A New Discovery by Literary Scholars Highlights an Unexpected Inspiration
By Kevin Hartnett
The Industrial City of Lowell might seem a world apart from the fireside British scenes we associate with Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol.” In the 19th century, in vast new brick buildings along the Merrimack River, young women factory laborers toiled 12 hours a day spinning cotton into fabric, and went home to boarding houses in America’s first company town.
But what those women did in their spare time may very well have shaped one of the great works of holiday literature.
Dickens visited Lowell in 1842, touring the mills and taking notes for a travelogue he planned to write on American institutions. The next year, he published “A Christmas Carol.” The story was an immediate hit, selling out in a week, inspiring theater versions within months, and shaping how we think of Christmas to this day. Now, new research is suggesting that the book may have borrowed—quite liberally—from the amateur writings of the millworkers he visited.
After reading an obscure literary journal published by Lowell textile workers and comparing it to Dickens’s novella, a Boston University professor and student are arguing that some of the most memorable elements of Dickens’s story—the ghosts, the tour through the past, Scrooge’s sudden reconsideration of his life—closely resemble plot points in stories by the city’s “mill girls” that Dickens read after his visit.
The research was conducted by Natalie McKnight, professor of English and a dean at Boston University, and Chelsea Bray, an undergraduate at the time of the project who is now in graduate school at Boston College. Their argument—not yet their actual paper—has circulated only online so far, prompting some preliminary objections; they plan to publish it in an upcoming book about Dickens in Massachusetts. Once their paper is published, they’ll begin the work of defending their theory to a potentially skeptical scholarly community.
McKnight and Bray’s discovery appears to offer some surprising insights into a deeply familiar work. It expands the inspiration for one of the great holiday stories radically across continents, and introduces a completely unrecognized set of voices into the range of influences on Dickens.
The Lowell influence also adds a layer of complexity to a holiday fable, recasting it as not just a sentimental Victorian story of redemption and generosity, but also a wider-ranging social critique. In the new industrial city of Lowell, the young Dickens found a rebuke to Britain’s labor practices: Its mills and houses showed just how far behind Britain had fallen in its humanity toward workers, and the imaginative tales being produced by its workers may have become the framework for him to make just that argument. In this light, what we think of as a traditional Christmas story starts to look like something else: a globally informed complaint about fairness in a changing world.
CHARLES DICKENS WAS already a celebrity when he arrived by steamship in Boston Harbor on Jan. 22, 1842. Just 29 years old, he had already earned international fame for novels including “The Pickwick Papers,” “Oliver Twist,” and “Nicholas Nickleby.” Dickens had come to America to acquaint himself with the young country’s institutions, in the hope of writing a travelogue or perhaps finding material for a future novel.
As he recalled in his subsequent account of his tour, “American Notes,” during his first days in Boston, Dickens visited a number of Boston-area institutions, including the Perkins School for the Blind and a school in Boylston for neglected boys. Afterward he wrote glowingly, “I sincerely believe that the public institutions and charities of this capital of Massachusetts are as nearly perfect as the most considerate wisdom, benevolence, and humanity, can make them.”
Filled with good feeling for America, on Feb. 3, 1842, Dickens took the train from Boston to Lowell, through what he described as “Mile after mile of stunted trees.” He was interested in visiting the city’s textile mills to compare them to the mill he’d worked in as a boy and the squalid working conditions of laborers back home in England.
Right away he was struck by how different Lowell was. In “American Notes” he is nearly rhapsodic about how fresh the city appeared. Lowell had been incorporated 16 years earlier, but to Dickens it felt as if it had grown up in a day. He marveled at the new construction and the cleanliness of the working conditions.
But it was the mill girls who really caught his attention. He visited his first mill right after dinner, as the women were returning from their boarding houses to work. Dickens described them “thronged” along a staircase and gives the impression of having to brush past them as he ascended. He remarked on how well dressed they were, and their general appearance of health.
“Dickens was kind of a ladies’ man,” Bray says. “So I see him being very drawn to their intellectual nature, and so I think in turn they were probably very receptive to him.”
The brief encounter on the staircase might have been unremarkable but for what came next. Dickens returned to Boston that evening and brought back issues of The Lowell Offering, a monthly literary journal written by the same mill girls who’d made such an impression on him earlier that day. Later he described the journal as “four hundred good solid pages, which I have read from beginning to end.”
That the journal had been written by female factory workers was a revelation to Dickens, who saw industrial life in England as degrading.
“Within the mills he saw these women who not only retained their sense of agency, but who were also these intellectual beings producing this very creative endeavor,” says Bray.
IT WOULD BE EASY to dismiss Dickens’s praise of The Lowell Offering as the condescension of an already famous young author, except for two things. The writing is in fact good, says McKnight, and a close look at its contents suggests that Dickens’s appreciation may have gone beyond mere praise.
McKnight, a specialist in Dickens and Victorian literature, has been interested in Dickens’s trip to Lowell for some time. In 2012, while reading The Lowell Offering for a separate project, she noticed similarities between its essays and “A Christmas Carol,” which Dickens published 18 months after he returned from the United States. She asked Bray, who at the time was a senior English major at Boston University, to read through the same 400 pages Dickens had read, to see how deep the correspondence ran.
The Lowell Offering was a notably sentimental publication, in a way typical of its time. Many of its essays spoke to timeless ideas that also touched Dickens: about money not buying happiness, virtue being found in humble places, and the sustaining power of memory. Some pieces also addressed Christmas, invoking the power of the holiday as a time for personal transformation.
But as Bray, and later McKnight, read the stories closely, they started to encounter some particularly familiar-sounding details. “A Christmas Carol,” of course, is rife with ghosts: the ghost of Scrooge’s deceased partner, Marley, and the ghosts of Christmases Past, Present, and Future. Together these four phantoms help Scrooge see the wayward path he’s traveled, and prompt him to wake up reborn as a better man on Christmas Day.
Dickens had encountered that narrative trope in the stories written by the Lowell mill girls, who typically published either anonymously or under pseudonyms like “Dorothea” or “M.” In one anonymous story called “A Visit from Hope,” the narrator is “seated by the expiring embers of a wood fire” at midnight, when a ghost, an old man with “thin white locks,” appears before him. The ghost takes the narrator back to scenes from his youth, and afterward the narrator promises to “endeavor to profit by the advice he gave me.” Similarly, in “A Christmas Carol,” Scrooge is sitting beside “a very low fire indeed” when Marley’s ghost appears before him. And, later, after Scrooge has been visited by the ghosts of Christmases Past, Present, and Future, he promises, “The spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.”
The ghost-as-instructive-tour-guide motif appears in other pieces from The Lowell Offering as well. And while McKnight says that ghostly guides certainly have a history in literature—Dante’s guide through the Divine Comedy is the ghost of Virgil—the stories in The Lowell Offering represent the closest known precedent for the specific scenes and language in Dickens’s work.
In “Happiness,” published anonymously in May 1841, the narrator has a dream-vision in which she travels the world and observes that happiness only flourishes in humble places, like a small country cottage. The setup is echoed in “A Christmas Carol” when the Ghost of Christmas Present takes Scrooge to a miners’ hut, a lighthouse, and the Cratchit home, to show him that you don’t need money to have a merry Christmas.
The real emotional power of “A Christmas Carol,” and the reason we return to it year after year, is its message of redemption: in a single night, Scrooge turns his life around. Here, too, The Lowell Offering offered a precedent. In the essay “Memory and Hope,” written by a mill girl using the pen name Ellen, the narrator is visited by two spirits who offer competing visions of how she could live her life. After they’ve gone, the narrator promises to “never again covet the garland of fame,” but instead to “make myself more useful to my fellow creatures.” Scrooge makes a similarly triumphal statement at the end of “A Christmas Carol,” when he vows to become “as good a friend, as good a master, as good a man, as the old city knew.”
Despite the correspondences, not everyone agrees it’s an airtight case. A recent article about the claim on the Boston University website triggered a conversation on Dickns-L, an internet discussion board popular with Dickens scholars. One commenter posted that the inspiration for “A Christmas Carol” was simply the universally known story of Lazarus, the biblical figure raised from the dead. Another wrote that the seeds of “A Christmas Carol” could be found closer by, in a brief story inserted into “The Pickwick Papers,” which Dickens had written six years before he visited Lowell, and which the mill girls may well have read. That piece, a wry folktale called “The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton,” featured a gravedigger pulled down into the underworld on Christmas Eve by goblins. McKnight agrees that story played into “A Christmas Carol,” but says The Lowell Offering much more closely anticipates its tone, structure, and theme.
“There’s a way in which [the Lowell women] pulled together the supernatural elements, the Christmas setting, the sentiment, that theme of going back in time, and memory traveling through time—all of that’s there in The Lowell Offering,” says McKnight. “I think having all of that in one place was the catalyst for things coming together so perfectly in ‘A Christmas Carol.’”
Diana Archibald, a professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, is the co-editor of a forthcoming volume on Dickens in Massachusetts that will include a chapter by McKnight and Bray. She thinks the evidence that Lowell millworkers influenced Dickens is strong, and sees a degree of knee-jerk classism in challenges to it.
“It’s girls, right, let’s face it, it’s girls writing The Lowell Offering, and they influenced the great master, Charles Dickens? Of course there’s resistance to that,” she says.
THE WARM FEELINGS toward America that Lowell engendered in Charles Dickens didn’t last long. He went on to New York City, Niagara Falls, Washington, D.C., and the Mississippi River, and grew more disillusioned with each stop. He objected to American manners: People spit tobacco in public and mobbed him on the streets, literally plucking souvenir fur from his bearskin coat. He was horrified by slavery.
When “American Notes” was published in October 1842, it landed with a thud in the United States and angered many of Dickens’s American acquaintances, who felt he’d enjoyed their hospitality only to skewer their country when he got back home. One of the few positive reviews appeared in The Lowell Offering. “There is no individual from whom we should be more willing to receive rebuke than from him,” wrote millworker Harriet Jane Farley in January 1843. Farley also downplayed Dickens’s praise for the Lowell women in his book: While she and the girls were “proud of his approval,” she wrote, they feared that they “are not worthy of such flattering compliments.”
The Lowell women may have in fact earned more of Dickens’s esteem than they realized. Should he have offered them more credit? Looked at one way, the similarities between The Lowell Offering and “A Christmas Carol” suggest an uncomfortable picture of a privileged, world-renowned author appropriating the writing of poor, anonymous mill girls for his own fame and fortune.
That’s not how the scholars see it. Literary borrowing, even quite detailed borrowing, was accepted practice at the time—“It was just a different way of looking at things back then,” says Archibald. (“American Notes,” for instance, includes many pages of writing by the famed 19th-century physician Samuel Gridley Howe, all without attribution, and apparently without any thought by Dickens that he was doing something improper.)
McKnight, Bray, and Archibald believe that it may even say something positive about Dickens that he was so open to The Lowell Offering in the first place.
“To me, it’s really exciting that the greatest novelist in the 19th century in the English language drew a lot of inspiration from what a bunch of women factory workers wrote,” says McKnight. “I think it pays tribute to his kind of egalitarian impulses that he would be open to their work and take it seriously.”
Regardless of whether the scholarly community accepts McKnight and Bray’s claim, the mill girls themselves, so central to the story, are likely to remain hidden in history. Some Christmas stories we hear at this time of year have a particularly heart-rending theme—the idea of someone who’s poor trying to find a way to give a gift to someone who’s rich. You can imagine, then, the tale of what Dickens drew from Lowell’s hard-working writers as its own kind of Christmas story: the admiring mill girls, and the unlikely creative gift they gave to a great writer who may have never even realized he received it.