Mr. Dickens and His Carol
- By Samantha Silva
- Flatiron Books
- 288 pp.
- Reviewed by Randy Cepuch
- December 8, 2018
A winning imagining of how the classic Christmas tale came to be.
Dickens was haunted: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.
Or, at least, that’s the shared premise behind Samantha Silva’s debut novel, Mr. Dickens and His Carol, and a new film called “The Man Who Invented Christmas” (based on a 2008 book by Les Standiford).
Both purport to explain how Charles Dickens, suffering from financial difficulties and writer’s block, managed to pen the classic A Christmas Carol in record time — with a little help from the Great Beyond. The movie is entertaining enough, but it’s predictably trite holiday fare: There’s more of gravy than grave about it.
Mr. Dickens and His Carol, on the other hand, is a truly imaginative and beautifully written ghost story weaving truth and fiction to create something familiar yet new.
We all know the inspiring tale at the heart of the matter. Ebenezer Scrooge, a miserable penny-pinching London businessman, is visited on Christmas Eve by Jacob Marley, his deceased partner. Marley warns Scrooge to change his ways and says to expect three specters to show him why. The ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future show up as promised, and, by morning, Scrooge is a changed man.
One of the reasons we know the story so well is that it’s retold often and quite faithfully — no surprise, given Dickens’ masterful writing. Yet spinning a tale about how the classic came to be is what makes Silva’s Mr. Dickens and His Carol so compelling.
In Silva’s telling, Dickens, something of a rock star in his own time, suffers a setback when readers don’t take to Martin Chuzzlewit. Suddenly, he fears being able to afford only one toy for each of his children at Christmas, having to cut back on his contributions to worthy charities, and ending up in the poorhouse. To avoid these disasters, he agrees, in the late fall, to write a Christmas story in time for the holiday. His publisher suggests throwing in a ghost for good measure.
Of course, as anyone who has ever committed to writing a book knows, promising a manuscript is one thing; producing it is another. Silva’s Dickens is an insomniac who often walks more than 20 miles a night through the dark, foggy lanes of London before returning home to put pen to paper (and then, as often as not, to wad up and discard the results).
Before long, the fictional Dickens is an angry mess (Silva nods to “It’s a Wonderful Life” by having one of Dickens’ kids bang on a piano so loudly that the author loses his temper to such a degree that his wife and family decamp to Scotland).
Dickens’ long walks aren’t entirely unproductive. Along the way, he sees names he likes, such as “Fezziwig” and “Cratchit.” And he’s delighted when a fan approaches and asks for an autograph, then enraged to discover the fan has mistaken him for a rival author. When he learns the autograph-hound’s name is Jacob Marley, Dickens vows that a character by that name will die in his next book.
He’s further dejected when he goes unrecognized at a hotel with a sign that boasts “Charles Dickens slept here.” The innkeeper tells him the room associated with the famous writer is being maintained as a museum but isn’t popular. Thus, he’d be happy to rent it out at a bargain rate. Dickens thinks it might be an ideal writing space, so he checks in and signs the register as “Ebenezer Scrooge,” a character he quickly becomes.
When visiting an actor friend at a local theater, the now-lonely Dickens has a chance meeting with a young woman named Eleanor and is instantly smitten. He confesses to her his fears that his writing days may be over. Still, he manages to complete a Christmas story — which includes a murder, but features Scrooge — and reads it to her. Alas, she’s not overly impressed.
Meanwhile, things continue to go very wrong elsewhere, too. Someone’s plagiarizing Dickens’ work and making it appear that he’s the offender. He’s sued for character defamation by a judge who was a thinly disguised character in one of his books. And his father’s reckless spending forces him to buy newspaper ads disclaiming responsibility for the resulting debts.
But Eleanor believes in Dickens and tells him, “Every book you’re ever written is about Christmas. About the feelings we must have for one another, without which we are lost.”
Those words, along with a drawing by Eleanor’s young son and an unexpected bit of magic from the spirit world, provide fresh inspiration for the author and…well, you know the wondrous thing he does with it.
[Editor's note: This review originally ran in 2017.]
Randy Cepuch, author of A Weekend with Warren Buffett and Other Shareholder Meeting Adventures, helps select titles for coverage by the Washington Independent Review of Books.