The backstory to ‘A Christmas Carol’: John Clinch revisits a Charles Dickens classic in his new novel, ‘Marley’

  • Jon Clinch’s new novel, “Marley,” offers an imaginative backstory of two of Charles Dickens’ more memorable characters, Jacob Marley and Ebenezer Scrooge of “A Christmas Carol.” Jon Clinch’s new novel, “Marley,” offers an imaginative backstory of two of Charles Dickens’ more memorable characters, Jacob Marley and Ebenezer Scrooge of “A Christmas Carol.”

  • Vermont author Jon Clinch jokes that he tends to write about “not-very-nice people who make bad decisions.” Photo by CHRISTINE GLADE

  • An illustration from the original 1843 edition of “A Christmas Carol,” in which Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his dead business partner, Jacob Marley. Image from Wikipedia Commons

  • Jon Clinch’s first novel, the acclaimed “Finn,” offered a new take on “Huckleberry Finn” by imagining the life of Huck’s violent and alcoholic father, Pap Finn.

Staff Writer
Published: 10/9/2019 4:35:51 PM

He may be Charles Dickens’ most memorable character: the grasping, miserly, bitter old man whose only companion is his bank account and who dismisses Christmas as nothing but “humbug.”

But what made Ebenezer Scrooge of “A Christmas Carol” the way he was? And what of his dead former partner, Jacob Marley, whose ghost appears before Scrooge on Christmas Eve to warn him of the danger of not changing his cold-hearted ways? What exactly went on between these two men in the past?

That’s a question Jon Clinch examines in his latest novel, “Marley,” a vivid prequel to “A Christmas Carol” that’s considerably darker than the famous 1843 novella. Clinch’s novel tells the story of Scrooge and Marley as younger men who become unlikely business partners in London, amassing a considerable fortune in dubious schemes cooked up by Marley — including involvement in the slave trade to America.

It’s not giving the plot away to say that Marley, who is at the center of the narrative, is a ruthless and amoral villain — a forger, an extortionist, a swindler — who dominates the partnership, using Scrooge’s ability with numbers and his tunnel vision to his advantage.

The younger Scrooge is presented as a basically decent but socially awkward and timid man who suppresses his distrust and dislike of his partner in his obsessive determination to keep the firm’s accounting books up to date. But in the end, Marley’s chicanery will turn Scrooge almost “as black as his partner’s heart.”

Clinch, who lives in southern Vermont and will read from his new book next Wednesday, Oct. 16, at the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, is no stranger to revisiting famous literary works. His debut novel, “Finn,” was an exploration of a secondary but sinister character from “Huckleberry Finn”: Pap Finn, Huck’s violent and alcoholic father.

Like “Marley,” it offered an imaginative backstory to a famous book that shed new light on the original story with a fresh narrative — and a very grim narrative at that, one that probed the toxic racism at the heart of America in the days of slavery. “Finn,” published in 2007, received excellent reviews and was named a best book of the year by publications such as The Washington Post.

“I like to think I do a pretty good job of writing about not-very-nice people who make bad decisions,” Clinch said with a laugh during a recent phone call from Florida, where he was visiting family members.

He says he was drawn to write his new novel not just from a love of Charles Dickens but because the famed British author left “just enough strategic holes in A Christmas Carol,” as he writes in an afterword, to allow for further development of the characters.

“What was Jacob Marley all about, and what made Scrooge Scrooge?” Clinch said. “Maybe it’s partly because I tend to live in a different literary era, but I thought there was an opportunity here to fill in all this background.”

“Marley” is not as violent or dark as “Finn,” Clinch said, but right from the start it reveals its namesake character as a scheming and slippery figure, such as in a scene in which he and Scrooge meet as young teenagers, in the late 1780s, in the dismal boarding school that also figures in an early scene in “A Christmas Carol,” when The Ghost of Christmas Past takes Scrooge to see visions of his younger self.

In Clinch’s novel, Marley pockets much of Scrooge’s modest monthly allowance from home by claiming he’s using the money to protect Scrooge from a legal suit lodged against him by a cantankerous neighbor of the school; the suit, of course, is a fiction, for which Marley has forged phony documents that he uses to fool his gullible classmate.

Clinch, who’s also a huge fan of Mark Twain, said he made no effort in either “Finn” or “Marley” to duplicate Twain’s or Dickens prose styles.

“When I first started working on ‘Finn,’ a lot of my writer friends said ‘Don’t do it — you’re setting yourself up to get hit by the critics,’ ” said Clinch. “But in both cases, I felt what was most important was avoiding sounding like [Twain or Dickens]. There was room for creative exploration with the books, but to try to sound like them — that would be suicide.”

The spirit of Dickens

Yet in “Marley,” Clinch has a done a fine job of recreating the feel of the early 19th-century London of “A Christmas Carol,” where ill-lit, grimy streets darkened by coal soot can make finding your way difficult. And he also replicates Dickens’ humor: “Were the magi abroad upon this Christmas Eve, they would never find the holy child — certainly not here in London, where the streets are choked with a fog thick enough to render anything from carriage to cathedral invisible at five paces.”

There are indelible images of a younger Scrooge — “a lanky scarecrow” — slowly becoming the gnarled figure of “A Christmas Carol,” hunched over his ledgers in the dank warehouse of Scrooge & Marley: “For all he stirs from his desk, Scrooge may well be a mushroom in the shape of a man. He lurks there hour after hour … consuming ink by the potful as an ordinary man might consume tea.”

Clinch has also imported plenty of Dickens references. The names of several phony businesses Marley sets up — essentially 19th-century versions of shell companies — are taken from other Dickens’ novels, and “Marley” also gives us fleshed-out versions of two other small characters from “A Christmas Carol”: Fan, Scrooge’s beloved sister, and Belle, his would-be romantic partner.

Fan, as drawn by Clinch, is a spirited young woman who tries to draw her awkward brother from work to more social settings, such as joining a church choir she and Belle are part of. She also encourages him to court Belle, with some success: the couple eventually become engaged.

But Belle tells Scrooge that for her to marry him, he and Marley must purge the slave trade from their business. Scrooge somewhat timidly asks his partner to do so, and Marley blandly assures him he will. (At a certain point in the narrative, slavery, and being involved with the business, is outlawed in Britain, as it was historically.)

But how Marley actually handles this situation will eventually bring the partners into a battle of mutual deception, break up the engagement between Belle and Scrooge, and send Scrooge down a dark path of his own — leading Marley in turn to an ever-more dangerous place. As he says at one point, “I have always found the shadows to be much more amenable” than the spotlight. The book closes in a dramatic scene that sets the stage for the beginning of “A Christmas Carol.”

The younger Scrooge appears somewhat emotionally damaged, and Clinch also imagined him as having perhaps a touch of Asperger’s Syndrome, which might explain his curious relationship with Marley and his difficulty in opening up emotionally to Belle.

“He’s much more comfortable with numbers than people,” he said. “He has a hard time explaining what motivates him.”

Clinch, who has come to the Odyssey Bookshop twice before to read — “Marley” is his fifth novel — also has a connection further south in the Valley. About 11 years ago, when the Mark Twain House in Hartford, Connecticut was facing a sudden budget crisis, he led a fundraising effort that included enlisting several other writers for a benefit in which they read from Twain’s work at the house and reflected on what the author meant to them.

Donations that came in afterward — including one for $500,000, said Clinch — helped stabilize the organization, he notes.

He’s continued to make appearances there and to touch base with museum officials over the years. “Mark Twain is very special to me,” he said. “And so is Charles Dickens.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

Jon Clinch will read from “Marley” on Tuesday, Oct. 16 at 7 p.m. at the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley. His website is jonclinch.com.




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