'A Midnight Carol': Dickens, magically

November 14, 1999|By Jan Winburn | Jan Winburn,Sun Staff

"A Midnight Carol: A Novel of How Charles Dickens Saved Christmas," by Patricia K. Davis. St. Martin's Press. 198 pages. $16.95.

'Tis the season for selling.

The book trade gets its jollies -- and no small amount of profit -- every year around this time with little books timed for the holidays. Many are no more satisfying than Christmas candy -- a desire is sated but no sustenance gained.

Now along comes "A Midnight Carol" by Patricia Davis, a slim novel about Charles Dickens and the circumstances surrounding his writing of "A Christmas Carol." Imaginative and engaging, beautifully and accessibly written in the language of Victorian England, Davis' novel is at last a literary feast for the season. A stocking-stuffer the buyer can be proud of.

It is 1843, and there is nothing merry about old England. Dickens' wife is pregnant with their fifth child. Their income is almost nil. His most recent book is a flop.

What does he do?

He risks everything.

His dear friend, Thomas Carlyle, has managed to get the writer an invitation to speak to the Parliament about the horrendous working conditions in newly industrialized London. Thus begins both the idea for his famous Christmas tale and his introduction to an urchin named Benjamin Newborn.

Newborn, seeing a pickpocket circling Dickens after the speech, foils the thief's plan, then asks his favorite author for an autograph. Dickens is immediately struck with the lad, penniless but educated. Noting his physical disability, Dickens offers Newborn his card and says: "If you wish, leave word with my publishers and we'll discuss the matter of a crutch. A bad one can worsen a limp."

It would be heresy to give much more away about this wonderful tale. Suffice it to say that the plot is exceptionally well-conceived, and Davis' vivid portrayal of Dickens and his cohorts enthralling.

Davis' Dickens is fully human -- the headstrong writer who nonetheless is riddled with self-doubt and yearning for approval. His relationship with -- and dependency on -- his wife provides some of the most touching moments.

After finishing "A Christmas Carol," Dickens worries Catherine won't like it.

"He had never before written of ghosts or Christmas or in the style of the Carol. What if she found the new work inferior? Found no faith in it? In him? Then what!"

Dickens rushes home to find his wife standing at the top of the stairs, his manuscript in hand. "Love, hope, anxiety -- all enkindled her eyes as well as his ... Charles started to speak, but she shushed him with a gesture, placing a finger to her lips.

"Her voice was soft. 'I married magic!' "

In just six weeks, Dickens has written the masterpiece that will cement his reputation, resuscitate Christmas and make him a hero of the day. He has even persuaded his publishers to bring it out by Dec. 17 -- in time for the holiday.

It's unlikely that "A Midnight Carol" will ever supplant Dickens as traditional Christmastime reading, but it is magic -- any time of year.

Jan Winburn is The Sun's assistant managing editor for enterprise. She has been known to go a bit overboard at Christmas, her favorite time of year.

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