Book Review: Mr. Dickens and His Carol: A Charming Take on a Classic Tale

by Sally Jamrog

Reviews

January 27, 2021
Mr. Dickens and His Carol by Samantha Silva. Sally Jamrog for The Scarlet Letter

Although many people are familiar with Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, few may have considered its origin story. This is the premise of Samantha Silva’s debut novel, Mr. Dickens and His Carol (USA: Flatiron Books, 2017), a fictional take on the creation of Dickens’ Christmas classic. Though primarily a work of fiction, Silva’s story is based on well-researched historical records, offering many cultural tidbits about the old London lifestyle as well as a witty, heartwarming celebration of Dickens’ work and the holiday spirit.

It’s early December, 1843 in Victorian London, and Charles Dickens is in a bit of a financial pinch. His latest book, Martin Chuzzlewit, isn’t selling half as well as his earlier publications, which include Nicholas Nickelby, Oliver Twist, and The Old Curiosity Shop, among others. Even though Dickens claims Martin Chuzzlewit is his favorite work to date, his publishers urge him to write a Christmas book instead or else face a reduction in his salary. Dickens reluctantly agrees to this proposition in an effort to support his ever-growing family and increasingly excessive lifestyle. Coming from a childhood of poverty and meager Christmases himself, Dickens is plagued by the looming ghosts of his past, so to speak, and like Scrooge, embarks on a journey to rediscover the delights and joys of the holiday season.

One of the many things I dearly loved about Silva’s novel was her authentic, detailed portrayal of Victorian London, which not only showcased her solid writing skills, but also her ability to convincingly recreate the time-period. Surprisingly, though having lived in London three times before Mr. Dickens and His Carol had become a working project, Silva admitted that “[she] didn’t know a great deal about Dickens or Victorian London” before starting her research for the book.1 “I wanted to understand London the way he saw it,” Silva said. “The way it smelled and sounded to him — what his famed night walks of twenty miles around the city felt like; [I] wanted to understand his pain, his fears, his grandiosity, his compassion.”1 Her care and diligence in forging this connection with Dickens and his London are apparent in her book. Silva not only expertly captures the physical backdrop and minutiae of mid-nineteenth century London, but also the more subtle mannerisms and social atmosphere of the era with her characters and clever dialogue. The effect is a rich and thoroughly absorbing experience that transports readers into Dickens’ very thoughts.

Mr. Dickens and His Carol is as much a celebration of the English language as it is a tribute to Dickens himself. After finishing this book, readers can expect their minds to be stocked with intriguing new words. While at times I thought Silva bordered on flaunting her extensive vocabulary, her words are deftly chosen. I believe they contribute to her book being “a love letter” to Dickens, since he was also partial to unique vocabulary.2 Silva’s adept ability to wield the English language is also clear from her artful use of imagery. In particular, I loved her descriptions of London’s fog, which often causes Dickens to lose his way on his night walks around the city. Silva’s usage of the fog cleverly illustrates Dickens’ personal confusion as well as the tangle of ideas that he’s struggling to unravel. I was reminded of a similar image in Dickens’ Bleak House, which Dickens cunningly uses to reinforce the general languor and boredom that his characters feel regarding the long-standing Jarndyce v. Jarndyce case. Being a Dickens admirer and reader myself, I found that Silva truly captures his style, endearingly emulating his ingenious banter and imagery. 

Readers should keep in mind that Silva did not intend for her work to be a biography of Dickens, but rather a reimagining of historical events. In her Author’s Note, Silva acknowledges that she takes liberties with some aspects of Dickens’ life, inventing some characters and exaggerating events, sometimes more effectively than others.  However, I don’t think this undermines her meticulous research, because it only enhances her excellent narrative. “Nearly all the characters are based on real people, and the best lines, to be sure, are things they actually said,” Silva writes.3 “This book is my tribute to [Dickens’] prodigious gift, written with full awareness that he is, and always will be, inimitable.”3 

I highly recommend Silva’s novel to Dickens lovers of any sort, and I suggest reading Mr. Dickens and His Carol in conjunction with A Christmas Carol to fully appreciate both books.


1 Daryl M., “Interview With an Author: Samantha Silva,” Los Angeles Public Library, November 4, 2017,
https://www.lapl.org/collections-resources/blogs/lapl/interview-author-samantha-silva.

2 Samantha Silva, Mr. Dickens and His Carol (USA: Flatiron Books, 2017), p. 274.

3 Samantha Silva, Mr. Dickens and His Carol, p. 276.

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