The classic Dickens tale A Christmas Carol begins with the sentence, “Marley was dead, to begin with.” Marley then goes on to play a pivotal role in the redemption of Scrooge as the first apparition to appear to Ebenezer and warn him to change his ways. Even though he only appears in one scene, Marley is an intriguing character. Scrooge clearly respected Marley as a businessman, maybe even saw him as a mentor. Of all of the people Scrooge knew throughout his life, Marley is the only one he would listen to. Marley was clearly just as miserly and greedy a businessman as Scrooge, yet he recognizes the error of his ways and comes back to warn Scrooge not to make the same mistakes. There’s got to be a lot to the back story to this character.
Utah author R. William Bennett explores that back story in Jacob T. Marley. Bennett was a businessman himself for more than 30 years before having his own life-changing experience one night in 2009 while sitting in a hotel room on a business trip. Spirits from past, present and future didn’t appear to him, but he had always wanted to try to be a writer, and he recalled, “I had my, ‘If not now, when?’ moment. I thought, ‘I’m not getting any younger.’”
He and his wife had banked up some savings and sat down and put together spreadsheets and charts showing how long their money would last if Bennett took time off to write. “After a little while, I put that folder away,” Bennett says with a laugh. “I didn’t want to know how close we were getting to the end of our money.”
In 2010, Bennett self-published The Christmas Gift, which ended up being a surprise hit; Bennett even recently sold the movie rights. While attending a production of Wicked on Broadway, Bennett came up with another Christmas-themed idea. If someone could make a musical about The Wizard of Oz that told the back story of the Wicked Witch, why couldn’t the same be done for Marley?
“My whole life, in reading A Christmas Carol, I always hurt for this character,” Bennett says of Marley. “You can see how regretful he is. He is really responsible for saving Scrooge’s soul, and then he just disappears. He’s just such an interesting character.”
Bennett has not only come up with an intriguing concept, he has also executed it well on a number of fronts. Part of the delight of reading this book is the expansive, Victorian style of the writing that provides a feast of words. A man doesn’t just feel cold; he “shivered with the cold that seems to fill the void when the light of a life suddenly ends, and also the chill that existed where Scrooge’s soul should have been.” To get himself in the Dickensian spirit, Bennett says, “I read A Christmas Carol cover-to-cover six times in a row. After doing that, you sort of get in the zone. I’d walk around the house speaking in Victorian language. My family thought it was pretty funny.”
The language was just part of the efforts Bennett made to stay true to the original. “I didn’t want to reinterpret the work,” he says. “A Christmas Carol is practically a sacred text in literature. I wanted to hang everything around the edges of what Dickens created.”
While staying within the Dickensian context, Bennett has nevertheless been able to expand the story into new areas. We learn about how Marley started down the road to becoming his reprehensible self, how the Scrooge and Marley partnership came to be, how Marley mentored Scrooge in the ways of avarice, and even how he ended up wandering around in all of those chains in the spirit world. In the end, Bennett is able to use Marley to expand upon many of the moral and spiritual themes introduced by Dickens.
“Dickens introduces the concept of an afterlife into the story. When I was writing about that, I tried to utilize anything that would be commonly found in most Christian religions,” Bennett says. That included doing research in doctrinal reference books for various Christian denominations. However, he also notes, “I think anybody who has a value system, Christian or not, that deals with how we treat each other, will enjoy it.”
Most readers can predict going in how things will end up for Marley. After all, who’s going to write a Christmas book based on a heartwarming classic that closes on a down note? Nevertheless, Bennett makes getting to the anticipated conclusion an enjoyable ride, builds the life of an interesting character along the way and ends up creating a story worthy of becoming a holiday tradition in its own right.
JACOB T. MARLEY
By R. William Bennett
Shadow Mountain Publishing, 2011
176 pages, $17.99 hardcover