The book stood on the shelf at the local library, with both famous names printed equally large across the cover:
Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World by Simon Callow.
I was having a fresh look at a half-written historical fantasy novel for older children. Much of the research is in place, the plot is plotted and the characters, though neglected, are still “alive” and so, as my book set within the Victorian theatre world, a brisk trip back in time with Simon Callow was an easy attraction as well as a distraction.
This neat volume was published in 2012, just as Claire Tomalin’s book on Dickens was attracting attention. Callow acknowledges her work, as well as Peter Ackroyd’s wide and weighty biography and many other sources including John Forster, Dicken’s friend and original biographer.
The value of this book is that Callow, as an actor has lived very close to Dickens. He has acted the role of Charles Dickens, performing a long run of the author’s famed Reading Tours, as well as studying Dickens work and letters deeply beforehand.
As Callow says, borrowing a quote for his introduction: “I’ve been ‘im!”
Callow’s energetic prose offers Dickens as the showman, the “Sparkler” who had loved performing and the theatre since infancy. The young Dickens was a child entertainer in Portsmouth, constantly encouraged and admired within his wide family for his lively recitations and play-acting and his inherited art of mimicry. At one of his many childhood lodgings, the boy would fall asleep each night to the sounds from the adjoining theatre coming through his bedroom wall. Later, this childhood idyll was shattered by poverty and a wretched change in his situation, leaving scars that were hidden until after the successful writers death.
Throughout his life, Dickens cultivated a sense of performance. He acted out his characters as he wrote, read dialogues and long idiosyncratic character passages out to friends, revelling in the range of voices he’d captured on his pages. Moreover, Dickens novels did not appear in single volumes. They came as cleverly-paced serials, creating an audience eager for the next act of his dramatic plot, ready to read his words aloud within their own family circles, his voice becoming part of the national voice.
Ever a night-walker, Dickens worked out his plots as he paced the streets, often walking for miles. Did he speak his ideas aloud as he walked, I wonder, or recite his scenes? Alternatively, by day, Dickens paced noticeably about town in flamboyant, brightly-coloured clothes, being the "Inimitable" Dickens.
This restless night-walking also underpinned his reputation as an eloquent public speaker: as Dickens paced, he thought and worked out the topics in his argument, each point imagined as a spoke on a wheel. Giving a speech, Dickens imagined moving his way around that wheel, silently knocking away each spoke as he made that particular point. One observer even noticed that Dickens made a small flicking-away gesture as he shared each point of his apparently off-the-cuff, note-less speech with his audience.
The Dickens that Simon Callow describes is almost constantly involved with theatrical ventures of one sort or another. He often toyed with the idea of being an actor or running a company. He relished playing dramatic games with his children and at one time appeared as a fully dressed oriental conjuror, demonstrating a range of impressive tricks.
As Dickens wealth and fame grew, the various plays he directed and acted in for his family and circle of friends became expansive celebrations, staged with almost professional crafts-people and with a cast filled with distinguished writers and notable friends along with his ever-growing family. Dickens even met his “invisible woman”, Ellen Ternan, when she took a minor role in one of his productions, The Frozen Deep.
The popularity of Dickens work brought other theatrical consequences: not only were his works published by other publishers, the stories were often dramatised, sometimes appearing on stage before the writer’s own conclusion had been printed. This must have been one of the irritations that made Dickens a champion for the rights of writers to receive more than small, one-off fees.
Callow’s book gives a sense of the relentless, manic, mecurial drive of Dickens, highlighting his determination and ability and the pace at which he worked and lived his life. He felt a burning need to communicate and share his condemnation of Victorian society with the working men of Britain.
Dickens love of performance culminated in the physically demanding Reading Tours of his later years. He toiled hard, preparing several best-loved scenes and characters from his books, as well as re-writing, adapting and adding in his own performance notes. He made them into demonstrations of his own theatrical skill, interpretation and artistry and adoring crowds were eager to see and hear Dickens wherever he travelled.
As Callow explains, these Reading Tours were reassuring triumphs for Dickens but gradually their number, duration and emotional intensity wrecked his health. By the age of 58, Charles Dickens' own great show was over.
However, as Callow writes, ending this engaging biography “As long as men and women want to hear stories, Charles Dickens remains and will always be a leading player on the stage of our imagination.” Meanwhile I, now Callow’s book has been read, must try and get back into my own.