Review published on January 1, 2018.
It’s 1843, Christmastime is approaching, and Charles Dickens is feeling the pinch. His most recent work, Martin Chuzzlewit, has not been as well received by the reading public as either he or his publishers had expected and sales of recent instalments are perilously low. Dickens’ publishers are now insisting that either he writes a (bestselling) Christmas-themed book within the space of a month or else they will call in his debts and likely ruin him. At the same time, Dickens’ Christmas-loving family is gearing up to spend in earnest and he can’t seem to bring himself to dampen their enthusiasm for the festive season. Even worse, William Makepeace Thackery seems to be gaining in popularity.
While initially adamant that he cannot write a book to order, especially a sickeningly sentimental Christmas novel such as his publishers and readers seem to desire, Dickens does eventually realise that he has no choice but to plumb the depths of his own life (to say nothing of the lives of friends and enemies alike) in order to construct a suitably festive tale. As Dickens is forced to confront impecunious relatives, a never-ending list of worthy charitable calls on his purse, a fickle public and his own failings as both an author and a person, he casts himself in the role of Ebenezer Scrooge and stalks the streets of London by night in search of inspiration.
Samantha Silva’s Mr Dickens and His Carol blends fiction and reality in telling the story of Charles Dickens and the creation of arguably his most famous work. Dickens himself mostly comes across as a likeable family man and a good friend, albeit one who is perhaps a little too accustomed to pleasing others through the provision of cash, although he is certainly no hero. In fact, during the course of the book he is forced to go on his own journey towards rediscovering the true meaning of Christmas. In his attempts to conjure up a festive novel that will please the reading public, Dickens seeks inspiration in some dubious places, which shines something of a different light onto his character, with Silva again drawing on the (possibly less favourable) events of the author’s life.
Dickens is forced to undergo (relative) deprivation and misery (as well as more than one [amusing] encounter with an ungrateful reader) in order to reorient his writing towards the spirit of the festive season. Silva has done an excellent job of recreating the atmosphere of Dickens’ London, both the opulence of the author’s life with his family and the hardship faced by those who would serve as the models for the Cratchits. As Dickens sets about writing his book, it initially appears that his own carol will end rather differently to Scrooge’s, but happenstance ensures that he meets the right people and experiences the right events so that a redemptive tale can be submitted to his publishers just in time for Christmas.
Mr Dickens and His Carol is a real feel-good festive read as well as an excellent companion volume to A Christmas Carol for readers in search of even more atmospheric Christmassy goodness. It’s a delightful tale in itself, but it’s also packed with references to the life and works of Charles Dickens, with numerous names, titles, dialogue and events available for fans both avid and casual to spot. Given just how much Dickensiana Samantha Silva has managed to stuff the book with, to say nothing of the thought-provoking ending to her tale, Mr Dickens and His Carol is also a book that will merit rereading, so there’s nothing to stop you buying it in January (or, indeed, at any other point) and then having another read during Christmas 2018!
Erin Britton 5/5
Mr Dickens and His Carol by Samantha Silva
Allison and Busby 9780749022914 hbk Oct 2017
SECOND OPINION: Green Lion by Henrietta Rose-Innes