by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, July 7, 2018
The other night I saw The Man Who Invented Christmas, a delightful film about how Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol. When it was over I asked myself: How much of it was true? I’ve read one short biography of Dickens in the past, Charles Dickens: A Life by Jane Smiley. So I knew some details in the movie were based on truth. But I doubted its facts fit history in the same way the screenwriter presented them.
After watching the film, I read Mr. Dickens and His Carol, a novel by Samantha Silva. Silva spent fifteen years working on this story, originally written as a screenplay. Her novel featured a more complicated story than the film The Man Who Invented Christmas but invents and fictionalizes a great deal more. The movie is lighthearted and fun, focusing on Dickens’ economic problems and how they inspired him to write A Christmas Carol in a few weeks. The film shows Dickens being haunted by the imaginary characters he created, and I’m sure that’s how many readers picture writers discovering their characters.
Silva’s novel creates a made-up fantasy life for Dickens, that worked to explain the psychological needs that drove him to write A Christmas Carol. Mr. Dickens and His Carol by Samantha Silva does not even attempt to be historically accurate, creating a fantasy about writing a fantasy. Although her novel was entertaining enough to keep me reading, I was never sure if it was ethical just to make up a fictional alternate history for a real person. Isn’t it a kind of flattering libel? Isn’t it just cashing in on another writer’s fame? Dickens might have loved it, and he might not, but I believe he’d likely want a cut of the royalties.
The film had questionable points too. Over the last decade, I’ve noticed a growing number of novels and movies based on real lives. I find them both compelling and disturbing. I feel we need to ask hard questions about fictionalize biographies?
- Should we expect biographical fiction to be essentially true?
- Aren’t these writers just cashing in on famous names?
- What responsibilities do historical fiction writers have for teaching history?
- Should we assume all fictional history is just fun fantasy?
- Is it fair to historical people to remember them as fantasy characters?
- How do we verify the fictional facts?
With two competing fictional biographies covering the same event, I felt compelled to hunt down facts.
The film, The Man Who Invented Christmas is based on a non-fiction book, The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits by Les Standiford. This book covers recorded history. But should we assume since the movie is based on it, the movie will be historically accurate? Like novelists, screenwriters invent, and both are selling entertainment to make a buck. My guess is most of the movie is made up.
Now I needed real history to judge my fictional histories. I got out my unread copy of Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin, a substantial biography. The Dickens I found here for 1843 was completely unlike to two fictional Dickens in 2018. Sure, some of its details were sprinkled in the two fictional stories but Tomalin’s black and white facts did not paint either colorful Dickens I saw in the film or novel. And each of the colorful Dickens is distinctly different too. For example, in one Dickens confides to his groom, and in another to a young maid. In one, his wife is part of the story, and in the other Dickens’ wife is conveniently shuttled off to Scotland. In each, we meet two different inspirations for Tiny Tim. In one, Dickens is the spendthrift, in the other, Dickens blames his wife.
I’d like to think when I read a historical novel or watch a historical film, I’m actually learning history. But whenever I read history books after imbibing a fictional version of the past, I’m always disappointed. Last year, both Dunkirk and The Crown felt very real historically, but were they? I haven’t read anything to verify them yet.
My memory of Dickens will always be historically corrupted by the visual Dickens of the film, played by a charming Dan Stevens (Matthew of Downton Abbey fame). Silva’s fantasy Dickens will always intrude when I reread Great Expectations and David Copperfield. Is either fair to the real Charles Dickens? Don’t I have a duty to study the recorded facts we have on Charles Dickens? Will the real Charles Dickens, please stand up? Or will we always create an endless parade of make-believe Charles Dickens?
I found both Inventing Scrooge by Carlo DeVito, a well-reviewed book on the specific subject, and the non-fiction book version of The Man Who Invented Christmas by Les Standiford, to be more digestible than the Tomalin biography for knowing how Dickens wrote his most famous story. Her biography was too large, complex, and detailed. I’m not ready for her graduate course just yet, but what I read was damn impressive.
I do want to know the real Charles Dickens. But I found comparing the two nonfiction books on the writing of A Christmas Carol to be revealing about the struggle to understand history. Nonfiction writers must speculate too, even if it’s just in the way they present their facts. When reading nonfiction we must also distrust what we read. We should always be skeptical.
I found the two fictionalize Dickens very entertaining. I don’t think they shouldn’t exist. However, I would say we should never enjoy a fictional account without balancing it with a nonfictional account. To answer my questions:
- Never assume any fact in fiction is true.
- Yes, writers are cashing in by using ready-made, well-known characters.
- Novelists who write historical fiction should always produce an afterward that explain their research and delineate their speculation.
- Assume all historical fiction is fun and we should get real history from nonfiction.
- I bet most historical figures would be horrified and amused by how they are remembered. Many would be mad enough to sue if we time traveled them to the present. Which probably explains why so many want their letters and papers burned, or why they work so hard to preserve them.
- The only way to verify fictional facts is to read multiple nonfictional sources. We can never know what historically happened. There are real people that I’ve read many biographies written about them, and I’d say four is the minimum to start getting a decent feeling for what they might have been like. And that’s only a might of.
Then, I saw another historical film, Mary Shelley (2017). Even though this was a bomb at the box office, I greatly admired it. I really wanted to believe it was true. My wife and I both enjoyed the movie thoroughly, and we didn’t fathom why it’s gotten such a low Rotten Tomato score of 36%.
I want to believe Mary Shelley accurately portrayed Mary Shelley because it shows her as a determined, strong-willed woman, that succeeds against a culture that wanted to crush her. If we love a story about history, we want it to be the truth, don’t we? The film makes me want to know more about the real creator of Frankenstein’s monster and the author of the first real science fiction novel. I guess that impulse is a credit to historical fiction.
Now I need to go read In Search of Mary Shelley, a new biography by Fiona Sampson.