Medieval Bridge over Exe
Medieval Bridge over Exe

On 16 September 2021, John Fisher, writer, author, script and sketch-writer, cartoonist, public speaker, National Trust Volunteer and would-be ukelele virtuoso, visited Christmas hereabouts in Exeter and in particular talked to us aboutCharles Dickens’s immortal “A Christmas Carol”.


John surprised us all by telling us that Christmas trees predate Prince Albert.  That Boniface of Crediton (675 - 758) felled a tree in the Frankish Empire (where he was a Christian missionary) and a fir tree grew in its place which local people celebrated with dance and jollity.   These evolved into Christmas celebrations with great rollicking, except for the banning of celebrations during the Puritan times.  Queen Victoria supported less wild Christmas celebrations as a family occasion centred around the Christmas tree.


Coleridge, a son of Devon, went to Germany in 1798 and wrote home about their “still pagan” traditions, with present giving, coloured paper, tapers fixed to trees.  Dickens was overwhelmed by the way Germans celebrated Christmas and thus the seeds of Christmas past, present and to come were born.  Dickens felt that German Christmas jollity was special and different and John Forster wrote of Dickens’s “extra zest” celebrating Christmas and “never before such Christmas”.


In 1814 when Dickens was two, the Thames froze.  It featured a great frost fair with coaches travelling across the river and there was even an elephant at Blackfriars.  This all made a deep and lasting impression on the boy.  He has said that “David Copperfield” was his most biographical novel.


The winter of 1836/7 was especially brutal with villages cut off by snowdrifts and sheep being still dug out in April.


Dickens met Catherine Hogarth in Devon and they married in 1836 when she was 21 and he 24.  In the same year the Pickwick Papers were published in serial form.  Jo’s character was based on a frequenter of the Turks Head in Exeter High Street who fell asleep everywhere and any time.  Jo was immortalised with a medical conditionnamed after him –  “Pickwickian Syndrome” although now known as obesity-hypoventilation syndrome (OHS).


Dickens wrote from Exeter where his desk had to face north.  He also always slept in a bed which faced north.  He was a bad sleeper and believed this helped him to sleep.  He  even tried self-hypnosis.


Dickens’s father was a manic spender particularly as Dickens became well known and therefore well off.  To try to wean his father off his extravagance Dickens acquired Mile End Cottage in 1839.  It cost £20/year and he also paid for two servants.  He hoped that relocating his parents (and the dog Dash) to Exeter would get his father out of debt. 


But John Dickens in  1842 moved back to London where he resumed running  up debts which his son had to pay off. Mr Micawber in “David Copperfield” is reputed to be based on his father.


In 1843 Dickens wrote “A Christmas Carol” in only six weeks and paid for it to be published.  John Leech produced the illustrations.  The first edition cost five shillings (equivalent to £20 or £30 today) yet it sold out before Christmas.   It has never since been out of print.    A first edition in New York’s Morgan Museum is preserved and every year another page is ceremoniously turned.


Dickens’s wife produced ten children yet she still found time to write a cookery book – “What Shall We Have For Dinner?”   Her husband did not want her to trade on his name so insisted the author be listed as Lady Maria Clutterbuck!    The marriage, however, was not successful and, after her infant daughter died, Catherine suffered a nervous breakdown.  Dickens blamed her for the size of the family and put a bookshelf between their beds to ensure there were no more pregnancies!     He was rumoured to have many affairs – all of which he denied - and alleged that his wife was “unfit”.  She, however, outlived him.


One of Dickens’s first ever public speaking event was in the Assembly Rooms in Exeter – where Boots and Waterstones are now located.  He went for a walk first and picked a sprig of holly from Northernhay Gardens for his buttonhole.  He never gave another talk without a holly buttonhole.  With his histrionic brilliance he addressed audiences all over England and then visited New York and spoke all over the USA.  He was a most famous author and a superb performer receiving thunderous applause wherever he spoke.  


The Flying Post in Exeter wrote that he possessed finest dramatic ability - a remarkable facility – though the journal was less enthusiastic when Dickens was rebooked to Exeter in January 1862. 


In his Christmas Carol talks, Dickens became the voice of the book talking through Fred (Scrooge’s kind-hearted nephew and only relative). Scrooge’s expression “bah humbug” conveying curmudgeonly displeasure has become part of the English language.


Twenty two films were made of “A Christmas Carol”, the first being in 1901 which lasted 11 minutes.  Those films featured famous actors such as Alistair Sim, Basil Rathbone,  Albert Finney, Patrick Stewart, John Le Mesurier, Michael Horden and Derek Jacobi.


Dickens's many books always drew attention to the devastating effects of poverty on so many and throughout his life he supported over 40 different charities, such as the Poor Man’s Guardian Society, the Orphan Working School, the Royal Hospital for Incurables and the Hospital for Sick Children.


He died on 9 June 1870 aged only 58.  He was working on “Edwin Drood” at his desk with its garden view when he came indoors for a meal, had a stroke and died the next day.   His instructions to be buried in a private manner were over ruled - he was just too popular - and he was laid to rest in Poets Corner in Westminster Abbey.


Many thousands were horrified at his death and a street seller was quoted as asking if his death would mean that Father Christmas would die too.  But Dickens’s version of celebrating Christmas lives on to the present day.


PS: The 1901 version of A Christmas Carol is viewable on:


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