Marley Lives Again: What Dickens Left Out


Jacob Marley is not dead, to begin with. He’s very much alive, and he’s the force of nature that shapes the life and fortunes of a young Ebenezer Scrooge in Jon Clinch’s boldly imagined novel, Marley (Atria, 2019). The book gives us what Dickens did not: a rich, layered backstory for one of the most notorious partnerships in all of literature – Scrooge and Marley. We know how their story ends, revisit it, some of us, once a year, to reconnect with what matters and expunge our own inner-Scrooge, but we know almost nothing of its beginnings, what sets in motion the second most treasured tale of redemption and Christmas, well, since the original.

“Is there a story in the English language better loved, more widely known, or more deeply ingrained in our collective consciousness? I can’t think of one,” says Clinch about his inspiration for the book. “We know it all, and yet we don’t know it fully — because like all novels, A Christmas Carol is a fraud, an illusion, a thing full of holes.  When we meet Marley’s ghost, he’s no longer the man Scrooge knew in life. We know they were partners in a warehouse and a bookkeeping operation, that he was greedy and cruel, and that his afterlife is a never-ending torment. We know he wants to give Scrooge a chance to alter his character and fate. I wondered how he died — and why he came back, in spectral form, to save Scrooge’s soul. He’s undergone some sort of dramatic transformation, some profound change of character — but what was it, exactly? It’s what Dickens left out that sparked my imagination.”

As in Finn, Clinch’s highly acclaimed novel which brings Huck Finn’s mysterious father to life, Clinch takes the scant details Dickens offers up and weaves a world that is both deep and wide. He gives us the psychological underpinnings of Scrooge and Marley’s early days at Professor Drabb’s Academy for Boys, as grim as it sounds, where young Jacob molds a more vulnerable, if already hard-hearted Ebenezer to his purposes. Scrooge is preternaturally good with numbers; Marley is a master of greed, cruelty, and deception.

Clinch follows their friendship-cum-partnership across a sweeping canvas of avarice and corruption in early 19th-century England, rife with the evils of the British Empire, most pronounced, the slave trade, outlawed by Britain in 1807. Jacob Marley finds a way to go around the law, and makes Scrooge his unwitting co-conspirator.

That’s when love enters, in the form of Belle, whom we recognize as the fiancée Scrooge had and lost. Clinch brings her to vivid life, as he does Scrooge’s sister Fan, makes them whole, fully-realized characters. “Although they had only limited roles in A Christmas Carol, Belle and Fan were essential to Marley. They fired the narrative and clarified the roles of other characters. Dickens gave us the release of Scrooge from his engagement on account of his unremitting greed. From this act we can gather that he must have been a different man in earlier days, and build a narrative of his journey through life. He changed somewhere along the line. But how? And why?”

“Perhaps, I thought, Marley had something to do with it. What if Fan is to Marley as Belle is to Scrooge? And what if Fan had another suitor — a better man than Marley, one whose interests conflicted dramatically with his? And so the story takes on urgency and power.” Clinch gives Belle and Fan the task of trying to find the moral center of the men they love. Everything will hinge on this, the dramatic tension at the core of the novel:  Will love be enough to transform them?

“We know that Scrooge represents, practically to the exclusion of any other identifiable personality trait, the very essence of greed. And yet we believe in him. And yet he has endured,” says Clinch. “As a modern reader and a modern writer, I brought tools that were very different from those available to Dickens. I needed to respect the world and the characters he had so generously given us, and I wanted to develop the sense of living, breathing reality that even his most outlandish characters bring with them, and I hoped to incorporate in my own way some of his deeply personal social concerns. The result, if I got it right, would be a kind of psychological novel that was incipient in the materials of A Christmas Carol, but which Dickens never developed.”

While Clinch immerses us in a thoroughly Dickensian London, the novel reads like a compendium of current ills:  multiple accounts, offshore banks, shell companies, fake identities, and human trafficking. “As antique as Marley’s world is,” he says, “the book is in many ways extremely modern. These issues are everywhere right now, and they were thick in the air during the months I spent writing the book. It was inevitable that they would influence the story — and that, I think, is as it should be. We never write in a vacuum. Dickens certainly didn’t. His compassion for the poor, the hungry, the downtrodden and the hopeless drove his novels every bit as much as his bottomless imagination and endless narrative gifts. For me to have taken any other course would have been a betrayal of him and his work.”

Far from a betrayal, the novel is a brilliant sleight of hand, and echoes, in the end, Dickens’ paramount theme. “There is definitely redemption in Marley, although it comes late and only after considerable difficulty,” says Clinch. “Marley’s transformation is slow and his awakening is last-minute. I would describe it as an epiphany, which is an old-fashioned and therefore appropriate thing to have built this particular novel around. In the end, love, as ever, works its magic. Love for a woman, love for a child. These things prove if not more powerful than his native wickedness, then at least its equal.”

About the contributor: Samantha Silva is an author and screenwriter. Her first novel, Mr. Dickens and His Carol, was published in 2017. Her short story, “Leo in Venice,” appeared in the September 2019 issue of One Story.

Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 90 (November 2019)

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