Characters of Christmas Past
In 1996, Gregory Maguire published Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, a revisionist telling of the story of Oz and the Wicked Witch. It was an unsettling, captivating story and is currently the basis for top-selling show on Broadway by the same name.
It was a commercial and critical success, to say nothing of a creative undertaking, but diehard lovers of L. Frank Baum still found it difficult to swallow someone else’s Oz. Oz is a fictional location, so, as hard as it can be to digest an alternate rendition of a magical locale, it can even be more disconcerting to read a patented version of an actual place. Mr. Timothy by Louis Bayard, reinvents Charles Dickens’ London from A Christmas Carol, and the result can be as wild, as well as disconcerting, as somebody retelling an Annie Hall, for instance, where everyone in 1970s New York is well adjusted, optimistic and concerned about the welfare of others. An interesting idea, but is it believable?
In Wicked, the stories of Oz were retold through the eyes of the Wicked Witch of the West, Elphaba. In Mr. Timothy the pivotal character in question is Mister “God Bless Us, Every One,” the formerly adorable, tragically crippled Tiny Tim Cratchit. Tiny Tim is all grown up now, a man in his early twenties who walks with a noticeable limp, but who isn’t the pitiful child we remember. He lives in a brothel and still depends on his Great Uncle N, known to the rest of us as Ebenezer, for money. Ebenezer is a shadowy, benevolent character in the novel, who apparently has become content with his old age to live in a dusty state of perpetual Christmas and hand out bits of advice to Tim. It’s hard to believe that this is the man whose cold heart summoned not one, but three ghosts to scare him into good will and who inspired hundreds of retellings of the tale, featuring everyone from Muppets to Scrooge Cluck to Bill Murray. Tim’s father, Bob Cratchit, has recently passed away and his son has a hard time moving on with his life. He doesn’t appear to do much other than teach reading to the proprietress of the brothel, troll for dead bodies in the river, beg money from his uncle and encounter visions of his father on the London streets.
And what London streets they are! Bayard has read up on his history of Dickens-era London to the point where he possibly knows too much. Is there such a thing as an excess of detail or too much loyalty to form? Tim’s protégé, for instance, a young boy named Colin the Melodious, is a street urchin who bears a strong resemblance to The Artful Dodger from Dickens’ Oliver Twist, and who seems to be drawn mostly from clichés of impudence and false cap-doffing formality masking boyish sensitivity. The city, meanwhile, reads like the set for a movie. “I do recall strolling quite merrily down Charring Cross Road and stopping before a padding-ken in Seven Dials and decided that I here I would stay the night,” Tim muses to himself. It seems that Tim ought to start a new life for himself as a travel guide author.
Tim’s life is shaken up when the underbelly of London is seized upon by a mysterious character taken to branding and then killing young girls. Tim then encounters Philomela, a young Italian girl in danger of joining her peers. The story then takes several turns which head into a world which seems more Anne Rice than Charles Dickens. Gothic murder, perversity and deception take over, culminating in several climaxes that nearly tax the reader in their extravagant danger.
Not that the grisliness and drama are bad. After all, when an author like Bayard decides to spin off an old standard, the author is free to do what he likes, and the results can be impressive and page turning. What is never really revealed, however, is why Tim Cratchit makes the transformation from a semi-loser into a freelance detective. Occasionally, too, Tim’s voice is less 19th century London and more League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. When our hero receives a calling card from the insidious Lord Griffyn, reading “presents his compliments,” Tim glowers to himself: “Just so. Mr. Timothy Cratchit is about to send his compliments right back.”
Bayard’s effort is admirable in its creativity, but while nothing should be truly sacred in literature, it may have been too big an undertaking to add a postscript on to the seemingly legendary Dickens tale, and Bayard seems to find a difficulty in striking a balance between adapting and distancing himself from Dickens. A Christmas Carol was a story of transformation, as Scrooge started as one of the most hateful men in literature to the honorary spirit of Christmas. Bayard seems reluctant to give his characters as much diversity of character. Tim interrupts his adventures to compose mental missives to his dead father, which tend to slow the book since we have never been told why exactly Tim cannot get over his father’s death. The good guys are good and the bad guys bad, and it would have been a deeper read, for instance, to find out why “You may plunge a dagger through [Lord Griffyn], drive it straight to the other side—you will find nothing to kill.” While Bayard’s idea is laudable, perhaps his book would be a better read if its story was written without the allusion to Dickens, so Bayard can be judged on his own without Tim, and Tim can be judged without his father or uncle.