Posts Tagged ‘biographies of writers’

In the early morning hours of August 6, 1922, crime novelist Agatha Christie and her husband, Archie Christie, sailed into Honolulu, Hawaii, on the Makura and hailed a taxi.

On their drive to the Moana Hotel, they passed between palm trees and hedges of hibiscus, red, pink, and white oleanders, and blue plumbago. At their hotel, the sea washed right up to the courtyard steps on Waikiki Beach.

They checked into their rooms. From their window, they saw surfers catching waves to shore. They hurriedly changed into their swimsuits to rush down, hire surfboards, and plunge into the sea.

Surfers at Waikiki Beach, Honolulu. Aug./Sept. 1922. Photograph by Agatha Christie

Surfers at Waikiki Beach, Honolulu. Aug./Sept. 1922. Photograph from Christie Archive

brit emp exh 1924 stamppThey had been looking forward to that moment since leaving England eight months earlier. In the interim, the Christies had traveled three-quarters around the world as part of a government trade mission to drum up interest in the 1924 British Empire Exhibition. Their travels had taken them from England to South Africa (where they were introduced to surfing), Australia, and New Zealand. They now had a month-long holiday in Hawaii – all to themselves – before they would rejoin the mission in Canada.

Surfing was much different in Hawaii than it had been in South Africa. The most obvious difference was the surfboard. In South Africa, the boards were short, curved, and made of light and thin wood.

Agatha Christie and a young naval attaché named Ashby stand on Muizenberg Beach, South Africa, following surf bathing, Jan.-March 1922

Agatha Christie and a young naval attaché named Ashby stand on Muizenberg Beach, South Africa, following surf bathing, Jan.-March 1922. Photograph from the Christie Archive

In Hawaii, however, they were great slabs of wood, ridiculously long and even more ridiculously heavy, made even heavier by the fact that, to find a decent wave to catch, a person had to paddle the board a long, long way out from shore to a reef where the waves broke.

Agatha Christie with her Hawaiian surfboard. Aug./Sept. 1922

Agatha Christie with her Hawaiian surfboard. Aug./Sept. 1922. Photograph from the Christie Archive

In South Africa, the waves broke close to shore and were gentle.

Modern day surfing in Muizenberg, South Africa

Modern day surfing in Muizenberg, South Africa

Then there was the matter of what to do when you caught the right wave. In South Africa, surfers rode the wave on their stomachs. In Hawaii, they rode it standing up.

Spotting the right wave to catch was tricky. Agatha recalls:

First you have to recognize the proper wave when it comes, and, secondly, even more important, you have to know the wrong wave when it comes, because if that catches you and forces you down to the bottom, heaven help you….”

On that first day, Agatha indeed caught “the wrong wave.” She and her board were separated and she was forced far underwater. She swallowed “quarts of salt water” and arrived on the surface gasping for breath. A young American retrieved her board for her, saying:

‘Say, sister, if I were you, I wouldn’t come out surfing  today. You take a nasty chance if you do. You take this board and get right into shore now.'”

She took his advice and, in time, Archie joined her. They were bruised, scratched, exhausted, but not defeated. Agatha was determined to become expert at surfing.

The second time she went in the water, the waves tore her long, silk bathing dress off her body. She covered herself and went into the hotel gift shop where she bought a “wonderful, skimpy, emerald green wool bathing dress, which was the joy of my life, and in which I thought I looked remarkably well. Archie thought I did, too.”

Agatha Christie, sunburned and relaxed. Waikiki Beach, Honolulu, Aug./Sept. 1922. Photograph from Agatha Christie Collection

Agatha Christie, sunburned and relaxed. Waikiki Beach, Honolulu, Aug./Sept. 1922. Photograph from the Christie Archive

In a few days, they moved to a more economical chalet across the road. They spent all their time on the beach or in town drinking ice cream sodas and buying medicines for sunburn. They learned to wear shirts on the beach as their backs were covered with blisters from sunburn.

Their feet were cut to ribbons from the coral so they bought leather boots to wear in the water.

After ten days, Agatha’s skills on a surfboard were improving. After

starting my run, I would hoist myself carefully to my knees on the board, and then endeavor to stand up. The first six times, I came to grief….[but] Oh, the moment of complete triumph on the day that I kept my balance and came right into shore standing upright on my board!”

Because of such vigorous paddling, Agatha developed a strain in her left arm. The pain was excrutiating and would wake her in the early morning hours. Nevertheless, Agatha continued to surf because there was

Nothing like it. Nothing like that rushing through the water at what seems to you a speed of about two hundred miles an hour….until you arrived, gently slowing down, on the beach, and foundered among the soft, flowing waves.”

Researcher Peter Robinson from the Museum of British Surfing says that Agatha Christie is probably one of the first British “stand-up surfers,” along with Edward, the Prince of Wales, who also surfed in Waikiki in 1920 and went on to become King Edward VIII of England for a year. Not to be outdone, let me remind my readers that Agatha Christie is literary royalty, being revered as the Queen of Crime. In 1971, she was made a Dame of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace.

For more on Agatha Christie, click here.

Source: Christie, Agatha. The Grand Tour: Around the World with the Queen of Mystery. United Kingdom: HarperCollins Publishers, 2012

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Twelfth Night, celebrated on January 5 (and also called Epiphany Eve), is the traditional last day of the Christmas holiday festivities. It also marks the adoration of the Magi, and many cultures celebrate it as almost a second Christmas Eve. It marks the start of the Carnival Season which ends on Mardi Gras. Beginning in Tudor England (1485-1603), Twelfth Night was often commemorated with a large festive party - lots of cake and ale - to mark the end of the Winter Festival. William Shakespeare wrote his joyous comedy, "Twelfth Night, or, What You Will" (1600), to be performed at Twelfth Night feasts. The illustration shown here is William Harrison Ainsworth's "Mervyn Clithroe's Twelfth Night Party by 'Phiz'" (c 1840).

William Shakespeare’s high comedy, “Twelfth Night, or, What You Will,” (1600), centers on themes of love – unrequited love, lost love, secret love, fickle love. But another theme is also explored – carpe diem, or “seize the day.” The idea that we should embrace life and live it to the fullest and in the present was a very modern philosophy for Shakespeare (1564-1616) to tuck into a 17th Century play.  Plays during the Elizabethan Era were generally moralistic in nature, reflecting the prevailing Puritanism.  

Now let’s slip into a scene in “Twelfth Night” in which carpe diem is expressed:  

"Olivia" (1888) from "Twelfth Night" by Edmund Blair Leighton

detail from painting, "Twelfth-Night (The King Drinks)" 1634-40 by David the Younger Teniers show the Court Jester entertaining a crowd.

Act II, Scene iii opens in Olivia‘s vast house in dreamy Illyria on the Adriatic Coast. As Olivia is a rich noblewomen in step with the fashion of the day, she keeps a clown on staff whose name is Feste. Feste is a witty jester dressed in crazy clothes. His job is to say clever things, tell his mistress the truth (as would any decent court jester), and amuse her and her guests, who, at this moment, include her alcoholic uncle Sir Toby Belch and his drinking buddy, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, a bumbling knight who has his eye on Olivia for a bride.  

It is quite late at night when we join Sir Toby and Sir Andrew in the drawing room. They have been drinking quite a lot. By the time Feste the Clown joins them, they have gotten so noisy and stinking drunk, they are disturbing the peace of the sleeping household.   

"Twelfth Night, or, What You Will," Act II, Scene iii: (l to r) Feste the Clown, Sir Toby Belch, and Sir Andrew Aguecheek whoop it up with a drink and a song, rousing the household in the wee hours of the morning.

Both Sir Toby and Sir Andrew are in the mood to hear a song. Sir Toby gives Feste sixpence to sing a love song. Feste obliges. His beautiful song –  “O Mistress Mine” –  is an ode to free-spirited, impulsive, and delicious love. Life is short; you’ve got to grab joy when it’s within reach:  


O mistress mine, where are you roaming?

O, stay and hear! your true-love’s coming,

That can sing both high and low.

Trip no further, pretty sweeting,

Journeys end in lovers meeting—

Every wise man’s son doth know.


What is love? ’Tis not hereafter;

Present mirth hath present laughter;

What’s to come is still unsure:

In delay there lies no plenty;

Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty,

Youth’s a stuff will not endure.


(1) The Complete Pelican Shakespeare. New York: The Viking Press, 1969.

Readers, for more “Talk Like Shakespeare Today” posts, click here.

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American author and humorist Samuel Langhorne Clemens, well-known by his pen name of “Mark Twain,” served as a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi River until the American Civil War broke out in 1861. The Mark Twain image shown here adorns an early Twentieth Century cigar box. Mark Twain was beloved and enjoyed public goodwill all his days.

 I used to have a notion that there was only one place in the world where I could write,” American author Mark Twain once told a friend, “That was Elmira, where I used to spend all my summers. But I’ve got over that notion now. I find that I can write anywhere.” (1) 

Anywhere meant exactly that: anywhere. Twain didn’t even require a desk to write. As it turns out, Mark Twain (1835-1910), also known as Samuel Clemens, did a good deal of his writing in bed. Unlike many other authors who complained of the difficulty of the writing process, Twain did not find creative work difficult. 

Just try it in bed sometime. I sit up with a pipe in my mouth and a board on my knees, and I scribble away. Thinking is easy work, and there isn’t much labor in moving your fingers sufficiently to get the words down.” (1) 

In his old age, Mark Twain was often photographed in his heavenly bed, smoking away on a cigar or a pipe and writing.

Mark Twain writing in his heavenly bed.

While Twain had many houses in his lifetime and all of them special, he had but one favorite bed, which he kept with him all of his life.  He had bought it in 1878 in Venice, Italy, when he and his wife Olivia were furnishing their ridiculously- expensive three-story Victorian palace in a Hartford, Connecticut neighborhood known as “Nook Farm.” 

The Mark Twain House in the Hartford, Connecticut, community known as "Nook Farm." Mark Twain said of this house, "To us, our house . . . had a heart, and a soul, and eyes to see us with." (Mark Twain Wrote (and Smoked!) in Bed," Lisa's History Room)

The master bedroom at Nook Farm occupied its own wing on the second floor. The massive Venetian oak bed dominated the room. The bed was heavy and made of carved oak. It featured: 

a headboard carved into a bas-relief of cupids, nymphs and seraphs, the six-wing angels who guard God’s throne. [Twain] claimed he found it so sublime he had put the pillows down at the foot of the bed and slept backward so that this heavenly vision of worldly success would be the first thing he saw every day when he awoke.” (2) 

Mark Twain's carved oak bed. ("Mark Twain Wrote (and Smoked!) in Bed," Lisa's History Room)

It was in this bed that Twain died. (3) The bed remains the most famous furnishing of the Mark Twain House in Hartford, Connecticut. This house proved so costly to furnish and maintain that it drove Twain into bankruptcy in 1891. He was forced to go on tour in Europe to raise funds.

Mark Twain and family at Nook Farm

However foolhardy the house was, it was during those spendthrift years at Nook Farm that Twain wrote many of his best-known and most-loved works, probably while smoking in his favorite heavenly bed: 

  • The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876),
  •  The Prince and the Pauper (1881),
  •  Life on the Mississippi (1883),
  •  Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), and
  • A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889). (2)

(1) “How Mark Twain Writes in Bed. The New York Times, April 12, 1902. 

(2) Wolfe, Tom. “Faking West, Going East.” The New York Times, April 24, 2010.
(3) Power, Ron. Mark Twain: A Life. New York: Free Press, 2005.

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"Benjamin Franklin," by Charles Willson Peale, 1785. Franklin was alive when Peale painted this portrait; he would live another 5 years, dying in 1790 at the age of 84. Franklin wrote a mock epitaph for himself in doggerel verse. (Lisa's History Room)

At the age of 28,  Benjamin Franklin wrote this mock epitaph. (1) Over the years, he wrote different versions and passed them out to friends. 

The Body of

 B. Franklin, Printer;

Like the Cover of an old Book,

Its Contents torn out,

And stript of its Lettering and Gilding,

Lies here, Food for Worms.

But the Work shall not be wholly lost:

For it will, as he believ’d, appear once more,

In a new & more perfect Edition,

Corrected and amended

By the Author. 

It is interesting to note that Franklin (1706-1790) – Founding Father of the United States of America, foreign diplomat, statesman, author, soldier, scientist, author, inventor, printer – a true Renaissance man, a polymath – chose to refer to himself simply as a “printer” and liken his dead body to an old book:

“The Body of B. Franklin, Printer; Like the Cover of an old Book, Its Contents torn out, And stript of its Lettering and Gilding, Lies here, Food for Worms.”

Benjamin Franklin loved books. He was very smart. Soon after he learned how to talk, he taught himself how to read. It soon became his favorite pasttime. (2) But there were no lending libraries in his hometown of Boston. There were ten bookstores there, but books were expensive and hard to come by, as most of them came from Europe. And there were really no children’s stories. Benjamin’s father – a soap and candle maker – did not have many books at home, only serious religious diatribes and the Bible. No matter; Benjamin read them anyway. 

Engraving based on "The Young Franklin" by E. Wood Perry, showing Benjamin Franklin working a press in his brother's shop in Boston where he worked from 1718-1723.

Because Benjamin was so bookish, his father apprenticed him to a printer – Benjamin’s brother, James. At age 12, Benjamin reluctantly signed a contract to work for nine years, in exchange for room, board, and a little salary. Although he hated working for James, printing turned out to be Benjamin’s true calling. In the print shop, he came into contact with citizens who had private libraries in their homes. He made friends with these men and borrowed their books. He formed friendships with other “bookish lads.”

He also read books that were freshly printed in his brother’s shop. At the end of a workday, Benjamin often would take the new books home with him and stay up all night reading. The next day, he handed them over to customers, fresh and clean, none the worse for wear.

Benjamin read a book on vegetarianism and decided to become a vegetarian. In this way, he learned to eat cheaply –

“no more than a biscuit or a slice of bread, a handful of raisins, or a tart from the pastry-cook’s, and a glass of water…” (3)

 so he could spend part of his food allowance on books and thus build a book collection of his own. He wrote:

“From a child I was fond of reading, and all the little money that came into my hands was ever laid out in books.” (3)

At age 17,  Benjamin was tired of working for his brother James and ran off to Philadelphia, seeking a fresh start in a new city. He found work as a printer and formed a circle of friends who liked to argue and read books. The group was called the Junto. It was through the Junto that, in 1731 in Philadelphia, Franklin founded the first subscription library in America.

(1) Autograph ms: Yale University Library

(2) Adler, David A. B. Franklin, Printer. New York: Holiday House, 2001.

(3) The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.

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MERRY-GO-ROUND by Langston Hughes (1902-1967)

colored child at carnival:


Where is the Jim Crow section
On this merry-go-round,
Mister, cause I want to ride?
Down South where I come from
White and colored
Can’t sit side by side.

Down South on the train
There’s a Jim Crow car.
On the bus we’re put in the back–
But there ain’t no back
To a merry-go-round!

Where’s the horse
For a kid that’s black?

It wasn’t like young Langston Hughes to get into trouble. But, in 1914, when his seventh-grade teacher moved him and the other African-American students into a separate row in class, he got angry. So he put cards that read “JIM CROW ROW” on the black kids’ desks. He was soon expelled. But a protest rose up among the parents and Langston was eventually allowed to return to school. He had fought back and won a victory: separate seating in his school was no longer permitted.

Although Langston Hughes attended school with whites in Kansas, he wasn't allowed to play sports of join clubs. Signs throughout town read: "No Coloreds Allowed" and facilities for whites and blacks were separate. This anti-black caste system was known as Jim Crow Laws and operated mostly in the Southern United States between 1877 and the mid-1960s. It was used to keep blacks as second-class citizens.

Readers, you might also enjoy: Langston Hughes: When Sue Wears Red.

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Langston Hughes (1902-1967)

Langston Hughes (1902-1967) was an African-American poet, novelist, columnist, short story writer, and playwright. His exceptional literary talents were recognized early in life; he was elected class poet at his Lincoln, Illinois elementary school.

Langston Hughes scoffed at the “honor” of the position:

“I was a victim of a stereotype. There were only two of us Negro kids in the whole class and our English teacher was always stressing the importance of rhythm in poetry. Well, everyone knows — except us — that all Negroes have rhythm, so they elected me as class poet.” 

Langston is best associated with the American literary movement known as the Harlem Renaissance (1920s-1930s)  and was one of the pioneers of a new literary form, jazz poetry.

Langston wrote his first jazz poem when he was in high school in Cleveland: “When Sue Wears Red.” Here it is:

When Sue Wears Red


When Susanna Jones wears red

Her face is like an ancient cameo

Turned brown by the ages.

Come with a blast of trumpets, Jesus!


When Susanna Jones wears red

A queen from some time-dead Egyptian night

Walks once again.

Blow trumpets, Jesus!


And the beauty of Susanna Jones in red

Burns in my heart a love-fire sharp like pain.

Sweet silver trumpets, Jesus!

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Sonnet #130 by William Shakespeare

Pass the breath mints! 

The Bard paints an unflattering portrait of his mistress.


My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;

Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;

If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun [brown],

If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.

I have seen roses damasked [mingled red and white], red and white,

But no such roses see I in her cheeks;

And in some perfumes is there more delight

Than in the breath than from my mistress reeks.

I love to hear her speak; yet well I know

That music hath a far more pleasing sound:

I grant I never saw a goddess go [walk];

My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground.

     And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare

    As any she belied [deceived] with false compare [comparison].

Readers: For more “Talk Like Shakespeare Today” posts, click here.

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Walt Whitman, the American poet, photographed in Camden, New Jersey, 1887

from “Song of Myself”

by Walt Whitman (1819-1892)


I think I could turn and live with animals,

they are so placid and self-contain’d,

I stand and look at them long and long.


They do not sweat and whine about their condition,

They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,

They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,


Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things,

Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago,

Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.

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Charles Dickens at writing desk

By the time Charles Dickens turned ten, his family had lived in six different houses, each poorer than the one before. Although Charles’ father John Dickens was employed as a clerk in the Navy Pay Office, he lived well beyond his means. Plus, the family kept growing; there were eight children in all, which meant many mouths to feed.

Then, in 1822, John Dickens was transferred to London and the family followed. Things went rapidly downhill. John Dickens was soon in debt up to his eyeballs. He informed Charles that he no longer could afford to send him to school. This broke Charles’ heart. The headmaster at his school had already recognized Charles’ special intelligence and imagination and Charles wanted to be a man of letters.

To pay the butcher and the baker, Charles was sent with armloads of books to sell at the pawnshop. Charles was humiliated and heartbroken. Gone were the wonderful hours in his little attic room in Chatham, reading tales of heroes like Robinson Crusoe and Peregrine Pickle. Now he was forced to part with his beloved stories, his only escape from the drudgery of his life. The books were soon followed by all the household goods, sold in an attempt to pay off the family’s debts, and keep John Dickens out of debtors’ prison.

In this 1840 engraving, 'Love Conquered Fear,' fictional character Michael Armstrong, a boy adopted by the mill owner, is shown embracing his brother Edward who is one of the ragged factory boys working amongst the spinning mules. By Michael's foot, a child can be seen crawling out from under a mule, employed to keep the floor under the mules dust and fiber free to minimise risk of fire. These poor boys often suffered horrific injuries when crushed by the moving machinery. From Frances Trollope's ''The Life and Adventures of Michael Armstrong'' London 1840.

Then, in “an evil hour for me,” Charles was offered work at Warren’s Blacking Factory at six shillings a week, or about $1.40.  Charles’ parents jumped at the offer. Charles remembers:

It is wonderful [shocking] to me how I could have been so easily cast away at such an age….My mother and father were quite satisfied. They could hardly have been more so if I had been twenty years of age, distinguished at a grammar-school, and going to Cambridge.”

No one – no neighbors, friends, or family members reached out to save Charles from this terrible fate. So, on Feb. 9, 1824, at the tender age of twelve, he entered the business world to earn wages for the family. From eight in the morning until eight at night, six days a week, Charles worked alongside rough boys in a dark room covering pots of boot polish and gluing on labels.  The work conditions were appalling:

“The blacking-warehouse was the last house on the left-hand side of the way, at old Hungerford Stairs. It was a crazy, tumble-down old house, abutting of course on the river, and literally overrun with rats. Its wainscoted rooms, and its rotten floors and staircase, and the old gray rats swarming down in the cellars, and the sound of their squeaking and scuffling coming up the stairs at all times, and the dirt and decay of the place,rise up visibly before me, as if I were there again. The counting-house was on the first floor, looking over the coal-barges and the river.”

 Victorian children are shown working in a cotton mill. At the beginning of British Queen Victoria’s reign (1837), many children worked in factories for cheap wages. Some workers were as young as five. Few citizens questioned the practice of employing children at the time as there were no laws to protect them. The novels of British author Charles Dickens (1812-1870) with their depiction of poverty did much to bring about positive social change and improve the living conditions of the poor.
Then, two weeks later, John Dickens was arrested and thrown into Marshalsea Prison, where he had to stay until his debts were paid. Charles’ mother and his seven siblings were allowed to live there with him, everyone living in one room, except, alas, Charles. The blacking factory was too far from the prison for Charles to get back before the gates were shut at night. Charles was sent to live in a cheap boarding house. After work he wandered the dark streets of the big city, utterly alone, totally miserable, shabbily dressed, anticipating a dinner of bread and cheese in an empty room.
Those days were so crushingly painful for Charles that, years later, when he was a grown man with a family of his own, he could not walk those same streets without being reduced to tears. As a writer, Dickens filled his books with people and places from those bitter days, offering a social commentary that improved the lives of the poor. The novel Oliver Twist (1839), for example, shocked readers with its depiction of poverty and crime in Jacob’s Island, resulting in an actual clearing of the slum.

For more on Victorian child labor, click here.

Readers: For more on Charles Dickens, scroll down the right sidebar: Categories/People/Charles Dickens. Enjoy!

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Old Fezziwig's Christmas Eve Ball from "A Christmas Carol" by Charles Dickens (1843)

The Morgan Library and Museum in Manhattan owns the entire handwritten manuscript of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. The 66-page manuscript written in 1843 bears all of Dickens’ edits in his own hand. “He worked on it with loving care, doing much more rewriting than usual.” (1) The original story is written in light blue ink. Edits are in thick, black ink.

One edit is visible on page 12, where Scrooge encounters Marley’s ghost, and chalks up the vision to indigestion. Dickens originally wrote “a spot of mustard” then changed it to read: a “blot of mustard.”

The manuscript is exhibited each holiday season but, alas, only one page is put on view each year, under glass. This year, however, the Morgan has allowed the New York Times to photograph and display the entire handwritten treasure online at


The Morgan challenges readers to go online and study the manuscript and submit what they think is the most interesting edit in the work. The contestant judged to have submitted the most intriguing edit will be invited as the newspaper’s guest to afternoon tea at the Morgan.

What motivated Charles Dickens to write his classic holiday ghost story?

“At the time A Christmas Carol was written, Dickens feared for his future. He had six children to feed, a large house in London to maintain, and a lavish lifestyle. Christmas was approaching.

Yet Martin Chuzzlewit, the work he was then producing, a few chapters at a time, was not selling as well as earlier installments of The Pickwick Papers or Nicholas Nickleby. Bitterly, he confided to a friend that his bank account was bare….

Conjuring up what Dickens himself described as a “ghost of an idea,”…he got to work. The 6,000 copies printed in time for Christmas sold out. But because he had splurged on hand-colored drawings by John Leech, one of England’s leading illustrators, the project was a financial bust.

Fortunately for Dickens, his quickie book went on to become a classic.” (2)

(1) Stanley, Diane and Vennema, Peter. Charles Dickens: The Man Who Had Great Expectations. New York: Morrow Junior Books, 1993.

(2) “Dickens the Editor To Dickens the Writer: Make it Sell.” The New York Times. A29. December 2, 2009.

Readers: Check out these other related posts:

“Dickens: Marley’s Ghost” 

“Grip the Raven” about Dickens’ pet raven

“Nellie Bly: Charles Dickens’ Visit to Blackwell Island Asylum 1842”

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