Did Dickens Read Dante? Charles Dickens’s Adaptation of Dante’s The Divine Comedy in his A Christmas Carol

Stephen Bertman has observed several structural similarities between Dickens’s A Christmas Carol and Dante’s entire Divine Comedy, including their shared tripartite structure, exploration of religious themes, and notions of salvation. Additionally, Susan Colón has observed connections between Dante’s representations of sullenness in his fourth circle of the Inferno and Dickens’s representations of the “besetting sin” of sullenness in Hard Times dual protagonists, Stephen Blackpool and Louisa Gradgrind.
But did Charles Dickens even read Dante’s work? The translation of Inferno prevalent during Dickens’s time was that of Henry Francis Cary, first published in 1805, with his translation of the entirety of Dante’s Divine Comedy following in 1814. Further, Cary was himself an assistant librarian at the British Museum in 1826 at the very same time that “Dickens was frequenting its reading room as a cub reporter intent on enlarging his mind.” (Bertman 171). There is a strong possibility that both Dickens and Cary met, and Dickens would have had a chance to develop a personal connection to Dante in English translation. Just because Dickens may have met Cary, a translator of Dante who lived just eight months past the original publication of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, does not imply that Dickens owned, knew, or included Dante’s work in his own. 

There are, however, two extant lists of inventories of books which Dickens owned, neither of which includes mention of Cary’s translation of Dante’s work (Bertman 171). The first inventory of books was taken from between 1844-1845 and includes titles which Dickens did not take with him to Italy, but the second list, recorded in 1870, includes the works in Dickens’s library at the time of his death in 1870 (Bertman 171). In this list, one finds the following entry:
"Flaxman (John), Compositions from the Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise of Dante, 110 plates, finely engraved in outline by Piroli; with Quotations from the Italian, and Translations, oblong folio, very beautifully bound in full Morocco extra, the sides completely covered in gold tooling, inside joints, watered silk linings, and fly-leaves, ...1807" (Stonehouse 46). (Bertman 171)

The Compositions included neoclassical drawings made between 1792-1793 and first published in in a London edition in 1807. Flaxman “would then go on to become one of England’s most eminent artists,” (Bertman 171), and this is relevant, because Dickens is known to have owned and admired Flaxman’s artistry as shown by his possession of two plaster casts, “Night” and “Morning,” both “executed in Flaxman’s style and mounted in Wainscoat frames, that hung in the entrance hall of the Dickens home on Devonshire Terrance.” (Bertman 171). Bertman was not able to determine, unfortunately, whether Dickens owned these illustrations before he wrote A Christmas Carol. It is possible, however, that the Flaxman illustrations were in Dickens’s 1844-1845 collection, but that they were unregistered because they were part of the contingent of books taken by Dickens to Italy, and thus would not be counted among the books remaining in his library. Included also in the Dickens’s 1870 collection of texts is the “56-volume illustrated anthology of Italian poetry, Parnaso Italiano, once owned and autographed by Leigh Hunt and copiously annotated by him.” (Bertman 172). This work, which included Dante’s works and was untranslated from the original Italian, may not have had an influence on Dickens’s writing of A Christmas Carol for two reasons: (1) Dickens did not begin his study of Italian until his Italian journey from 1844-1845, and (2) it may have been the case that Hunt kept the collection, which he described as “a southern treasure,” to himself until his death in 1859 (Bertman 172). 

Bertman’s final contribution to this initial phase of the study is to mention Dickens’s final complete work, Our Mutual Friend, and Dickens’s many troubles in 1865: separation from his wife, the ignominy of an affair, struggling with depression due to the demise of his friends, and the fatigue of giving public readings. In this work, which is itself the final novel which Dickens ever completed, and was completed during a time when Dickens considered London “wallowing “in Hell” (Bertman 172), Dickens included a chapter called “Inferno,” which according to Bertman was itself as an epithet which Dickens gave to the novel itself. 

 So, did Dickens consciously base his story A Christmas Carol on Dante’s Divine Comedy? I will further investigate this claim through the work of Susan Colòn in the tomorrow's installment.

Works Cited

Bertman, Stephen. “Dante's Role in the Genesis of Dickens's A Christmas Carol.” Dickens Quarterly, vol. 24, no. 3, 2007, pp. 167–173.