Charles Dickens’ timeless, seasonal story, A Christmas Carol, was published 175 years ago today – and as she turned the delicate pages of a rare second edition, rescued from the trash in New York and returned to its home in North Yorkshire, his great-great-great-granddaughter was entranced once more.
“It was his protest cry against child poverty,” said the author Lucinda Hawksley, who had come to Malton for its annual Dickens festival.
“He was trying to make a difference in the world. He created the two children who appear with the Ghost of Christmas Present, and he tells Scrooge that they are mankind’s children – the boy is called Ignorance and the girl is called Want. That was Dickens’ message – that if everybody carries on ignoring poor children society is doomed.”
The book’s publication had come at a difficult time for Dickens, who was in debt to his publisher and trying to stem the tide of pirated versions of his work. It was an instant critical success but not, at first, a commercial one.
The copy in Ms Hawksley’s hand is one he signed and sent to Elizabeth Smithson, wife of his friend Charles, whom he had met when he was working for a firm of solicitors in London.
Mr Smithson was part of a family law practice in Malton and his counting house, to which Dickens was a frequent visitor, is believed by many to have been his inspiration for that of Scrooge.
The volume was brought back to Malton four years ago, having been purchased for £28,000 at auction in New York, after the broadcaster Selina Scott, a local resident, led an appeal.
Ms Hawksley, who will tonight lead an anniversary celebration of the story at the Charles Dickens Museum, in his former house in Holborn, London, said: “I personally think it’s an amazing story, one of the most beautiful anyone has ever written. It’s 175 years old and it’s never been out of print.
“It touches people today just as it did then. There are very few stories you can say really stand that test of time.
“People often ask if I’m annoyed by some new adaptation but actually I’m not at all. It’s really moving to me that it speaks to every generation.”
Her tolerance, she said, extended even to a “Klingon” version of the story fashioned in Minneapolis by fans of the series Star Trek, and a hip-hop dance adaptation in Chicago.
The celebration in Malton was organised by the education charity, Dickens’ Gift to Malton, whose managing director, Clair Challenor-Chadwick, said: “We hope we can build on Yorkshire’s literary heritage – not only Dickens in Malton but also the Brontës in Haworth and Bram Stoker in Whitby.”
The signed volume has been on display in the town, but the counting house, which had been a museum, has been returned to use as an accountant’s office.
“It’s said that Dickens performed on stage when he came to Malton,” Ms Challenor-Chadwick said. “He certainly stayed in all the great houses in the area.”
A further celebration of A Christmas Carol will take place in Malton on Friday evening, a musical version at the town’s Milton Rooms.