A Christmas Rewrite, as Dickens Edits Dickens
By ALISON LEIGH COWAN
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Updated, Dec. 4 Alison Cowan and Declan Kiely, a curator at the Morgan Library and Museum, discussed Dickens’s manuscript for “A Christmas Carol” in an interview that aired Dec. 4 on WQXR. Listen online here.
It is an enduring mystery of English literature: What secrets lie entombed beneath the thick scribbles that Charles Dickens made as he wrote, and rewrote, the 66 pages of “A Christmas Carol” in 1843?
The manuscript of this classic holiday ghost story, written in six weeks to raise much-needed cash, is housed at the Morgan Library and Museum in Manhattan, where it bears all of Dickens’s additions and subtractions in his own hand.
On page 3, he inserts “his eyes sparkled” to amplify the portrait of Scrooge’s nephew, whose beneficence is crucial to the plot.
On page 12, where Scrooge takes Marley’s ghost to be evidence not of the supernatural, but of his own indigestion, (“more of gravy than of grave,”) he converts the offending bit of food from being a “spot of mustard” to a less digestible “blot of mustard.”
Scholars, on occasion, have been given access to the manuscript, or facsimiles, to learn more about these shapings and shadings.
Michael Slater, an expert on Victorian literature at the University of London, said he, for one, has always admired Dickens’s decision to trim a waggish diatribe about Hamlet from page 1. He suspects Dickens made the cut after concluding “it was too much of a digression” or just bad for business to be “making too much fun of Shakespeare.’’
For the public, the opportunity to spot such finds has been limited. The manuscript is exhibited each holiday season at the Morgan, but as a matter of expedience, only one page is put on view each year, under glass, in the sumptuous former library of the financier John Pierpont Morgan.
This year, however, the Morgan agreed to allow The New York Times to photograph and display the entire handwritten manuscript online.
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