What the Dickens — Alison Healy on a writer who knew how to party

Having finished A Christmas Carol in six intense weeks, Charles Dickens “broke out like a madman”

I’ve been tasked with organising the office Christmas party this year. But should it commence in the kitchen and move into the sitting room or vice versa? Regardless, I fully plan on dancing like there is no one watching. Because there won’t be anyone watching, except the dog. And let’s be frank, he’s not the best mover.

Those of us who are self-employed and working from home don’t get to enjoy the simultaneously traumatic yet thrilling experience of a staff party. The home workers don’t know the existential angst that washes over you when you look into your wardrobe an hour before the party. They aren’t proficient in the art of hovering and shuffling around a table before dinner, in a bid to pick the perfect moment to swoop on a chair. You don’t want to repeat last year’s fiasco when you unthinkingly sat beside the office whisperer. She gently murmured her way through dinner, and you pretended to hear because there are only so many times you can politely ask someone to repeat themselves. And then you found you had unwittingly agreed to bungee jump off Liberty Hall with her on Christmas Day.

Timing is crucial when choosing your seat at an office party. Sit down too early and you are a hostage to fortune because the world’s greatest bore might sit beside you and regale you with the horrible history of his ingrown toenails. Leave it too late and you get into a bizarre musical chairs dance with Paul from accounts who cycles to work and is therefore more agile than you when it comes to grabbing the last chair.

Nor will the self-employed home workers know the joys of pouring a drunken colleague in a taxi three times in a row only to see them reappear with surprising alacrity each time, bellowing “Who Let the Dogs Out?”


By all accounts, Charles Dickens enjoyed a party, yet there are no reports of him being manhandled into a horse and carriage after hitting the sherry too hard. But he did manage to throw one hell of a Christmas party for himself in 1843.

The author had spent an intense six weeks writing A Christmas Carol and he was ready to break free. He wrote the last pages in early December, followed by a heavily-underlined The End. He then “broke out like a madman”, according to his letter to American friend Cornelius Felton. He partied like it was 1899, happy in the knowledge that he had created something special with his story about the redemption of Ebenezer Scrooge.

His “ghostly little book” as he called it, was of course a roaring success. It was published on December 19th and the first 6,000 copies had sold out by Christmas Eve. The story of the miser who is visited by the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future has never been out of print since and has inspired multiple movie adaptations.

Money was on his mind when he wrote it. His wife Catherine was expecting their fifth child and sales of the serialised Martin Chuzzlewit story were not filling his publisher with festive bonhomie. But Dickens still wanted to give readers something special so when the publisher baulked at the higher production values he sought, he agreed to foot the bill as long as the sale price was kept at five shillings. So bah humbug to the ruffians who later brought out an unauthorised version of his book for two shillings. He took them to court, but they declared bankruptcy and he was saddled with the court costs.

But like A Christmas Carol, there was a happy ending to this experience as he earned a small fortune performing the story in front of packed crowds over many years.

He had a somewhat unusual dietary regime during the American leg of one of these tours in the late 1860s. Writing from Boston to his daughter Mary in 1868, he complained about his lack of appetite and outlined his unorthodox remedy.

He started his day at 7am by sitting up in bed to drink two tablespoons of rum, flavoured with fresh cream, for breakfast. At 12, he had a sherry cobbler cocktail and a biscuit. Dinner at 3pm consisted of a pint of champagne, and before the show, he glugged down a raw egg beaten into a glass of sherry. During the interval, he drank the strongest beef tea available and at 10.15pm it was soup “and anything to drink that I can fancy”.

What the Dickens? No wonder he had no appetite.

But methinks all that alcohol must have made for a very merry retelling of A Christmas Carol.