Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol has been told and retold so many times over the years that, by this point, one might be hard-pressed to find a single soul evenly glancingly familiar with western culture who isn’t at least tangentially acquainted with the holiday classic. This is, of course, a bit of holiday-themed hyperbole, but the fact remains that the basic premise of A Christmas Carol has become so engrained in our culture that it would seem near impossible to imagine a time prior to its existence. It’s universally-relatable themes of the power of kindness, redemption and forgiveness speaks to the heart of the Christmas season – at least as it has been presented in the 174 years since it was first published in 19 December 1843 — just in time for Christmas.
This date is of particular importance to the narrative of Samantha Silva’s debut novel, Mr. Dickens and His Carol as, rather than once again retreading the well-trod path of Dickens’ ghost story, we are granted a (fictionalized) glimpse inside the mind of its creator in the days and weeks leading up to its completion and publication. Relying on contemporary accounts and a great deal of research, Silva is able to transport readers not only into the soot-covered world of 19th century England, but directly into the mind of its greatest chronicler.
Fresh off the disappointment of the serialized Martin Chuzzlewit, Dickens is found facing a bleak literary future, his favor having fallen a great deal with his reading public following his initial success and controversial decision to kill of Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop. This latter point is brought up time and again by characters chiding Dickens for his ill treatment of one of their favorite characters. In an attempt to revitalize flagging sales, it is arranged that Dickens will publish a Christmas-themed work just in time for the holidays. Rather than being allowed to work freely, however, Dickens is required to complete and turn in the text within a matter of a few weeks.
While this seems rather fantastic and overly fictionalized, the fact of the matter is Dickens was faced with the prospect of financial troubles due to the poor sales of Martin Chuzzlewit, his publisher Chapman & Hall threatening to cut his monthly income should sales continue to slide. Faced with the impending birth of his fifth child – an event that sets much of the plot in motion – and an uncertain financial future, it is decided that Dickens should complete a book in time for Christmas, a season whose profile was on the rise as older traditions were starting to be embraced once more. As a result, A Christmas Carol was conceived and written in a mere six weeks, the bulk of the narrative having been composed during his 15-to-20-mile nighttime walks.
It is during these epic walks around London that he not only conceives of the basic idea of the story, he also meets a mysterious woman who ultimately plays a large role in shaping the underlying sentiments of A Christmas Carol. With Dickens himself inhabiting the Scrooge role, he, through a little supernatural assistance, comes to see the magic of the holiday season and allows his real world worries to fall by the wayside. Which, as it soon proves, is just in time as his family has absconded to Scotland without him following a series of scenes that would be echoed in another holiday classic, in another time, in It’s a Wonderful Life. It’s one of a number of allusions that Silva employs throughout.
On his perambulations, Dickens finds himself running into individuals with names like Marley and Fezziwig and even David Copperfield, each of which obviously serves as an influence on the writer’s ever-active mind. In the case of the former two, their respective personality traits are coopted wholesale for their namesake characters within A Christmas Carol. Marley, in particular, is vilified right from the start, even the Dickens children encouraging their father to have the character of Marley “dead as a doornail” from the start. While amusing in their own right, those familiar with A Christmas Carol in all its incarnations will find a great deal of humor scattered throughout Mr. Dickens and His Carol, with myriad allusions to the work and Dickens’ canon as a whole.
Tonally, however, Mr. Dickens and His Carol seems a bit lost as to how best to execute its own exploration of redemption and forgiveness. The first chunk of the story is struck through with a fair amount of humor which helps establish a light-hearted tone, while the story then takes on a more somber tone as it reaches its apex before once more slipping into warm holiday revelry. It’s not enough of a stylistic shift throughout to be truly off-putting, but it does tend to drag the narrative down in its darker moments. The added supernatural element – not to mention the sequences in which Dickens dons a costume that sees him become the character of Scrooge – further pushes the otherwise straight-forward historical fiction into another genre realm entirely.
Though not always a success, Mr. Dickens and His Carol is nevertheless a fun and charming – not to mention unique – take on a holiday classic, contextualizing its origins and grounding the novella’s themes of generosity, love and forgiveness in the real world from which they originally sprang. Whether you’re intimately familiar with A Christmas Carol or not, Samantha Silva’s Mr. Dickens and His Christmas Carol is sure to please those looking to get into the holiday spirit.