(To see Cal Grondahl’s cartoon that goes with this post, click here.) Have you ever wondered what happened to Jacob Marley, the tormented, consigned-to-eternal-punishment spirit who successfully warned miser Ebenezer Scrooge of the fate that awaited him if he did not change his evil ways? As someone who has read Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” at least 50 times, so have I. I’m sure others have pondered Marley’s fate as well, I give kudos to Alpine author R. William Bennett for writing, “Jacob T. Marley,” (Shadow Mountain, Salt Lake City, 2011) a very religious, albeit cumbersome, attempt to expand Marley’s “A Christmas Carol” cameo into a novella. As the book blurb mentions, “…Marley” hopes to be another “Wicked”-type sequel.
But homage sequels and prequels to classic works are mostly misses with rare hits. And they’re ubiquitous. There must be 100 homage sequels to Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice,” for example, and I wouldn’t be surprised if writers, before Alpine’s Bennett, have tackled Marley’s surmised life. What kills nearly all homage sequels is that they try to imitate — respectfully — the style of the master who penned the classic. Because the authors can’t write like the masters, the results are subpar.
And that’s the chief problem with “Jacob T. Marley”; too much of the writing is dull, a feeble attempt to copy Dickens. When Bennett goes beyond the Dickens’s story, it’s a little more interesting. He delves into Marley’s upbringing and even genealogy. Marley’s parentage is more admirable than Scrooge’s. He’s not warped by a father who deserts him. Instead, Marley is done in by too much praise as a child, which turns him proud, and eventually cold.
However, Bennett makes a mistake that many film adaptors have made with Ebenezer Scrooge. He makes his primary character more of a sociopathic sadist than a supreme egotist. Bennett’s evil Marley does not have a spark of humanity in him. He takes more pleasure in turning pregnant women out of homes than counting his money. In a twist that stretches credulity, Marley is responsible for Scrooge’s sister, Fan’s death at childbirth, due to his evicting her and her husband.
As Dickens’ creation, Ebenezer Scrooge is an unfeeling man, not an angry man. He chooses to ignore his ability to help others because he’s indifferent; it’s cruelty by omission. Scrooge possesses many talents. He can charm whom he wants to charm, when it comes to business. As Dickens’ writes, “He knew these men, also, perfectly. They were men of aye business: very wealthy, and of great importance. He had made a point always of standing well in their esteem: in a business point of view, that is; strictly in a business point of view.”
We must assume that Marley is like Scrooge. And Bennett writes, “There was a monotony of greed that laced every day, a monotony that both Marley and Scrooge worshipped as their assets grew.” It’s a good line, but lacking in the “bad” “Jacob T. Marley” is any potential for humanity.
Perhaps only a master storyteller such as Dickens could instill the right amount of tiny humanity into the miser Scrooge’s soul to make his reclamation believable. And there is humanity in Scrooge. He cries when he witnesses his past; he regrets; he is moved by Tiny Tim’s fate and the children of Want and Ignorance, But “Jacob T. Marley” lacks that. There is no literary reason to expect any reclamation of Marley’s soul. This makes Bennett’s “deathbed” conversion by Marley simply ludicrous. Worse, Bennett’s Marley’s soul is saved after death and chooses to walk the earth weighted down with cashboxes, etc. He waits for a heavenly opportunity to be seen by Scrooge as a spirit.
This plot twist by Bennett takes away the mystery of why Marley appears. In Dickens’ tale, Marley has no idea why he can be seen; his dreadful moans and regret are his way, powerful to the reader, of reacting to the sight of another human being after years of wandering ignored. Bennett takes the power of that moment away by changing Marley into a sort of heavenly missionary that has finally received his call to preach. It must be stressed that Marley cannot preach to Scrooge, only lament. He has no right, unless re-created inappropriately by Bennett.
Another poor plot twist initiated by Bennett is to have Marley accompany the three spirits on their journeys with Scrooge. Worse, Bennett changes Dickens’ tale by inserting the grim promise that Scrooge will die on Christmas morning if not persuaded to goodness by the spirits. I can understand this plot twist by Bennett. Frankly, there’s not much for Marley to do after he visits Scrooge. But, again it seems to clash with Dickens’ story. In any event, this is the worst of the novella, with Bennett’s Marley whining and being lectured to by spirits as they simultaneously attempt to reclaim Scrooge’s forsaken humanity.
The epilogue is better. Briefly, Bennett summarizes the remaining years of Scrooge’s life and skillfully weaves an earlier plot involving the late Fan’s necklace, coerced by Marley, finding its way back to Scrooge after scores of years.
As mentioned, homages are not your ordinary novels; they are labours of love. I’ve been harsh to Bennett’s homage not because I don’t appreciate the effort, nor because I think I would do better. I just love the classic and think, after reading Bennett’s effort, that it’s best left alone. The best sequels to “A Christmas Carol” that involve Marley, Scrooge, Fred or Tiny Tim are probably found in the imaginations of the readers who experience Dickens’ superb writings.
Having said that, I hope “Jacob T. Marley” sells well this holiday season. It has a good message. I would only urge that it be read with “A Christmas Carol,” and not instead of. As for its literary lifespan, it has the appeal of a Hallmark Channel movie. Although that’s not a compliment, if such a dubious honor were to occur, it may delay Bennett’s novella from forced purgatory to Deseret Industries; for a few years at least.