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? Continue reading

Wallis Warfield Simpson 1896 -1986; Love, Actually, After A Fashion

That Woman: The Life of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor, Anne Sebba, St. Martin’s Press

Wallis Warfield Simpson is a figure of fascination to generations of women and young girls.  Her story is so romantic-on its face- that most of us cannot resist yet another biography. However, there is another view of Wallis that inverts the whole fairy tale and turns it into a tale of grotesques, hobbling along a doomed path tethered together for a lifetime, something designed to torment the damned in one of Dante’s lower circles of hell.  Biographers see the same picture, some one way up, and some topsy turvy, and in Ms. Sebba’s case it is the upside down version that fills her book with intimations of deformities, neurosis, and disease. Continue reading

Catherine Dickens 1815-1879: His “Dearest Pig”

 There are fatal encounters in this life some of which do not turn out well for either of those appointed by time and fate to meet.  Catherine Hogarth and Charles Dickens probably met at the home of her father George Hogarth in 1835.  They quickly became engaged.

Charles was on the rebound from a failed courtship of a determinedly flirtatious girl named Maria Beadnell who had, after the manner of flirts, ended up marrying a young man with greater expectations than his own.  He was at a loose end and he was invited home to one of his editors’ houses, and the rest was history.

Catherine at about nineteen or so was an early Victorian pin up with brown hair, big blue eyes, a pink face and a curvaceous figure that was going to run to fat in later life.  She was captivated almost at once by Dickens’ energy and his humor, his bright waistcoats, may have helped as well.  He, on the other hand, liked Catherine’s “calm”. Continue reading

Ellen Lawless Ternan, 1839-1914: Best of Times, Worst of Times

Her name was Ellen. She was an actress born to an actress mother and had two older sisters who were also actresses. The Ternan family had been treading the boards long before Ellen came along and the talent in the family belonged to her mother rather than to her actor/manager father who died early and tragically. Ellen Lawless Ternan struggled along after that death with her mother and sisters trying to eke out a living on the London stage.

For many years it must have seemed like a thankless struggle and an unprofitable one to the little family, but then, when Ellen was eighteen, a privately produced melodrama went into Wilkie Collins production which required professional actresses. It was called The Frozen Deep and it featured among its principal players, the writer Charles Dickens. Continue reading

Catherine the Great, 1729-1796: Great-ish.

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman
Robert K. Massie,  574 pages, Random House

They don’t make biographers like this anymore. Usually these days the ability to write clear English is much less and the tendency to promulgate unsupported speculation is much greater, than in the last decades of the twentieth century. That was when Massie published the bestseller which made his name, Nicholas and Alexandra.

The same qualities that propelled Massie to the top then are evident in his prose now. He may not be a great writer of lyrical sentences. Consider his description of the day that Catherine usurped the crown of Russia from her husband Peter III: “That afternoon at Peterhof was warm and sunny, and the lesser members of Peter’s entourage remained on the terraces near the cool spray of the fountains or wandered through the gardens under the cloudless summer sky.” Continue reading

Anne Boleyn, 1501-1536: The Trouble With Anne

Anne Boleyn has to date had far too many biographies written about her.  She is such a fascinating character, the woman for whom Henry the VIII broke faith with Rome to form an entirely new English church, and threw his family, and his kingdom into turmoil, and moreover lost Sir Thomas More’s head. (Someone else had to lose Sir Thomas More’s head; he never lost it himself.)

Anne Boleyn has been endlessly misjudged in my estimation.  People marvel at her success with her off-beat looks, and her eleven fingers, and her elegance, and think that those things, together with the solely contemporarily detectable quality of sexiness, explain her hold on King Henry – but I don’t think so. Continue reading