Massachusetts, along the Merrimack River.
Wait … What?
The 29-year-old Charles Dickens was already a well-known and popular author when he stepped onto the shores of Boston Harbor on January 22, 1842. New Yorkers had literally lined the docks the year before, greeting ships bearing copies of the author’s latest, The Old Curiosity Shop.
“The Pickwick Papers,” “Oliver Twist,” “Nicholas Nickleby”; all were behind the young writer when he came to America, perhaps to write a travelogue, or maybe looking for material for a new novel.
Dickens traveled to Watertown, to the Perkins School for the Blind, where Helen Keller and her teacher Anne Sullivan underwent their mutual education, a half-century later. He visited a school for neglected boys, in Boylston.
Dickins must have thought the charitable institutions in his native England suffered by comparison, for he later wrote “I sincerely believe that the public institutions and charities of this capital of Massachusetts are as nearly perfect as the most considerate wisdom, benevolence, and humanity, can make them.”
In February, Dickens took a train north to the factory town of Lowell, visiting the textile mills and speaking with the “mill girls”, the women who worked there. Once again, he seemed to believe that his native England came up short, in the comparison. Dickens spoke of the new buildings and the well dressed, healthy young women who worked in them, perhaps comparing them with his own traumatic childhood experience of working in the mills back home, with his father confined in debtor’s prison.
The celebrity novelist enjoyed the finest sights of Boston and New York, and took in a steamship ride, down the Mississippi. He visited one of the great wonders of the natural world, the spectacular Niagara Falls.
And yet, the author described that visit to the industrial city of Lowell as “the happiest day” of his American vacation.
Dickens left the mill girls with a copy of “The Lowell Offering”, a literary magazine written by those same women, which he later described as “four hundred good solid pages, which I have read from beginning to end.”
More than a century and a half later, Natalie McKnight, professor of English and Dean at Boston University, noticed similarities between the two while preparing a talk for the Lowell Historical Society.
She read the same 400 pages as Dickens, and couldn’t help noticing parallels between the work of the mill girls, and “A Christmas Carol,” published about a year and a half after the author’s visit. Chelsea Bray was a senior English major at the time. Professor McKnight asked her to read those same pages.
One story, “A Visit from Hope,” begins, “‘Past twelve!’ said a sweet, musical voice, as I was seated by the expiring embers of a wood fire. I turned hastily to see who had thus intruded on my presence, when, lo! I beheld an old man. His thin white locks were parted on his forehead, his form was bent, and as he extended his thin, bony hand toward me, it shook like an aspen leaf.”’
Makes it hard not to think of the ghost of Jacob Marley, Ebenezar Scrooge’s “dead as a doornail”, former partner.
“Christmas,” another Lowell essay, describes Christmas as “the best day in the whole year” for what it brings out in people. The theme pops up again with Scrooge’s nephew, as in: “[T]he only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.”
Another piece, “The Blessings of Memory,” speaks of joyful recollections, too soon overridden by “unreal phantoms.” Scrooge’s redemption is all about Memory: Bray writes, “Scrooge’s conversion begins when the Ghost of Christmas Past makes him relive his memories and reconnect to past sorrows and joys.”
The research performed by the two was published in the form of a thesis, and later fleshed out to a full-length book:
“Dickens and Massachusetts
The Lasting Legacy of the Commonwealth Visits
(University of Massachusetts Press, 2015)
The book describes a number of similarities between the two works, making the argument that Dickens’ familiar story draws much from his experience in Lowell. The authors specifically reject any accusation of plagiarism. The Lowell essays possess neither the character development nor the linguistic richness of Dickens’ masterwork.
This quintessentially English tale is said to have drawn much from the work of Shakespeare, and others. Perhaps the Old World drew inspiration from the New, as well. Charles Dickens’ masterpiece, A Christmas Carol, was published for the first time 175 years ago today, December 19, 1843.