Happy Birthday 'A Christmas Carol'

This week Charles Dickens' timeless classic, A Christmas Carol, celebrated its 170th birthday.

In the winter of 1843 the 31 year-old Dickens spoke at a charity night to raise money for the Manchester Athenaeum, an institute dedicated to "advancement and diffusion of knowledge."

He shared the stage with the young Disraeli who later became Britain's Prime Minister. On a long nocturnal walk later that evening Dickens came up with the story for what he called his "little Christmas book."

He wrote obsessively; he wept, laughed and wandered around London at night "when all sober folks had gone to bed," and six weeks later, he was finished. He handed in his manuscript (now owned by the Morgan Library, in New York City) at the end of November so the book could be published in time for Christmas. On December 17th 1843, A Christmas Carol hit the shops and was an immediate bestseller.

The story touched people deeply. The English novelist, William Makepeace Thackeray (why does no one use that excellent name these days?), said the book was "a national benefit, and to every man or woman who reads it, a personal kindness." The great historian and friend of Dickens, Thomas Carlyle, went straight out and bought a turkey.

Dickens gave his first public reading of A Christmas Carol 10 years later in Birmingham Town Hall to a crowd of 2,000 people. Dickens loved to perform, rather than read excerpts from his books so he created what he called a "prompt" copy of A Christmas Carol.

He tore the pages out of an original book, and stuck them into a new, large-leafed, blank-paged book. Then he filleted the text, cut out descriptive scenes and added stage directions like: "Cheerful" and "Tone down the Pathos." He used postage stamps as post-it notes to mark important pages and underlined bits he loved to remind himself to emphasize the words: "for it is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas, when its mighty Founder was a child himself."

I rediscovered this wonderful book, covered in Dickens's scribbles, crossings out and annotations when I visited New York looking for treasures to include in my book, The Secret Museum, which tells the story of hidden treasures that live behind the scenes of the world's top cultural institutions.

In amongst the treasures in my book -- from a space suit covered in moon dust, to butterfly penises collected by the prolific novelist Vladimir Nabokov - I wrote about artifacts in the Berg Collection of English and American literature at the NYPL that once belonged to Charles Dickens. The curator of the collection, Isaac Gewirtzwas kind enough to show me a letter opener belonging to Charles Dickens (made out of the paw of his deceased pet cat, Bob -- named after Bob Cratchit) and let me set eyes upon Dickens's prompt copy of A Christmas Carol. (You can have a look at it yourself on their website).

Dickens used this rare Christmas treasure in New York during two performances at Christmas time in 1867. The first was at a Steinway Piano display hall on East 14th street, and the second at a church in Brooklyn. People lined up in the snow for tickets -- some even slept outside to be sure of a spot in the crowd -- the queue by opening time was a mile long.

As I was writing The Secret Museum I kept thinking how wonderful it would be to bring some of the hidden treasures in it back to life. The one that sprung to mind as we approached Christmas was Dickens's prompt copy of A Christmas Carol.

I had recently read Neil Gaiman's beautiful speech about the importance of libraries, written for The Reading Agency and thought, since he would be reading in one of the most beautiful libraries in the world -- the New York Public Library -- there was a chance he might be up for it. I checked online to see whether he loves Dickens and saw he'd blogged about working out to Bleak House and found this tumblr post about how similar he and Dickens look.

It was a long shot but I popped an email over to him including the tumblr link and to my delight, the next morning, when I woke up in England, I found an email glinting in my inbox from Neil (in America) saying it was an AMAZING idea and asking if could he dress up?

Amy Geduldig, public relations manager at the NYPL (Geduldig means "patient" in German and patient, and amazing, she was) sprung into action and found a fantastic costume and a brilliant make-up artist who would transform Neil into Dickens.

The day before the show I walked the snowy streets of Manhattan watching hoards of Santas barrel around. It was SantaCon, a day when 30,000 people in New York City dress as Santa and make (very) merry. I laughed as I heard someone shout down from a bedroom window: "Bah Humbug!" Dickens was alive and well.

The next day was sunshine, and as the snow melted people came from across the city, to the Bartos Forum at the NYPL. When I arrived Neil was already in make-up, having his sheep-wool Dickensian beard glued to his chin, and reading the carol. The perfect transformation from 21st century man to Charles Dickens had begun.

We could hear carol singers in the hall as the audience took their seats, and laughter from the crowd - "they're enjoying themselves," said Neil.

He put on his Dickens outfit. It was a suit -- surprisingly brown, for Neil traditionally dresses in black -- with a purple waistcoat, a brown top hat, and a pair of lace-up leather ankle boots. Neil was already wearing boots just like them so he ditched the hire pair.

The only difference between his boots and Dickens's was Neil had added zippers to the boots so he didn't have to unlace them when traveling through airport security. I'm sure Dickens, had he been alive today -- and no doubt on never-ending global book tours -- would have done the same.

"You and your big ideas!" joked Neil as we waited in the wings, listening as the carolers finished their song. Then we were on. Neil took a seat on stage, amidst Christmas decorations as I welcomed everyone to our Dickensian celebration of Christmas.

I discussed the rare Christmas treasure that had brought us to the NYPL -- Dickens's prompt copy of A Christmas Carol -- and explained why Neil Gaiman, one of the best writers of our time, was dressed as Dickens, the best writer of his time (an uncanny resemblance...).

I introduced Neil and joined the audience of 400 New Yorkers. And then I sat back and simply listened, with joy and delight, as Neil told us a story; a very special Christmas story -- A Christmas Carol, with stage directions by Dickens himself written nearly 150 years ago.

Neil's Scrooge was perfect, his Mrs. Cratchit divine, his Spirits creepy, and his joy as Scrooge turns his life around infectious. I'd listened to and read different version of A Christmas Carol but none have made me laugh like Neil's performance.

The scene that got the biggest laugh was when Scrooge visits his nephew's house with the Spirit of Christmas Present and sees his nephew's pal Topper lurching straight at Scrooge's niece's sister -- "the plump one with the lace tucker" -- during a game of Blind Man's Buff. As Dickens put it: "I no more believe Topper was really blind than I believe he had eyes in his boots." Neil played up the comedy of the scene and the crowd was delighted. Interestingly after each stave, the audience burst into applause -- I hadn't expected that, but it was genuinely lovely, and felt perfectly fitting for the occasion.

Afterthe final rapturous applause, as Neil was back in make-up - this time having his beard removed -- he described the prompt copy to me as "Darwinian;" Dickens over time whittled down his own story until only the fittest and best parts of the story survived; the best that is, to perform to a crowd. Suddenly Dickens's choice to keep certain scenes in -- where he cut so many others -- made sense. He wanted drama -- to move people's minds -- and ultimately to make them laugh. For as Dickens himself said in A Christmas Carol: "There is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humor."

Merry Christmas.

You can download a free live recording of the event via the New York Public Library website or via iTunes.