In A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens’s timeless story of redemption, Ebenezer Scrooge receives a life lesson via the mournful warning of his deceased business partner, Jacob Marley. “Mankind was my business,” the tormented ghost wails. “The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, benevolence, were all my business.” Though it takes the whole night and visits from three more ghosts, the cold-hearted Scrooge is transformed into a model of kind-heartedness.
For Daniel Ryan, who lives in Massachusetts, a copy of A Christmas Carol given to him by a high school English teacher ignited a lifelong interest in the Victorian author and a passion for collecting that, 65 years later, has produced an extraordinary assemblage of Dickens’s published works and manuscripts, art by the author’s original illustrators, and a host other items related to his career and life. Now, in an act of generosity and benevolence that even the reformed Scrooge himself would have admired, the chemical engineer and former Exxon executive has chosen to give his collection to Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), where it will significantly augment the university’s existing Robert D. Fellman Dickens Collection and create a world-class resource for students, Dickens scholars, and readers. Parts of the collection have already reached WPI, though the bulk of the material will come to the university as a bequest.
“With the original Fellman Collection and the additions we have made to it, WPI already possesses a complete collection of the original published versions of all of Dickens’s novels as well as many other first editions,” said Arthur Carlson, assistant director of archives and special collections in WPI’s George C. Gordon Library. “With the addition of the rich complement of letters and artwork in the Ryan Collection, particularly what may be one of the most comprehensive collections of letters written by members of Dickens’s inner circle, I believe WPI will become a truly world-class research destination.”
The Daniel and Alice Ryan Collection on Charles Dickens, a gift made jointly by Ryan and his wife, will be a transformative addition to WPI’s existing Dickens collection, according to Joel J. Brattin, professor of literature at WPI and a noted Dickens scholar. “This collection is rich in materials that are not well represented in our Fellman Collection,” noted Brattin. “First, there is a significant amount of art by the 16 artists who illustrated Dickens’s novels in their first editions. Ryan has original works of art, prints, and even some of the steel plates used to print the illustrations for the first editions.
“Second, there are manuscripts, particularly letters written by Dickens to his family and friends, and a complete collection of letters written by all of those original illustrators. This is a collection that would probably be all but impossible to assemble today. It includes one letter from a recently discovered cache of letters that Dickens wrote pertaining to Urania Cottage, a home for the rehabilitation of former prostitutes that Dickens helped establish. Most extraordinary, the collection has two letters written to Dickens. These are extremely rare, since Dickens burned his collection of letters in 1860.”
In an interview for the Spring 2019 issue of WPI Journal, Ryan recalled how he felt an immediate affinity for Charles Dickens when he read A Christmas Carol as a freshman at a boarding school in Connecticut. His teacher gave him the book as he waited to head home for Christmas break. When he read the chapter in which the Ghost of Christmas Past makes Scrooge relive his youth, something clicked. “Scrooge returns to his boarding school and sees his young friends on a stagecoach leaving to go home for Christmas,” Ryan said, “and that hit me pretty well because I was in the same position, in a way, waiting to go home.”