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From Dickens Himself, Notes On 'A Christmas Carol'

Dec 4, 2009 (All Things Considered)

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Margot Adler

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'Tis the season — every year at this time — for the various renderings of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. This year, the current animated version in the cinema — starring a computer-generated Jim Carrey in multiple roles — has won some plaudits for sticking with the spirit of the Dickens original.

So it might come as some surprise to learn that when Dickens himself performed A Christmas Carol, he didn't do it as it's written. And during this holiday season, you can see the proof.

In a small glass case at the New York Public Library, there sits a promptbook in which Dickens recorded amendments to his originally published text. Isaac Gewirtz, the curator of the Berg Collection of English and American Literature, explains that the author gave perhaps 150 readings of A Christmas Carol, despite the fact that, at the time, "public readings of fiction or poetry [were] not done; it was considered a desecration of one's art and a lowering of one's dignity."

Dickens must not have been concerned much with dignity, or with the sanctity of his own written word. His first performance of the story ran three hours. Later versions took about an hour and 25 minutes. Looking at the promptbook, it becomes clear just how much he cut. Complex sentences were replaced with simple ones. Often, anything to do with the state of mind of a character would be excised if it could be conveyed by tone of voice.

"What's interesting to see is how much of the atmospherics have been deleted," Gewirtz says. "Scenes that set the mood in the streets of London, for instance. ... You will notice in the right-hand margin to this page, it says turns to pathos, so he had many of these kinds of cues, to himself, how to modulate his voice, what kind of emotion to convey at the time."

It turns out that those traditional renditions of A Christmas Carol may not be as traditional as you think. Dickens himself changed Dickens.

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