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It’s an NYPL podcast holiday tradition: a reading of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” by novelist, screenwriter, and comic book creator extraordinaire, Neil Gaiman, that happened here in 2013. Gaiman delivered a performance worthy of Dickens himself—who was by all accounts a sensational performer of his own material—all while transformed into a Dickens lookalike at the hands of makeup artist Jeni Ahlfeld. What made Gaiman’s reading particularly special was that the text he use is an extremely rare version of "A Christmas Carol," which just so happens to call The New York Public Library its home.
Dickens reading in the final months of his life.
It’s called a prompt copy. It’s a version marked up and annotated for the very purpose of reading the story aloud, and the copy we have is Dickens’ own. Dickens’ performances of his works date to the early 1850s, when he was already quite successful, and lasted up until the final months of his life in 1870. He toured England, Ireland, Scotland, played in Paris, and even brought the show to the States. His last American performance was in New York City, at Steinway Hall, in 1868. Dickens had acted in the theater throughout much of his life, even into his career as a prominent writer, and brought that training and experience to his readings. He’d appear on stage illuminated by gaslamps and would stand at a reading desk he had specially made for his appearances. Though he had the book for reference, it was also said he memorized the work as if acting in the theater. As the notes and stage directions in the prompt copy indicate, Dickens actually acted these stories. One critic wrote at the time that his ability to inhabit each character was, “completely assumed and individualised…as though he was personating it in costume on the stage.”
The New York Public Library has more 1,200 items in its collection of Dickens material, much of it in the Berg Collection. It includes manuscripts, letters, diaries, portraits, and a letter opener fashioned from the paw of Dickens’ deceased cat Bob. You can look see most of the incredible material by visiting our digital collections.
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