At the end of the most famous Christmas ghost story ever, Tiny Tim exclaims, “God bless us, every one!” He encompasses Scrooge in his benediction, for the old miser has had a complete change of heart—maybe even a transplant—after having the bejesus scared out of him by a trio of phantoms. Probably not included in Tiny Tim’s final words were Messrs. Richard Lee, John Haddock, and Henry Hewitt, a trio of literary pirates who kept ripping Charles Dickens off.
During the tender youth of international copyright law, the wildly popular Dickens was constantly trying to get ahead of unscrupulous publishers, on both sides of the Atlantic. When Lee and Haddock’s London twopenny weekly, Parley’s Illuminated Library, published a pirated version of A Christmas Carol under the byline of Hewitt, Dickens had had enough. He sued. When he eventually won in court, he wrote in celebration: “[T]he pirates are beaten flat. They are bruised, bloody, battered, smashed, squelched, and utterly undone.”
Not quite. Parley’s never did publish the next installment of their version, called simply “Christmas Ghost Story,” but the pirate crew got out of any damages by claiming bankruptcy. The experience ended up costing Dickens’s hundreds of pounds and much aggravation. His unhappy engagement with the law would inform his novel Bleak House, written a few years later. In that masterwork, the ominous Court of Chancery is a corrupt institution where cases linger for years, lawyers grow fat, and justice is never served.
The literary scholar Michael Hancher describes Parley’s as being made up of “mainly reworded abridgments of popular works of the day.” Lee and Haddock called what they published “re-originated” stories. Hancher calls that “a nicely original word for the process of piracy.” Parley’s had already pirated Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge before “re-originating” A Christmas Carol.
This legal “debacle,” as Hancher calls it, has been discussed for years by Dickens scholars and legal historians. What hasn’t been available, however, were actual copies of the January 6th, 1844, issue of Parley’s. Of a print run of 50,000, barely any survived into the twentieth century. Most people who wrote about Dickens’s legal tribulations never saw the offending publication. Hancher, however, managed to track down a bound copy in the Bodleian Library. It had originally been collected and donated by the famed folklorists Iona and Peter Opie.
Dickens claimed in court that his work was travestied by Parley’s. In an affidavit, Hewitt countered that he’d improved the original. Hancher, likening the publication to a kind of shady Reader’s Digest, gives a measured opinion: “if young people find descriptions boring they will be less bored by Hewitt than by Dickens.”
But what intrigues Hancher most of all are the margins of the Parley’s pages. They are simply crawling with words. Maxims and poetic quotations run along the top, bottom, and sides of the central block of text. This style of layout was not original to Parley’s. It was instead a growing trend in the burgeoning children’s literature market. Such commentary had a “missionary function: by sampling, they recommend great works of literature.” Does it also smack of the postmodern, a paper hypertext avant la letter? Hancher suggests so:
The decorative frame of arresting maxims and discursive poems in the margins gave the reader something else to think about, moral, canonical, or sentimental, should her mind wander from the center of the page. Rhizomatic, paratextual, decentered, digressive, recycled, and unauthorized, Parley’s Illuminated Library is a book that we can appreciate, though Dickens could not.
Modern readers may also appreciate that the tribulations of Dickens v. Lee and related legal actions were interwoven into a much more complex work than A Christmas Carol. Bleak House, powered by Dickens’s reformist fires, doesn’t seem ever to have been “re-originated” for the juvenile market.