Notes From the Book Review Archives

This year’s Holiday Issue includes a review of “Mr. Dickens and His Carol,” a novel that reimagines the story behind “A Christmas Carol.” In 1988, Thomas Mallon meditated on Dickens’s classic tale and how Christmas is the most literary holiday. Read an excerpt below:

However one stands, or kneels, theologically, it’s not difficult to agree that Christmas is one of the great human fictions — in that all of us who celebrate it know exactly what role we’ve been assigned in this year’s picture-book enactment of the holiday. Whether playing the ecstatic tissue-tearing child, the photographing parent, the maidenly aunt or avuncular uncle, we are never more “literary” than we are on Christmas morning. As the saying goes, we “make a Christmas” for one another, through our real-life behavior, creating a story along such formulaic lines that writing fiction about Christmas is somehow painting the lily, if you will, sugaring the sugarplum. Of course this redundancy hasn’t stopped us from making the Yuletide tales of Dickens, O. Henry and Clement Moore some of the best-known stories of all time, but one would think we might be satisfied with documentary Christmases. Memoirs, diaries, letters and biographies are full of festive nonfiction ones, stories sometimes even richer than the more famous fictional tales, since character traits and circumstances other than the happiest but-once-a-year ones have a way of creeping into and complicating the narratives.

Take Dickens, for example. Everyone knows what Tiny Tim and Jacob Marley’s ghost are up to on Christmas morning, but aren’t the activities of Dickens himself on the evening of Dec. 26, 1843, worth a reader’s look? In “Parallel Lives,” Phyllis Rose tells us about his frantic entertaining of the guests at a Christmas party. Ms. Rose’s chief source is Jane Carlyle, who was present along with Thackeray and John Forster, Dickens’s friend and eventual biographer:

“Jane called it the most agreeable party she had ever attended in London. Dickens and Forster, she reported, exerted themselves so hard that perspiration streamed off them and they seemed drunk with their efforts. Dickens played conjuror for an entire hour and was the best Jane had ever witnessed, including ones she had paid money to see. ”

Ms. Rose attributes Dickens’s somewhat wild exertions to a variety of strains. Approaching 32 years old, he had been a “work machine” for seven years, since…

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