The Man Who Invented Christmas

The Man Who Invented Christmas by Les Standiford Read Free Book Online

Book: The Man Who Invented Christmas by Les Standiford Read Free Book Online
Authors: Les Standiford
will try to excite their liberality in another and equally or more useful way,” he assured the party.
    They should remember that more was at stake than their own institution, Dickens went on to say. “The Manchester Athenaeum is not the sole thing depending upon your efforts. It is the principle of athenaeums that you are really struggling for.” And with that, their meeting was closed.

    D uring a pre-performance tour of the Athenaeum the next afternoon, Dickens was introduced to Richard Cobden, the fiery orator, and the two exchanged compliments and ideas as they wound their way through the institution, and, according to Watkin, “diving into its cellars and mounting to its top, amid sundry jokes” about politics and politicians, including those at the expense of James Crossley, a rather stoutly built local who opposed Cobden fiercely.
    One of the chief topics of discussion was Cobden’s involvement in the national Anti–Corn Law League. Cobden, who had in 1839 spearheaded a similar local organization in Manchester, had been successful in organizing a national committee to unite all interests who sought to put an end to the tariffs protecting Britain’s landed gentry. A former member of the Manchester Chamber of Commerce and one of the city’s first aldermen, Cobden was elected to Parliament in 1841, and he quickly became one of the principal spokesmen against the vested interests propping up British grain prices and keeping the price of bread artificially high.
    The severe depression of 1840–42, combined with a series of bad harvests, led to shortages and high prices that increased support among the general British population for Cobden’s position. The group also picked up the backing of manufacturers, who feared that the duties that kept corn prices inflated would ultimately lead to stoppages by workmen seeking higher wages. Cobden crisscrossed the whole of England, speaking to increasingly growing audiences, and had become a national workingman’s hero by the time he and Dickens met in Manchester.
    Disraeli, who would join them on stage—and though a Tory and a conservative at heart—had endeared himself to liberals for his demands that the landed interests were obligated to protect the rights and livelihood of the poor. Thus, the popular trio—politician, novelist, and novelist-cum-politician—made the perfect cast for the Athenaeum’s playbill. Cobden and Disraeli were perhaps more experienced as public speakers. (Taunted once by William Gladstone that he would probably die “by hanging or of some vile disease,” Disraeli retorted, “That would depend, sir, on whether I embraced your principles or your mistress.”) But despite his recent setbacks, Dickens’s long-standing celebrity made him the undisputed star of the show.

    I t would have been difficult for Dickens to throw himself into his savior’s role in Manchester that night in 1843—his marriage was troubled, his career tottering, his finances ready to collapse. With all that on his mind, could he truly put it aside and rally an audience on behalf of workingmen’s access to ideas, and arts, and education? But these principles formed the very heart and soul of Dickens’s own best work, and furthermore, he had once been one of those men on whose behalf he spoke.
    At thirty-one, he was still developing as an artist, to be sure, but with the publication of Sketches by Boz (diffuse, but displaying the wide array of his social interests), The Pickwick Papers (episodic, but rich in character and comedy), and Oliver Twist (at times melodramatic, but nonetheless unified in power of theme), he had demonstrated the range and depth and dramatic facility that would build on the accomplishments of those who had come before him (Fielding, Defoe, Smollett, Richardson, and Scott), and which would make him, in the eyes of most present-day commentators, the first truly modern novelist, as well as the chief spokesman for his age.
    In the latter

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