Hazel McHaffie

Samantha Silva

Mr Dickens and his Carol

You may well have seen reviews of a new book just published under the title, Edward Lloyd and His World: Popular Fiction, Politics and the Press in Victorian Britain. It tells the story of publisher Edward Lloyd, (1815-1890) who ‘helped shape Victorian popular culture in ways that have left a legacy that lasts right up to today. He was a major pioneer of both popular fiction and journalism but has never received extended scholarly investigation until now.’ But the book will most likely catch your attention because of its references to Charles Dickens. For he was one of the victims of the opportunist publishers, playwrights, journalists, who cashed in on other people’s success by producing parodies of their novels. Dickens himself was outraged by these plagiarists but powerless to prevent them – this being the age before the Copyright Act of 1842.

It nicely resonated with me because I’ve just finished reading a lovely book on the same subject and era: Mr Dickens and his Carol by Samantha Silva, which might not be ‘scholarly’ but the basic premises are all there. Dickens losing popularity … his impotent rage at the charlatans who steal his ideas … his publishers needing a success .. money problems … a feckless father … a growing brood of children … Messrs Chapman and Hall suggesting a short Christmas story … ‘hardly a book at all‘ … mayhap including a ghost or two? So, though her story is a work of fiction, Silva has built upon the work of Dickens’ biographers as well as his own words, to create a playful but plausible and enjoyable re-imagining of how one of the best loved classics came into being. She herself recognises that Dickens aficiandos and scholars might well bristle at the liberties she takes, but she writes from a position of both admiration and affection for the man, keenly aware that a ‘good biography tells us the truth about a person; a good story, the truth about ourselves.’ Well said!

Silva’s physical book has a beautiful look and feel – velvety smooth cover (hardback), the kind of volume you hold with reverential gentle hands and stroke with sensual pleasure. It’s her debut work, published in 2017, but her writing is assured and the story beautifully realised, capturing the evergreen heart and style of Dickens’ own tales.

It’s described as a ‘fan letter‘, even a ‘love letter‘, to the ‘Inimitable Boz‘, that says ‘I know you were a flawed man who had a heart as big as the world. That you saw Christmas as a time to reconnect with our humanity and revel in even our smallest blessings. And that you lived with so much darkness, inside and out, but leant – urgently and frantically – always towards the light.’

As we know, Dickens’ Christmas novel was heralded as a ‘national benefit‘, a ‘personal kindness’ to everyone who reads it. Indeed Dickens is revered for his capacity to portray understanding and empathy for one’s fellow-man, and to highlight the human capacity to rise above adversity and sorrow. ‘Despite what is cold and dark in the world, perhaps it is a loving place after all.’ Not only was he writing at a time and in a place where squalor, poverty, injustice, inhumanity, and disease prevailed, but he personally knew abandonment, poverty, disloyalty and hardship. As a small boy, when his father and the rest of the family were admitted to the debtors’ prison, Charles was left to fend for himself. His father was feckless all his life and a perpetual drain on Charles’ resources. We so often glean a romanticised view of the period in films and dramatic reconstructions, but the written word reminds us of the horrors and humiliations of his time.

And so in Mr Dickens and his Carol we follow Dickens as he tramps the gritty fog-filled streets in search of inspiration; as he rails against the constant racket of a busy household with six children and an extravagant wife and an endless stream of people demanding money. How he managed to write at all in such conditions escapes me! But here he is, filled with foreboding lest he be unable to afford toys for each of his children at Christmas, give his usual contributions to worthy charities, and stay out of the poorhouse. Nor is his fame assured and protected. Martin Chuzzlewit has flopped; acting troupes are plagiarising his work; his relatives trading his possessions for cash, his publishers tightening the screws.

Under intolerable pressure, temper, patience and good humour desert him. His wife leaves him just before Christmas taking the children to Scotland until he can be more reasonable. He takes refuge under a pseudonym in lowly accommodation, sleep and appetite and mental clarity all forfeit. Melancholy swallows him up.

‘Like any man, he’d known a good share of knocks in his thirty-some years. Hard knocks at lesser doors, insistent rap-rap-raps on wind-bitten, rain-battered doors whose nails had lost all hope of holding. And with fame came gentler taps at better doors, pompous, pillared, and crowned thresholds in glazed indigo paint, like his own door two floors below, where the now-polite pounding was having no effect at all.
Because there are times in a man’s life when no knock on any door will divert him from doing the thing at hand, in particular when that thing is a goose-feather pen flying across the page, spitting ink.’

So, there he is, finally, sleep deprived and physically drained, but re-energised, as he pours all his disappointment and anger and resentment and agony into his writing, creating and fleshing out Scrooge and Fezziwig and Cratchit and Marley. Haunted in his own mind, he revels in the introduction of fictitious ghosts as he reviews life, past, present and future, his own personal hauntress encouraging him to capitalise on experience: ‘Let the spectre of your memory be the spark of your imagination.’ And gradually, gradually, the all-consuming power of writing cures him of his jaded perspective, and he discovers that his mental museum is still ‘where he left it, the corridors stacked high, shelves overflowing.’

Having recently finished writing my own latest novel I very much related to Dickens’ relief when The Christmas Carol was finished.
Dickens laid down his pen. There was a frisson in finishing, a great rush of feeling for the life of his characters, all the Crachits and Fezziwigs, Fred and his wife, and Scrooge most of all. He didn’t want to say goodbye; he wanted to keep them close, where he might watch over them. But he knew that the end of his book was a beginning of their life without him, and he must let them be born into the world, and welcomed, as he felt sure they would be. Still how grateful he was to have known them at all.’

It’s a heart-warming story, well told. And I can’t resist sharing a few gems of Silva’s writing:
John Dickens:  ‘his whole face was a ruin’
Marshalsea Debtors’ Prison: ‘a prison of perpetuity, a forever place of no release’
Dickens’ mood: ‘melancholy is the mother of invention’

Highly recommended.

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