year is the bicentenary of the birth of master novelist
Charles Dickens, so no wonder much has been published that
has focused on the author and his writing.
It is a joy to open a biography of the great man that is
fairly compact, easy to read, entertaining and certainly
The latest book appears to be authoritative and is
passionately imaginative. The main facts of Dickens' life, as
known today, seem to be all there with quotes from the man
himself. It is also gives an impressive interpretation of
Dickens as a "theatrical" prose writer (as identified by
another man of the theatre).
Simon Callow, author of Charles Dickens, is an actor as well
as a writer - not an academic. He has performed several
Dickens stories on stage and portrayed Dickens in a recent
play by Peter Ackroyd (as well as once in TV's Doctor Who).
He claims not only to have written about Charles Dickens but
also to have "been 'im".
He writes with a warm and exuberant empathy between author
and his famous subject.
In the Ackroyd play Callow brought 49 of Dickens' best-loved
characters to life in a one-man performance, echoing the
recitals that Dickens himself once gave. Callow had to
re-create such characters as Nicholas Nickleby, David
Copperfield, Miss Havisham and Pip, Mr Pickwick, Scrooge and
Tiny Tim, Oliver Twist, the Artful Dodger, Fagin, Bill Sykes
Through the chronological biography Callow emphasises how
Dickens' love for the world of theatre grew from his early
years to strongly influence his life and work. Dickens'
experience as a highly praised but always amateur actor is
seen as at the heart of his writing.
Callow points out that the novelist learned a "streaky bacon"
technique of alternating comic and tragic scenes from the
dramaturgy of his day. And Dickens was a keen and prodigious
stage manager and producer of amateur dramatics, so
"literature was his wife, the theatre his mistress".
Dickens' love of theatre later moved into the desired,
face-to-face relationship with his public, achieved literally
with tours of his public readings in Britain and the United
States - like a pop star of today. It had also developed his
The novelist had a natural power of "reproducing in my own
person what I observed in others" as an actor's skill.
He could imitate people and their talk.
While writing an invented character's speech for a novel,
Dickens frequently leapt up to check his own expression in a
mirror. Callow maintains that Dickens the actor was inherent
in Dickens' characters.
The dark side of the psychodrama of Dickens' life is also
well sketched: that dreadful year in the shoe polish factory
that roused his social anger, his schooling (Oliver Twist),
the premature death of an adored sister-in-law, Mary Hogarth,
that probably led him to idolise women in fiction but
mistreat his real-life wife (as a husband he was by no means
admirable and he issued public statements berating his former
partner as a failed spouse).
This book is not meant to be a critique of the novels
themselves. But Callow is a jubilant Dickens fan. His hero
worship began when a grandmother gave him a copy of The
Pickwick Papers (Dickens's first book) to aid his recovery
from a childhood bout of chickenpox: "From the moment I
started reading I never itched again."
He has since read almost everything Dickens wrote, including
12 volumes of his letters. He sees Dickens as: "one of the
most remarkable men ever to walk the earth; vivacious,
charismatic, compassionate, dark, dazzling, generous,
destructive, profound, sentimental".
• Geoff Adams is a former ODT editor.