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The many voices of Dickens

Charles Dickens’s reputation as a novelist and as the creator of Ebenezer Scrooge, one of the most globally recognized Christmas miser figures, has secured him what looks to be a permanent place in the established literary canon. Students, scholars, and fans of Dickens may be surprised to learn that the voice many Victorians knew as “Dickens,” especially at Christmastime, was also the voice of nearly forty other people. Over an eighteen-year span at the height of his career, Dickens was a collaborator whose creative voice was in conversation with a host of others.

From 1850-1867, Dickens produced special issues, or numbers, of his journals Household Words and All the Year Round that were released shortly before Christmas. For each one, Dickens collected mostly fictional prose and verse from colleagues, and for most, he wove the pieces into a frame concept or story he devised (only the first two collections lacked a frame concept or narrative). As the “Conductor” of each issue, Dickens not only led the talented artists he assembled but also relied on them for a successful finished project. Sometimes, he provided contributors with parameters for the stories, but those letters were usually broad in scope and did not specify subjects or themes. Most of the writers who sent in stories did not meet in person with the others, although the contributors who lived in London or worked at Dickens’s journals, like Wilkie Collins or Dickens’s co-editor W.H. Wills, would have been in contact with him and with each other regularly. The resulting Christmas collections are far flung in scope, topic, and tone, and they rarely focus on Christmas itself. Instead, they feature ghost stories, tales of murder, and travel adventures with narrative voices and protagonists mixing together in complicated storytelling webs. The “Dickens” of the Christmas numbers existed as a multiplicity of voices, resulting in a highly variable authorial presence and a Dickens who was much more flexible than most people presume.

For A Round of Stories by the Christmas Fire (1852), W. H. Wills appears to have decided on the final ordering of the stories, which impacts how each one relates to the others and to the frame apparatus. For Another Round of Stories by the Christmas Fire (1853), Dickens’s letters indicate that he again trusted Wills to tend to the ordering of the number and other important editorial matters. In these collections, Dickens’s voice at times mixes with the narrative and authorial voices of writers like Elizabeth Gaskell, whose “The Old Nurse’s Story” became a highly anthologized example of the Gothic mode; George Augustus Sala, who also wrote pornography; Wilkie Collins, an innovator of detective fiction and the author with whom Dickens collaborated most closely; and Eliza Griffiths, an almost anonymous contributor whose biographical details remain a mystery.

Portrait of British writer Wilkie Collins, 1871. Elliott and Fry of 55 Baker Street, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Portrait of British writer Wilkie Collins, 1871. Elliott and Fry, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In this aspect of his editorial and authorial life, Dickens was often less autocratic and bullying than scholars have recognized. He wrote less than a full third of the total amount of prose and verse in the Christmas numbers, and he often didn’t get his way. Dickens printed endings he did not like under his own name, asked another person to co-write more than one frame story, allowed yet another person to decide upon the ordering of stories, and included a poem that approves of cannibalism in stark contrast to his own other published work on the subject. As often as Dickens is defensive or controlling, he is playful and self-conscious about the collaborative dynamics between himself and his contributors. In the case of The Perils of Certain English Prisoners, Dickens and Wilkie Collins simultaneously occupy the positions of male writers, the woman writer who is the scribe for the story, and the illiterate man who speaks the story. Comfortably leaving the position of individual writer and agent, these two highly successful (and famous) novel writers move together into a much more ambiguous authorial role. Tom Tiddler’s Ground (1861) is based on an excursion that blurs the boundary between Dickens’s real and fictional personas, as does the some of the editor/contributor ribbing in The Haunted House (1859). In A Message From the Sea (1860) and Tom Tiddler’s Ground (1861), the value of storytelling itself is even up for debate, threatening to undermine the whole project.

The Victorians navigated these unstable, challenging concepts of authorship quite deftly. Victorian readers would know that Dickens wrote some but not all of the pieces in the collections he “Conducted,” and they were perhaps less preoccupied with modern investments in the myth of the lone genius than present-day readers. Rediscovering the Christmas numbers in their entireties, reading all of the stories together instead of isolating the ones by Dickens, leads to a multi-layered, multi-voiced experience of Dickens that revitalizes the textual conversations he sparked with other impressive writers. As we mark the 205th anniversary of Dickens’s birth and continue to consider his body of work, we will do well to remember that some of his most intriguing collections were not his alone.

Featured image credit: title page from the first edition of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, 1843. Illustration by John Leech, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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