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Charles Dickens Museum | Christmas and Beautiful Books

As one of London’s top destinations for booklovers, it makes sense to see beautiful books headlining a new exhibition at the Charles Dickens Museum this November. As the house dresses itself for Christmas, it’s also preparing for the festive display Beautiful Books: Dickens and the Business of Christmas, where you can gaze at the world’s first printed Christmas card in the company of some first editions of the famous ‘A Christmas Carol.’

Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

I was invited to Maggs Bros. to see some of these exquisite items in the flesh, in advance of the exhibition. I wrote my thesis on Mr Dickens, so you can imagine how delighted I was to be able to hold (and thumb) some of these priceless books. Maggs is one of the world’s largest and oldest antiquarian booksellers. They are providing expertise and artefacts for the exhibition.

Charles Dickens Museum Beautiful Books

Highlights include the first edition of ‘A Christmas Carol,’ with an inscription from Dickens to his friend William Macready on New Year’s Day 1844, an early test edition of the book, the earliest sketches by illustrator John Leech, and Dickens’ taper stand and oil lamp. The exhibition will also display a book which the author gifted to Hans Christian Andersen (who over-stayed his welcome with Dickens in 1857, putting an acrimonious end to the friendship forever). It also features a selection of nineteenth-century almanacs and a dazzling collection of early twentieth-century Christmas gift books.

Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol

Forget me not books were popular New Year gifts. These were filled with sentimental poetry, and young men would give these to young ladies as a token of their esteem.

Forget me Not Books Maggy Bros

The world’s first Christmas card

The first commercial Christmas card was printed in the same year as the publication of ‘A Christmas Carol.’ We don’t have Dickens to thank for it: that accolade goes to Henry Cole, the genius behind the Great Exhibition of 1851 and the Victoria and Albert Museum. He is also credited with the creation of the world’s first postage stamp.  The card is on loan to the Dickens Museum by Brick Row Book Shop in California.

world's first Christmas card

Courtsey of Brick Row Book Shop, San Diego, CA

 “I am sick of the thing.”

Dickens wrote ‘A Christmas Carol’ in a mere six weeks in 1843, selling 6000 copies in the six days between its release and Christmas Eve. By the end of the following year, 13 editions were released. It’s been in print ever since and reigns supreme as the  Christmas book.

Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol

John Leech illustration for ‘A Christmas Carol’

Dickens was involved in all stages of the book production, ensuring the books had the right “look” for the Christmas market. He chose the salmon brown cover and gold spine and commissioned John Leech to make four colour illustrations together with some woodblock drawings. Initially, the author wanted a green and red title page, but the original ink proved lacklustre, so he settled for blue. The printing job was completed only two days before its publication.

Charles Dickens Christmas books

The frontispiece for the ‘Cricket on the Hearth,’ a novella by Dickens released in December 1845. Thackeray would say, “To us, it appears it is a good Christmas book, illuminated with extra gas, crammed with extra bonbons, French plums and sweetness.”

In the 1850s, Dickens would go on to produce Christmas stories with contributions from other authors, but by the 1860’s there was a saturation of material. In 1868, Dickens stopped writing Christmas books altogether. Bah humbug, he was well and truly fed up with the business of Christmas.

Beautiful Books: Dickens and the Business of Christmas is on from 20 November to 19 April 2020 at the Charles Dickens Museum. You can book your entry to the museum and exhibition here.

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A London arts and culture blog featuring articles about art, theatre, opera, dance, music and design.

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