Listen: Neil Gaiman Reads "A Christmas Carol"

By NYPL Staff
December 19, 2019
Charles Dickens Neil Gaiman

Charles Dickens, Neil Gaiman

To celebrate the 175th anniversary of the Dickens' classic—and to keep the holiday tradition alive—we're sharing  this very special reading of A Christmas Carol by novelist,  and comic book creator, Neil Gaiman, that happened at NYPL 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.

Charles Dickens reading

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.

Charles Dickens prompt copy and Neil Gaiman

Charles Dickens's prompt copy, and Neil Gaiman reading from it

Gaiman was introduced 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."