fited the Birmingham and Midland Institute, an educational center that
would be formally established by Parliament the following year. (Dickens
was a lifelong philanthropist who championed many progressive social
and educational causes. In the mid-1840s, he and Angela Burdett-Coutts
established Urania Cottage, which provided housing and vocational
training for women who had formerly supported themselves through
prostitution.) For the Birmingham and Midland Institute, Dickens had
pledged £500 to be raised through charity readings. He chose A Christmas Carol, which was seasonally appropriate, one of his most popular
books, and among the shortest. But at nearly thirty thousand words,
it needed to be cut down to an appropriate length for performance.
Though he reduced the text dramatically, the first readings still lasted
more than three hours.
Over the next five years, Dickens continued to give readings to benefit charities. The readings usually took place during the Christmas
season, and he continued to refine his performance. By 1857, he had
cut the length by thirty minutes, and in May 1858—at which point he
Private Theatricals at Tavistock House—Scene from The Frozen Deep, with Charles
Dickens at center in the role of Richard Wadour, ca. 1857. Later reproduced in The
Illustrated London News, January 17, 1857, pp. 51–52. From T. Edgar Pemberton,
Charles Dickens and the Stage (London: George Redway, 1888), + (Dickens)—B
Pemberton c. 2, v. 1, facing p. 129. Berg Collection, N YPL.