“But you were always a good man of business,” faltered Scrooge.
We’re all familiar with Ebenezer Scrooge—angry, cynical, obsessed with counting the coins on his desk, while ensuring those around him are as miserable as he pretends not to be—sounds like a writer to those of us on the Dark Side—and reimagined by thousands of minds over the course of a hundred years or more. He is arguably the most popular of Charles Dickens’ characters and also, in my opinion, the most autobiographical.
Jump in my time machine not at all resembling a TARDIS for copyright reasons and follow me to Victorian London. It’s Christmastime. Carolers’ voices echo along cobblestone roads, punctuated by the rapturous moans coming from the Red Light District. The stench of warm horse-shirt permeates the air. Charles Dickens hunches over a dark-wood writing desk, penning what will, in a few short months, become A Tale of Two Cities.
Ah, there it is. The spark of recognition. No doubt you were forced to read this brick-like novel of the French Revolution in high school. You vaguely remember the names Sydney and Lucy Something-or-other. There was a lot of blood. War. You didn’t hate it as much as the Iliad. That was some fresh hell, wasn’t it?
But it’s not the plot, nor even the characters, of A Tale of Two Cities that makes Dickens the original Scrooge.
It’s the money.
A Tale of Two Cities is one of the top selling novels of all time, with total sales hitting over two hundred million copies. I credit my ninth grade English teacher, Mrs. White. For comparison, the entire Harry Potter Series (that’s seven novels in all) has sold around four hundred million copies. How did a two hundred year old novel manage to give the cash-queen J.K. Rowling a run for her money? He got a head start.
A Tale of Two Cities was first published in thirty-one weekly installments from April to November 1859 in Dickens’ own periodical, All Year Round. Dickens was one of the first self-pubbers. He didn’t share royalties with a publisher; he didn’t even pay tax on his writing because All Year Round didn’t feature any actual news, not unlike the Fox Network. The periodicals ran for two pence each.
Not a lot of cash, right? But that was only the beginning.
Dickens was already pretty popular by this time, having published Sketches by Boz and The Pickwick Papers, which were both pretty widely received. The Victorians were plagued by morality—what else was there to do but read and pretend to not be having “relations” ever?
During the same span of time, All Year Round featured a separate monthly installment, which compiled A Tale of Two Cities into three-chapter bunches and included engravings by a guy named Knight Browne. Browne went by Phiz, which is probably the best nickname ever, thought I don’t know why he wouldn’t just go by Knight. In my next life, I want to be named Knight. So it is written, so it shall be done. These monthly installments were sold for a shilling.
(It should be noted here that Dickens is considered to be the modern inventor of the cliff hanger. Dig through those boxes in the garage and find that stupid annotated copy of A Tale of Two Cities and read the last paragraph of each third chapter. Notice something?)
But Dickens wasn’t done there, oh no. There was money to be had and people, anxious to own what was becoming the most popular novel of its day, wanted to own the story in its entirety. So, after All Year Round had run its course of A Tale of Two Cities installments, Dickens sold the novel in two volumes, each costing five shillings and six pence. To own the entire novel, you had to buy both, which people did in droves.
Taking notes yet?
After those had all sold, A Tale of Two Cities was finally bound (in flimsy, smudgy paper) and sold for eight shillings. A deal, right? Before, you had to pay more than ten shillings for the novel. This was a goddamn blue-light special, aisle five!
If you close your eyes, you can hear the gentle trill of Dickens’ laughter.
Soon, these terrible printings fell apart. Readers clamored for something better. Being a writer for readers, Dickens obliged.
A Tale of Two Cities was finally bound in leather and adorned with all of the golden inlay that hardcore book collectors love. Readers, who could afford them, devoured these copies, displaying them proudly on the same bookshelves that held Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (brilliant man, not so market savvy).
For those not keeping count, Dickens sold the same novel to what was most likely the same people five times, and he laughed all the way to the bank—or to his nineteen-year-old Mistress, Ellen Ternman’s, purse, depending on who you believe.
Let’s see E.L. James or Stephanie Meyer try to do that.
Oh, wait. *Eyeballs copies of GREY on Target bookshelves.*
Merry Christmas to all, and to all a well-thought-out book-selling con.