Unbeknown to many, while A Christmas Carol was set in the fog of London, it was actually the swirling mists of Malton, near York, and a young lawyer from the town, that inspired Dickens to create his haunting tale.
Still a struggling writer, Dickens met Charles Smithson when he was working for a firm of solicitors in London. The two men, both at an early stage in their careers, shared the same mischievous sense of humour and became lifelong friends.
When Smithson later returned home to Yorkshire, Dickens became a regular visitor to his home, staying for three months with Smithson and his wife, Elizabeth. It was during this time that Dickens was working on the idea for A Christmas Carol. He had already created some of the characters but he was looking for a stage to set them on. And local legend has it that it was in his friend’s tiny office that he decided to place Scrooge and Bob Cratchit, and the single coal burning in the grate.
With such inspiration he published the novel in December 1843, and it was, of course, an enormous success. But unlike Scrooge’s happy ending, Smithson’s story took a tragic turn. Just three months later, at the age of 39, he died of tuberculosis.
Dickens was among the mourners at the funeral in Malton, and gave Smithson’s widow – who was pregnant with their second child – a signed copy of A Christmas Carol.
What happened to this copy next is unknown, but it surfaced 20 years ago, having been rescued from a dustbin outside a house in New England in the United States.
Eventually it came to auction in New York. Living close to the town of Malton myself, I worked with residents to raise funds to bring the book home. It now resides in safekeeping in the undercroft of the Talbot Hotel in Malton. It is a treasure to handle, bound in soft red leather, with a charming and colourful engraving on the fly leaf of Mr Fezziwig dancing a jig. To know that Dickens himself held this book 170 years ago is wondrous, and it is heart-warming to read his inscription to Mrs Smithson on her husband’s death.
I do hope you will join me in backing the Malton Dickensian Festival this Christmas. We have organised a fantastic arts and school engagement programme this year, but we can’t do it without your help. Please help us celebrate, and grow, this remarkable legacy
We look forward to working in partnership with you.