Every page Dickens wrote was a stage

This 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 informative.

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 and Nancy.

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 books' characters.

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.


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