Happy December! A wonderful way to begin your holiday season is by reading Samatha Silva’s fictional biography Mr. Dickens and His Carol. Silva is a writer, screenwriter and a lover of Dickens. She calls the book a fan letter to Charles Dickens. She has taken liberties for sure, but in the most delightful way. She writes in the Author’s Notes, “This is a work of fiction. It is spun out of threads from the lives of Charles Dickens, his family and friends, and even a nemesis or two. It is meant to be a playful reimagining…I have twisted, embellished, and reordered the facts…nearly all the characters are based on real people…Most of the rest I made up from whole cloth.” Anthony Doerr, author of All The Light We Cannot See, writes, it “is a charming, comic, and ultimately poignant story about the creation of the most famous Christmas tale ever written. It’s as foggy and haunted and redemptive as the original; it’s all heart, and I read it in a couple of ebullient, Christmassy gulps.” Sums it up beautifully!
The redemptive theme of the original tale is evident in Silva’s remake. Life offers all of us opportunities to redeem ourselves and certainly gives Ebenezer Scrooge a chance. It is a New Testament theme at play. Charles Dickens is ahead of his time culturally with his concern for the plight of the working poor and of children being tossed to and fro by societal ills. The Industrial Revolution in England occurs earlier than in the US, and the cracks in society are already apparent to Dickens and other British progressives. Dickens himself experiences some of this in his own life. At the age of 12, Dickens’ father is put in debtors prison, and Dickens is forced to sell his beloved books and go to work in a shoe blackening factory. As an adult, he visits Field Lane Ragged School and other schools established for the hundreds of London’s street children. Dickens is very sensitive to the injustices to and sufferings of these children. He is an avid walker, taking nightly walks of 15-20 miles through the streets and alleys of London. He writes in his head while walking, and thus captures the haunted fogginess of London with his words.
Dickens writes his tale in six weeks in 1843. He is financially strapped at the time because his latest work is not selling well. He has written three Christmas tales before this one and writes four more afterward. A Christmas Carol is first published December 19, 1843 and sells 6000 copies by Christmas Eve of that year. By December 1844, thirteen more editions are released. It has never been out of print. In early 1844, a British magazine attributes a rise in charitable giving to Dickens tale. Beginning in 1849, Dickens begins giving public readings of his Christmas tale to packed houses which proves to be very profitable. He continues this tradition until 1870, the year of his death.
So begin this season with first reading Silva’s heartwarming retelling and then move on to rereading the original tale. We all need reminders to live with our hearts and arms wide open in making the world a better place. To misquote Mother Theresa, if you can’t help a 100 people, then help one. Silva writes, “I hope this is a book about Dickens as much as it’s a book about all of us…I’m keenly aware that a good biography tells us the truth about a person; a good story, the truth about ourselves. That, I think, is what Dickens did best.”