Podcast #41: Neil Gaiman Reads "A Christmas Carol"

By Tracy O'Neill, Social Media Curator
December 22, 2015

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Even huge Charles Dickens fans may not know that A Christmas Carol is organized in five stanza-like sections called "staves." They might not know the author's only surviving "prompt" copy of the book, that is, Dickens's own annotated version used for live readings, is held at the New York Public Library. But it's without a doubt that Neil Gaiman gives one of the greatest deliveries of the classic holiday tale. Made up to resemble a nineteenth century man by Jeni Ahlfeld, the author was transformed for a performance at the New York Public Library, and his engaging reading captured the liveliness of Dickens' prose. And so, as is our NYPL holiday tradition, we're sharing Gaiman's delightful performance of A Christmas Carol. We hope you enjoy it as part of your family tradition too.

Neil Gaiman Christmas Carol

Gaiman was joined by BBC researcher and author Molly Oldfield, who revealed a little known fact about Dickens: The author was a great lover of cats, so much so, that he even used a macabre feline letter opener. Oldfield explained:

"New York was the first place I visited when I decided to write The Secret Museum. The Library's Berg Collection of English and American Literature was kind enough to show me some of their literary treasures that belonged to one of England's greatest writers: Charles Dickens. We're really lucky that the object I wrote about in The Secret Museum is on display today... it's a letter opener, a very special feline letter opener made out of the paw of Dickens's beloved pet cat Bob. Now, Dickens had at least three cats. The first one was called William until Dickens realized that actually she's a girl and renamed her Williamina. Williamina had kittens, and Dickens kept one which he called The Master's Cat that used to snuff out his candle to catch his attention. A third cat was called Bob, after Bob Cratchit, Scrooge's overworked clerk in A Christmas Carol. When dear Bob passed on in 1863, Dickens's sister-in-law realized that Dickens was so upset, so she had one of Bob's little paws, which once padded around the author's lap, immortalized as a letter opener, which Dicken's kept at his side at Gad's Hill as he wrote and used every morning to open his mail."

As eccentric as his letter-opening habits may have been, Dickens was a great orator. Oldfield described his use of the prompt copy at two readings in New York City as nearly rockstar-like:

"Now Dickens used this rare Christmas treasure here in New York at Christmastime in two performances in 1867. The first performance was at a Steinway piano display hall on East 14th Street and the second at a church in Brooklyn. People lined up in the snow for tickets. Some even slept outside for a spot in the crowd. And the queue by opening time was a mile long... Now the way that Dickens liked to prepare for one of his readings was to drink two tablespoons of rum mixed with cream for breakfast, a pint of champagne for tea, and half an hour before he went on stage he would knock back a sherry with a raw egg beaten into it."

To hear Gaiman recite A Christmas Carol with the annotations Dickens himself used, listen to the rest of this special holiday podcast episode. As the Ghost of Christmas Present might say, you have never seen the like of Gaiman's Dickens rendition before. 

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