Charles Dickens 1812 -1870: An Actor Turned Writer on a Writer Turned Actor

Charles Dickens and The Great Theatre of the World by  Simon Callow, Vintage Books.

Moliere did it, by all accounts so did Shakespeare, and when you consider that the actor’s greatest tool is observation, and their greatest use of it, characterization, you wonder why writers, who also have to create characters, don’t cross this line more often than they do.  But writers are introverted people – aren’t they? They are alienated, self absorbed, at odds with the cosmos they inhabit, unconcerned by such quotidian niceties as the physical world around them – aren’t they?

Maybe not.  Charles Dickens certainly was not.  If anyone was ever forced into this world like a needle into an epidermis, then surely it was Dickens.  He was the most tirelessly observant person anyone could remember ever meeting. Without looking at anything in particular, Dickens wrote of himself as a young man, he had missed nothing.  How many of us can say the same?

Simon Callow, who will be best remembered by US audiences for his comic turn in Four Weddings and a Funeral, as the funeral in the making, has adopted a wonderful tone in this biography.  He writes with all the immediacy of a conversationalist.  You feel almost all the way through this biography, as though it were a long chat you were having with Callow at the Garrick Club, while discussing that fascinating recently deceased member, Dickens. He has the wonderful habit of writing English to be listened to, which after all is what happens when English is spoken, and this gives the prose of the biography a sinuous playful continuity that is generally missing from biographical writing, generally as staid and grave as a funeral peroration.  There is nothing dead about this account.

Dickens’ life from his beginning as the son of a perennially improvident father and a selfish feckless mother, to his triumph with The Pickwick Papers, only twelve years after his father’s imprisonment  at the Marshalsea for debt, is pretty well known.  From that point onwards his life proceeded in a round of writing, publishing, and making money that was almost ceaseless.  He was beset by sponging relatives, became the  husband of a conventional wife, the father of ten children and one of the most famous novelists of the 19th century, but he was also, as Callow makes very plain, a frustrated actor.

When after many years of writing and putting on amateur theatricals, the theatre took over his life completely, it exacted a terrible price.  Here is Callow on the public readings that ultimately killed Dickens at fifty eight:

“He entirely relied, every time he performed, on nervous energy-on adrenalin, in fact, and adrenalin is a dangerous drug. It enables you to ignore your physical limitations; but the body pays the price nonetheless, as does the mind… Dickens’ performances were triumphs of the mind over matter: real acting is about mind in matter.”

Not many non-actors would know this kind of truth about acting, and if Callow is correct, neither did Dickens.  When in 1857 Dickens acted in The Frozen Deep, a play writen by his friend Wilkie Collins the combination of emotional turmoil and middle age set off one of the most destructive mid life crises on record.  Dickens fell in love with an eighteen year old ingénue, left his wife, divided his family,   lost many friends,  even changed his publishers, in an orgy of self justification.

Luckily for Dickens, he never lost the affections of his public, which Callow surmises shrewdly was the relationship that lay nearest his own heart.  Instead, Dickens, a Victorian to the finish line, burned all his private correspondence, pensioned off his wife and installed his mistress in a series of furtively visited addresses;  all this, while not only keeping up the pace of his public life, but increasing it.

In this sense, the life of Charles Dickens somewhat resembles a vortex down which in the end, everything: energy, talent, compassion, friendship, romantic love, duty, family was funneled in an increasingly tightening spiral, until it all whirled down the public’s maw.

Ultimately the man who wanted to be buried privately in his parish churchyard,  was  instead installed in Westminster Abbey. He could hardly complain. After all Dickens had decided to go on the stage, all right.  The world stage.


3 thoughts on “Charles Dickens 1812 -1870: An Actor Turned Writer on a Writer Turned Actor

  1. You made me want to read this book. I am sort of Dickens-impaired and have a feeling I will find the man (and author/actor) more interesting than his characters with their ridiculous names.

    • You’re not the only dickensially dysfunctional person out there. There’s me, too. I find reading about Dickens himself irresistable, though; surely one of the least introspective novelists ever born, with a concomitant fascination with everyone else and their doings. So different from dear old Proust and his cork lined walls. It makes you wonder when it was that novelists began to take themselves so seriously.

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