by Simon Callow
Born the second of eight children, Charles Dickens would overcome a tumultuous, difficult childhood to become one of the most popular English writers in the history of literature. The very definition of a workaholic, Dickens’ pen churned out novels, plays, short stories, articles and copious letters. Many of his titles are now part of the Western canon; a student in the United States will almost certainly be assigned David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations or A Christmas Carol at some point during his high school career.
In his foreword to his biography of the 19th century writer – the latest in a long line of such biographies – Simon Callow readily admits that there are many excellent works about Dickens available on the market. What sets this latest book apart? Unlike his predecessors, who have studied Charles Dickens from every conceivable angle – through his work, or his relationship with the poor, etc. – Callow has been Charles Dickens. He’s played the author in the one man show The Mystery of Charles Dickens, in feature films, and on several BBC television programs – including the current Doctor Who. These experiences uniquely qualify Callow to explore Dickens and his relationship with the theatre, a fascination that flourished throughout the author’s life. Throughout his life, Dickens attended the theatre regularly. Many of the characters who populate his novels find their origin in the tropes and habits of stock stage personas. He wrote an operetta, The Village Coquettes, but it was met with little success; the plays that he wrote fared better, though they are all but forgotten today. But as he grew older, Dickens became more and more of an actor, putting on a public face – the genial man who cared passionately about the working class and writers’ rights – and the private man who disliked his wife, eventually discarding her for an actress barely a third of his age. This culminated in his extremely popular reading tours, in which Dickens became the actor in a one-man show, performing his beloved stories for a demanding, ever-growing audience.
This is the first time that I’ve read a biography of Charles Dickens, and I picked it specifically for the theatrical angle. Dickens’ novels always seem so staged to me, peppered as they are with so many improbable coincidences and such predictable characters-types. They just seem perfect for stage adaptation – as shown by the profusion of films and TV mini-series based on his books. (Just imagine how delighted Dickens would have been with film!) Since I was forced to analyze and write about several of his novels in my student years, I didn’t want to read a biography that would focus heavily on his literature – and this proved a very fresh way to learn more about the author’s life.
Callow’s biography is written in a brisk, entertaining prose peppered with frequent excerpts from Dickens’ vast body of correspondence and diary entries. Dickens is such a densely verbose writer! His wordiness spilled over into Callow’s narrative, but it is never a difficult read. There is little literary analysis, so if you’re looking for a book that talks about Dickens’ novels this isn’t it. But if you want to learn more about Dickens the Playwright or Dickens the Performer, this is an excellent book.
4 out of 5 stars
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Peeking into the archives...today in:
2012: Delilah by India Edgehill
2011: Closing down for end of the year Festivus…
2010: The Day the Falls Stood Still by Cathy Marie Buchanan
2009: Sorry for the lack of updates…