“I am getting to like Dickens.”

Lavinia Goodell, March 1, 1866

At this time of year many people have a tradition of either reading A Christmas Carol or watching one of the many screen adaptations. From 1867 until she moved to Janesville, Wisconsin in 1871, Lavinia Goodell worked at Harper’s Bazar, a fashion magazine that was part of the prestigious Harper & Brothers publishing empire. Harpers had many well-known writers in its stable, including A Christmas Carol’s author, Charles Dickens.

Charles Dickens

Lavinia Goodell was an avid reader and her letters often mentioned her current reading choice. She mentioned Dickens multiple times.  In 1862 she reported that she had finished reading Pickwick Papers and planned to read Great Expectations when time permitted. In 1866 she praised David Copperfield, saying “really am quite interested in it. It is better than anything else of his I ever read.” (In the summer of 1867 for some reason Lavinia seemed less enchanted with the British author, telling her sister that she liked Thackeray “even less than Dickens, though he doesn’t indulge so much in low characters.”)

Not long after Lavinia began working for the Harper brothers, Dickens came to the United States to give a series of readings. His tour began in Boston and then moved to New York, where papers carried stories about him almost daily. Tickets were highly prized, and scalpers rushed to buy the best seats and then resell them for as much as $50. (Dickens was paid handsomely for his tour. The Independent newspaper reported that he would receive not less than two hundred thousand dollars for his American sojourn, “a snug sum for a man to earn behind the fringes of a velvet desk, with a smile on his face, and a rosette in his button-hole.”) Audiences apparently felt they were getting good value for their money. Dickens would come on stage, stand at a small desk, and read from one or two of his novels.

Sketch of Dickens reading from his works

A Christmas Carol was, not surprisingly, one of his selections. A review in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle said:

The touching carol told many years since … is familiar to most of us. Old Scrooge with his grumps and sours, his stingy heart and horny hand, his dead partner and his dreams, his mysterious flights through mid-air, and all the softening of hand and heart that followed…. All those were imprinted on willing memories years ago, and for the good influence radiating thence the world around, we thanked and loved the author. With such a theme, so full of wit and humor, so permeated with graceful allusions to the happy holiday, so thoroughly perfumed with humanity and benevolence, so apt in characterization, so grasping in its hold on everyday life, a practiced elocutionist could not fail to delight an audience.

Lavinia’s parents, who were living in Connecticut, read the daily newspapers and kept up on goings-on in the city. In late December 1867, Lavinia received a letter from her mother saying:

I had seen enough in the papers about Dickens to satisfy me that he is not quite the apostle Paul for meekness, humility, although he drew many more hearers no doubt than the apostle would have done … could he have come among us. I consider it about the same as going to the theater. Sarah [Lavinia’s cousin]  says she would be willing to get five dollars to hear him. I can conclude you would let us know if you had spent five dollars so foolishly.  If you were invited to go hear Dickens I should expect you would go.

Lavinia was apparently interested in seeing the author but social norms prohibited her from doing so. Eugene Exman’s book The House of Harper states:

Dickens arrived for his second American visit in mid-November [1867] and his five month tour … brought adulation for the man and clamor for tickets to his readings. His January readings in New York were missed by a young Harper editor, Miss Lavinia Goodell, who lacked a male escort; however, she was consoled by her bosses. One said Dickens could be heard only a little way from the platform and another commented that he shouldn’t care to hear him again. Miss Goodell had read in the papers that he would call at the office. He did come and for fifty years afterward authors were told, as they climbed the circular iron stairway, that they were following in Dickens’ footsteps.

Unfortunately Exman provides no citation for the source of his intelligence about Lavinia’s efforts to see Dickens, and Lavinia’s surviving correspondence  does not mention being barred from going to Dickens’ performance alone or whether she ever saw the author at Harpers’ offices. This is a pity since one can imagine that Lavinia would have had strong words about the foolishness of banning single women from attending an author’s readings, and if she did subsequently meet the great man, her candid observations about him would also be fascinating.

Sources consulted: Eugene Exman, The House of Harper (Harper & Row, 1967);  Lavinia Goodell’s letters to Maria Frost (November 12, 1862; March 1, 1866; June 1867 (estimated)) Lavinia Goodell’s letter to Clarissa and William Goodell (August 12, 18620; Clarissa Goodell’s letter to Lavinia Goodell (December 27, 1867); New-York Tribune (December 11, 1867); Brooklyn Daily Eagle (January 17, 1868); The Independent (December 19, 1867).

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