As a student assistant in the Burns Library Reading Room and a graduate student in the English department at Boston College, I occasionally have the privilege of combining my scholarly interest in Victorian literature with my practical responsibilities at the Burns Library. While deciding on a topic for this blog post, I searched the Burns library’s holdings of the works of Charles Dickens, an author who is a frequent subject of my research. One of the first items to come up in the catalog was a copy of A Christmas Carol from 1843, the year Dickens’s first Christmas story was published. The catalog record in Holmes claims that this book is a first edition, but also directs patrons to another work, Charles Dickens in the Original Cloth: A Bibliographical Catalogue of His Writings in Book Form in England with Facsimiles of the Bindings and Title Pages by Walter E. Smith, stating that “various theories concerning states and issues of this, the first edition” exist. Intrigued by the idea of controversy over what I had always assumed was a simple matter of publication and chronology, I headed down the rabbit hole of bibliographical inquiry. Several books, articles, and bibliographers later, the small book sitting in a cradle in front of me had gained not only the still-disputed distinction of being a first edition, but had introduced me to the intricacies of bibliography and the detail attendant upon it.
Let’s begin with the book itself. This particular copy of A Christmas Carol does not give any clues as to its previous ownership: it is free of marks, labels, marginalia, stamps or any other identifiers that might provide a glimpse into its past homes and owners. The book, surprisingly for a nineteenth-century volume, is still cased in the original vertically-ribbed brown publisher’s cloth. Bindings from the nineteenth century are notoriously fragile as increased mechanization and cheap materials such as fabric and paper began replacing more expensive bindings such as leather. Readers often had their books rebound, especially those that were purchased with the publisher’s cloth bindings which tended to crumble with frequent use and, at least in Dickens’s case, were fairly plain. This book’s cover is blind-stamped with a border of holly and ivy and both the spine and the front cover bear the title and author’s name in gold, surrounded by gold wreaths of holly. The title page is printed in red and blue with a branch of holly and a decorative frame with the date (1843) in Roman numerals at the very bottom of the page. The page edges are gilded and the volume contains eight illustrations: four hand-colored steel engravings and four black and white woodcuts. The colored illustrations were a first (and a last) for Dickens, who wanted A Christmas Carol to be visually appealing; the colored plates, however, were expensive and production costs severely ate into his profits. The book shows some signs of shelf wear and chipping along the spine, but overall the Burns copy of A Christmas Carol is in good condition: the pages are clean and unmarked, the binding is tight, and the colored plates are not foxed or discolored. The endpapers of the book are light green, and very chalky—a large portion of the color has been rubbed off over the years. And it is with these green endpapers that much of the controversy over editions begins. Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in about a month and a half, from mid-October, 1843 to the end of November, 1843 (Calhoun 276-277). The Christmas story was undertaken while Martin Chuzzlewit was still being written in monthly numbers and failing to bring in the audiences Dickens and his publishers, Chapman and Hall, had hoped for. A Christmas Carol was partially a commercial venture as Dickens hoped it bring would bring in larger profits, relieving some of the pressure of his financial and literary obligations, but it was also a social venture as the story explored not only Scrooge’s redemptive journey, but the lives of the poor surrounding him. In order to get the story published, Dickens agreed to an unprecedented publishing arrangement: he would assume all of the costs of the publication but in doing so, would also gain all of the profits. Though A Christmas Carol was incredibly popular it was not incredibly profitable; in the year after it was published Dickens only made £726, well below his hoped-for profit of £1000 (Calhoun 278).
The publication history of A Christmas Carol is complicated and varied. The facts about the book seem to stand thus: the initial plan for the book was to have a green and red title page with green endpapers. The colors for the initial title page, however, did not appeal to Dickens and he changed the title page to red and blue. The first choice for endpapers was green (which are seen in the Burns’ copy of the book) but the green dye that was used on the paper turned chalky and tended to brush off (Smith 21-22). A Christmas Carol was released for the public on December 19th, right at the height of the Christmas season, but Dickens was given and distributed presentation copies on December 17th. The known presentation copies all contain a red and blue title page with yellow endpapers. These changes in publication form are not only limited to endpapers and title pages, however. Each chapter in the text is called “Stave I,” “Stave II”, and so on. In the table of contents the Staves are numbered with Roman numerals; in the original, uncorrected text, Stave I is written with a roman numeral, while Staves II-V have their numbers written out.
This inconsistency was rectified in later editions, but the presence of a chapter headed Stave I rather than Stave One provides a point, or “any peculiarity on a book whose presence in or absence from a particular copy serves to distinguish it from other copies not so marked” (Carter 170), by which a first edition can be identified. Dickens also requested that the date of the book—originally 1844—be changed to reflect the Christmas it was written for, being 1843. Thus, copies exist with various combinations of title pages, endpapers, Stave I/Stave One, and publication dates. Bibliographers have long argued how these differences or variants fit into the publication history of A Christmas Carol and how a first edition can be identified. While bibliographers have been cataloging Dickens’s work since his death, I researched the twentieth century bibliographers most often mentioned in connection with this controversy and their various theories regarding the first edition of A Christmas Carol. Following in the footsteps of W. E. Smith, here is a brief synopsis of the various arguments pertaining to the first edition of A Christmas Carol. John C. Eckel, in his 1913 bibliography, The First Editions of the Writings of Charles Dickens, Their Points and Values: A Bibliography claims that copies of A Christmas Carol with a blue and red title page, dated 1843, with green endpapers, bearing the chapter heading Stave I not Stave One are a genuine first edition, first issue text. In 1945 Philo Calhoun published a paper, co-authored with Howell J. Heaney, in The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America entitled “Dickens’ Christmas Carol After a Hundred Years: A Study in Bibliographical Evidence.” This paper effectively argues that the first edition of the book has several issues, states, and variants. On page 299, they explain the presence of the green endpapers in the following manner:
Probably in the middle of binding, as demand grew faster than the current end-paper stock, it was hurriedly decided to use up the green paper, and thereafter it was used indiscriminately with yellow, but discarded again when the initial supply of green became exhausted.
This explanation is practical, but does not appear to be based on overt evidence beyond the knowledge that green endpapers had been prepared. According to Calhoun and Heaney the Burns copy of A Christmas Carol is a first edition, first issue, second state based on the uncorrected text, the presence of the Stave I chapter heading, and the combination of the red and blue title page and green endpapers. In 1961, William B. Todd threw out all of the numbering systems that Eckel, Calhoun, and Heaney had constructed and turned the reader’s attention not to the color of the endpapers or the text itself, but to the cover of the book. Todd claims that the wreath of holly and the author’s name provide compelling points by which to identify each edition. Using the distance between the edge of the blind-stamped border and the holly wreath and the fact that the ‘D’ in ‘Dickens’ is perfect, Todd claims that all first editions will have the same distance (14-15mm) between border and wreath, and an unblemished author’s name (the ‘D’ shifted over time eventually resulting in a broken seraph on the top of the letter) (Gimbel 26). W. E. Smith emphasizes “the rarity of Dickens in original cloth” and carefully catalogs the various theories of bibliographers providing curious readers with a concise, if still inconclusive, catalog of arguments.
While all five bibliographers offer differ interpretations of the various forms in which A Christmas Carol exists, it certainly appears from their research that the Burns Library’s copy of Dickens’s famous Christmas story is indeed a first edition though which particular issue, state, or variant depends on a particular bibliographical lens. Rather than adding yet another theory to the already large body of bibliography, I prefer to focus on the object itself and how a slim, fabric-covered, 166 page volume can not only reveal the potential vagaries of printers, or the material role Dickens played in the publication of this particular text down to the color of the endpapers, but the attachment of scholars not only to the story but to the object itself, creating a life for the book beyond the text as a created object, a physical, tangible materiality that was handled by printers, hand-colored by artists, and hopefully read by some previous owner. This creation of a life for an object through bibliographic scholarship may not be possible for books without the tangled web of title pages and chapter headings, but for this particular book, with its familiar story, bibliography is able to defamiliarize the book and reveal its complicated publishing history. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens is available for use at the Burns Library Reading Room. If you have further questions, please contact the Burns Library Reading Room at 617-552-4861 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Rachel Ernst, Burns Library Reading Room Student Assistant & Ph.D. student in the Department of English
Calhoun, Philo, and Howell J. Heaney. “Dickens’ Christmas Carol After a Hundred Years: A Study in Bibliographical Evidence.” The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America. 39.4 (1945): 271-317.
Carter, John, and Nicolas Barker. ABC for Book Collectors. 8th ed. New Castle: Oak Knoll Press, 2004.
Dane, Joseph A. What is a Book? The Study of the Early Printed Book. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2012.
Dickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas. London: Chapman & Hall, 1843.
Smith, W. E. Charles Dickens in the Original Cloth; A Bibliographical Catalogue of the First Appearance of His Writings in Book Form in England. Los Angeles: Heritage BookShop, 1982.