A Christmas Carol
Charles Clark lived through the invention and solidification of the festive season as we know it today. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert would popularize the Christmas tree in the late 1840s, while the earliest greeting cards were in production in the middle of that decade. Gift giving also became popular, and though he does not record his habits in his letters to his bookseller, Clark certainly acknowledges the increased association with the exchange of presents when he remarks to Russell Smith on 14 January 1839: “As you guessed, your last letter was one after our heart – it was the most acceptable Christmas-box I received ‘to-year!’ and I heartily thank you for your laborious production”. It is perhaps the traditional Christmas carol, however, that found a special place in the hearts of the Victorians. They revived older carols and were fond of importing new ones. It should not surprise us that Clark particularly engages with books that are dedicated to older, traditional seasonal songs, and that his mentions of Christmas in this batch of letters are almost exclusively connected to, well, books!
We know by now that Clark had a fondness for antiquarian texts and volumes, and that he had a sort of hire-purchase arrangement with his bookseller, John Russell Smith of 4 Old Compton Street in Soho. This enabled him to buy books at full price and then return them used to the shop. He received a percentage of the original price for the used book, and he then used these funds of off-set his (sometimes considerable) account with Russell Smith. Clark ordered a volume that he calls ‘Christmas Carols’ on 1 February 1842, paying 3/- (or, in today’s money, about £6.60, calculated using the National Archives Currency Converter). This volume was Specimens of Old Christmas Carols
Selected from Manuscripts and Printed Books, compiled by Thomas Wright for The Percy Society in 1841 (see http://www.hymnsandcarolsofchristmas.com/Hymns_and_Carols/Notes_On_Carols/wright-specimens_of_old_christmas_carols.htm).
The letters that survive from Clark to Russell Smith frequently preserve the hand of the latter in the margins of booklists where he calculates the price that he will let Clark have for each returned volume. Its tempting to imagine him as a Scrooge-like figure, taking an oily pencil to the immaculate letters of Clark and reckoning the best outcome for himself. But we know that the men were on the best of terms and that the bookseller often sent surprise items as gifts to Clark, and worked tirelessly to search for books that Clark desired. Thus when the volume of carols was returned to London on 14 December 1842, Russell Smith gave Clark a generous price of 1/6 for it. Clark was also interested in Wright’s 1847 publication Songs and Carols Now First Printed, From a Manuscript of the Fifteenth Century (The Percy Society). On 2 February 1848 he declared himself to be ‘very pleased with the contents of Mr. Wright’s “Songs and Carols”, but by 6 April that same year he returned it “by rail”, earning 2/ for the used copy.
Clark and his acquaintances may not have celebrated Christmas quite like we do today. We tend to go on holiday proper, suspending work and sometimes trade. It was altogether a more simple affair for the Clarks, characterized perhaps by attendance at Church services, visits to the homes of neighbours, and some few little indulgences to brighten up the dull midwinter period. Life, trade and work went on, even in the depths of the darkest season. On Christmas Eve Clark writes to Russell Smith to withdraw an order of the Monthly Review citing financial concerns: “What wintery weather it has become! – I can add that I wish you a merry Christmas – I fear trade is not calculated to make you exactly so” (24 December 1849). But it was still a hugely important, symbolic time. We like to imagine Clark and his family gathered over a cheery glass of wine, perhaps at the home of their good friend and neighbour Rev. Gower. And we imagine, too, that Clark would have delighted the gathering with several renditions of those beautiful carols.