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Dickens on the Web The Mystery of Ackroyd and Callow - Robert Giddings

The Mystery of Ackroyd and Callow

By Robert Giddings
Reprinted with permission of the author

‘The Mystery of Charles Dickens’, by Peter Ackroyd, BBC Radio 4, BBC-4 Television, starring Simon Callow, together with a few words about ‘Dickens’, BBC-2’s three part dramatized documentary television series written and presented by Peter Ackroyd.

“Those who produce the material follow, often grumblingly, innumerable requirements, rules of thumb, set patterns, and mechanisms of control which by necessity reduce to a minimum the range of any kind of artistic self-expression. The fact that most products of mass media are not produced by one individual but by collective collaboration…. is only one contributing factor to this generally prevailing condition. To study television shows in terms of the psychology of the authors would be tantamount to studying Ford cars in terms of the psychoanalysis of the late Mr Ford”.

Theodor Adorno: ‘How to Look at Television’ in

The Quarterly of Film, Radio and Television, Volume 8, number 3, 1954.

  1. Spring Offensive 2002: Operation Boz
  2. The One Man Show Tradition
  3. Literary One-Man Shows
  4. Simon Callow in Peter Ackroyd’s ‘The Mystery of Charles Dickens’
  5. "Authenticity" and Dickens’s Public Reading Tours
  6. Charles Dickens, Solo-Performer
  7. What Did Dickens Read to the Public?
  8. Dickens: BBC-2 Television Series
  9. Was Charles Dickens a Democrat?
  10. The BBC Throws the Book at Us

1.Spring Offensive 2002: Operation Boz      (top)

The Victorians’ sense of their cultural past was based on foundations laid by Sir Walter Scott, subsequently developed by such chroniclers as Thomas Babington Macaulay, (The History of England, four volumes, 1848-1855); James Anthony Froude (The History of England from the Fall of Cardinal Wolsey to the Spanish Armada, twelve volumes,  1856-1870)[1] and John Richard Green (A History of the English People, four volumes 1878-80). Macaulay crystallized and popularised the Whig version of British history that survived in pretty good shape well into the middle of the twentieth century[2]. This tradition was continued in the last century by Sir Winston Churchill[3] and Sir Arthur Bryant[4]. This kind of popular (if not populist) history book seems quietly to have faded away. Its place is now taken by the mass media – and television in particular – which produces an active breed of celebrity opinion leaders. As I write the news is circulating of the one million pound deal between the BBC and TV-friendly historian Simon Schama. [5] We already have a History Channel on satellite and cable TV, but UK History will commence transmission in October 2002. This is part of the British UK TV family, which includes UK Gold, UK Drama, UK Horizons, UK Food and UK Style. It’s a commercial joint enterprise involving the BBC and Flextech Television, a division of Telewest Communications. The new venture’s publicity deploys the ubiquitous Simon Schama. The UK threatens to be submerged by the weight of its own past.

The BBC, as befits its status as a free standing publicly funded independent corporation, has proved particularly fruitful in creating pundits -– those authoritative experts from the Corporation’s faculty -- inescabables such as Alistair Cooke, Raj Persaud, Melvin Bragg, David Starkey, Richard Holmes, Mark Lawson and Simon Schama -- who regularly pontificate in those incontrovertible media tones. BBC Foreign Affairs Editor John Simpson’s confident announcement of his single-handed liberation of Kabul was wholly in keeping with this flipside of the Reithian Legacy.

In the spring of 2002 the BBC launched a new multi-media phenomenon, and gave us the Definitive Dickens Man, Peter Ackroyd. The UK experienced something of a Dickens Blitzkrieg, which seemed to have been masterminded by Peter Ackroyd. It was a simultaneously co-ordinated assault on several fronts –– stage, radio, TV, the web, audiocassette, videocassette and general merchandize. I cannot recall such a campaign focused on a single writer before Operation Ackroyd/Dickens. The campaign and its implications are well worth pondering. From this blitz he will emerge an invincible Super Power, a sole and unassailable Dickensian Authority.

The assault of Operation Boz came in two parts. First there was the one-man stage show, The Mystery of Charles Dickens, scripted by Peter Ackroyd, starring Simon Callow. This was adapted for radio and transmitted on BBC Radio Four and subsequently released on audiocassette. The stage version was then televised on BBC-4, the Corporation’s new arts and culture channel, in April 2002. This was then followed in May by a three part television drama-documentary series, Dickens, on BBC-2, hosted by Peter Ackroyd. The BBC published Ackroyd’s accompanying book, Dickens: Public Life and Private Passion. And, oh, I nearly forgot, there’s a BBC website devoted to this campaign.

The reviewers’ favourable critical reception of Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Dickens in 1990 established his place in modern Dickens studies. But it hardly prepared us for this Dickens Crusade. This whole enterprise shows the extent of the Corporation’s metamorphosis from Reithian elitism to full engagement in the populist market, and cannot be viewed in isolation from the global market economy and Post Modern, Blairite Britain of which it is so characteristic a product. This exciting package and it antecedents deserves examining.

2.The One Man Show Tradition      (top)

The one-man show has a lengthy and on the whole respected history, stretching back, I suggest, to the bardic tradition, represented in the storytellers of Britain and Gaul. Both Caesar (Conquest of Gaul VI:iii) and Lucan (Pharsalia I:449) give accounts of their performance and function as chroniclers, teachers and cultural priests. As far as modern show business is concerned, the tradition begins to revive in Regency salons, assembly rooms and lecture halls and continues through Victorian and Edwardian music hall to the legitimate theatre.  It finds its modern counterpart in today’s festival events for cultural tourists and today’s media performances with their accompanying video, audio and educational merchandize. 

In the beginning the one-man show involved a literary celebrity -– Coleridge, Hazlitt, Carlyle, Matthew Arnold, Mark Twain --publicly off-loading their thoughts on literary or cultural matters. The glimpses one gets from the reports of others makes one long to have seen them. These seemed to have been of a species now defunct -- literary men of highly creative imagination who could deliver the goods in the public arena. One would like to think that radio and television would have offered similar opportunities to modern sages, but this has happened in only a few cases. A few remaining exponents of the tradition may still be seen touring various literary festivals. The original performing sages were at one and the same time, poets (well, writers anyway) and performers. They gave a good show and they managed in themselves to combine culture and show business, the Bard as well as Barnum. After reading Hazlitt’s description of Coleridge, who wouldn’t love to have seen him?

“The round faced man in black entered, and dissipated all doubts on the subject, by beginning to talk. He did not cease while he stayed; nor has he since, that I know of…..”

Hazlitt opined in Lectures on English Poets 1818 that Coleridge’s genius seemed to have angelic wings, and fed on manna:

“He talked on forever; and you wished him to talk on for ever. His thoughts did not seem to come with labour and effort; but as if borne on the gusts of genius, and as if the wings of his imagination lifted him off his feet. His voice rolled on the ear like the pealing organ, and its sound alone was the music of thought…”

Some of them may have appeared before audiences as evangelists to spread the word, to share what they had seen or understood, to share their adventures among the literary masterpieces. Others were prompted by the urge to perform their own works in public. Mark Twain wrote to Andrew Land in 1890:

“I have never tried even in one single little instance, to help cultivate the cultivated classes. I was not equipped for it, either by native gifts or training. And I never had any ambition in that direction, but always hunted for bigger gain – the masses. I have seldom deliberately tried to instruct them, but have done my best to entertain them”.

With Dickens, however, we seem to reach the greatest exponent of the literary one-man showman.

3.Literary One-Man Shows     (top)

Dickens was the first celebrated man of letters to come before the public as a performer or interpreter of his own work. But the image of Dickens himself as a one-man performer made an extraordinary impact. Dickens had proved himself to be, in Thomas Carlyle’s phrase: “a whole tragic comic heroic theatre visible, performing under one hat”. Dickens’s performance was so magnificent that it was bound to provoke imitators, and they were not long in coming. The prototype was to produce considerable progeny.

An important point about Dickens’s place in our culture helps explain the impact of his one-man readings and those of who followed in his wake. Dickens' fiction rapidly became part of traditional British popular culture.

Dickens’s academic reputation was not really settled and resolved in British academic literary orthodoxy until Leavis's recantation in the late 1960's, but as far as the people were concerned, they took Boz into their hearts. He was inescapably associated with the British Christmas and his characters peopled popular culture. Men and women who had never dutifully read the novels would have no difficulty in recognizing Pickwick, Micawber, Oliver, Fagin, Uriah Heep, Squeers. If the sage was correct, and a classic was something everybody knew and nobody read, then Dickens's novels had been classics for generations. It is worth noting that within months of Martin Chuzzlewit's serialization Robert Peel was being caricatured as Mr. Pecksmith (who had immediately become the personification of hypocrisy) and the campaign in the press to satirize the hideous inadequacy of nursing support during the Crimean War starred Sarah Gamp. Further evidence of the enduring currency of these figures in our popular culture is the fact that  "Characters from Boz" was a very popular series of Wills' cigarette cards during the Great War. Whoever followed Dickens could float on a tide of warm and affectionate approbation.

Bransby Williams (Bransby Williams Pharez (1870-1961) was born the year Dickens died. He was the earliest one-man Dickens of major importance He became a star of the British music hall, but began his career on the legitimate stage. In 1896 he appeared at Shoreditch Music-Hall in an act, which featured imitations of the great actors of the day – Henry Irving, Beerbohm Tree and Charles Wyndham. At the height of his career he was a top line act, second only to Dan Leno (for whom he brilliantly deputized at the Tivoli).

He was the great original one-man Dickens performer, pioneering the use of a repertoire of Dickens characters, performed using a replica of the novelist’s reading desk. He was in great demand and sometimes did several shows at different theatres, notoriously changing costume in the cab while in transit. In the main he drew on Pickwick Papers, Dombey and Son, A Tale of Two Cities and The Signalman. Grandfather Smallweed and Grandfather Trent were particularly admired, the latter causing audiences to shed tears. [6]He appeared on stage all over Britain, broadcast on radio and television, visited USA and made gramophone recordings.

His career and the manner in which he finally discovered the rich vein to be exploited in Dickens's characters are very revealing. The various accounts which survive (including his autobiography published in 1954) suggest that early in his working life he was an all-purpose actor and mimic, making a living very largely from work with a provincial stock company, doing musical monologues, imitations of famous actors and characters from Shakespeare and Dickens. It is a fact that these characters were immediately recognized by his audiences, who clearly relished his impersonations. This tells us a great deal about Dickens enduring place in British culture. The fact is that Dickens had entered popular consciousness, and remained there, long, long before radio, film and television allegedly rendered the fictions accessible to a mass audience. Dickens’s national iconic status is recognized to the extent of his featuring on our Ten-Pound notes, but he’s been part of our currency for decades. A recent poll in The Guardian caused that national newspaper to assert that “nobody reads Dickens nowadays”. This would seem to confirm the truth of the adage that a classic is something everybody knows and nobody reads.

In USA the opening up of travel and communication by the railroad network and development of ocean going shipping system encouraged the emergence of the traveling one-man lecture or performing tour. Mark Twain toured the world from the mid 1890s and recounted his adventures in Following the Equator 1897. Vachel Lindsay (1879-1931) triumphantly toured performing his own works -– notably The Congo -– using that mixture of recitation and chant that he called “the higher vaudeville”.

After the death of Bransby Williams, probably the most celebrated one-man showman was the British actor Charles Laughton, who in 1949 began giving brilliant performances of excerpts from the bible, Shakespeare, Dickens and in due course, Jack Kerouac. (Laughton, we shall see, was to prove an inspiration to Simon Callow).

The torch of Bransby Williams was taken up by Emlyn Williams  (1905-1987),the Welsh actor and playwright with an international reputation. He was a performer of vast range, including roles in Shaw, Shakespeare, Rattigan[7] before he began giving solo readings of Dickens at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith in 1951, and subsequently transferred to the Criterion Theatre, Piccadilly and the Duchess Theatre, off the Aldwych.  He toured the world performing these readings, appearing to great acclaim in Boston and New York.

Emlyn Williams set his mark on the Dickens act by appearing on stage as Dickens, bearded and in costume and using the essential prop of the replica of Dickens’s reading desk.[8] This poses an interesting and continuing problem in performance –- that of a solo performer in the role of Charles Dickens, performing Dickens the novelist, performing characters and scenes from Dickens’s fiction. His programme featured excerpts from The Pickwick Papers, Dombey and Son, A Tale of Two Cities, Our Mutual Friend and The Signalman. He also performed on radio and television. [9]

The vatic, incantatory, romantic and moodily mystical mode of  Dylan Thomas (1914-53) was ideal as performance art and the poet himself established a notable reputation as a one-man show. He died during a poetry reading tour in New York. In 1955 Thomas gave rise to another celebrated one-man show, A Boy Growing Up, in which fellow Welshman Emlyn Williams read excerpts from Thomas’s poetry. An interesting line of political biographical performance was developed by James Whitmore’s one-man Harry Truman show, “Give ‘Em Hell, Harry! “He also did an acclaimed Will Rogers show. Hal Holbrook was a great success on stage as Mark Twain, which became memorable as a celebrated television special.

Shakespeare inevitably lent himself well to the solo performer. Sir John Gielgud’s performance of George Ryland’s anthology, Ages of Man, which he first performed at the Queen’s Theatre in 1959, was probably the most famous. He subsequently took this to the Edinburgh Festival, Dublin and toured the USA, Australia, New Zealand, Warsaw, Leningrad, Moscow, and Scandinavian countries.

The celebrated Irish actor Micheal MacLiammoir[10] (1899-1978), founder of the Galway Theatre and the Dublin Gate Theatre and a vastly experienced actor, designer and dramatist[11], scored a major success in 1960 with his  one-man Oscar Wilde show, called –- wait for it -- The Importance of Being Oscar (ho, ho).   He followed this in 1963 in with his successful one-man show, I Must be Talking to My Friends. In 1965 he starred in another solo entertainment,Talking About Yeats. 

Another distinguished Irish actor, Max Adrian (1903-73), with considerable experience in classical roles at the Old Vic and with John Gielgud’s company at the Haymarket, Stratford and the Royal Shakespeare Company as well as in musical shows (Candide, New York) toured his one-man show on George Bernard Shaw in 1966 and on Gilbert and Sullivan 1969. In 1969 Roy Dotrice starred as John Aubrey in the one-man play Brief Lives at the Criterion theatre, London. This ran for four hundred performances and achieved the world record for the longest running solo performance. He subsequently toured England, Canada, USA, followed by a Broadway season, a world tour giving over 1,700 performances and an Australian tour in the mid Seventies. [12] He also did a well-received solo stage show as Abraham Lincoln in 1980 (London 1981).

The Scottish actor John Cairney (born 1930) scored a success as Robert Louis Stevenson in The Reluctant Advocate, but then staged his immensely successful one-man Robert Burns show and starred in a television version, The Robert Burns Story 1969. Recordings of his readings and of Burns songs continue to be widely available. His identification with Robert Burns became so complete that Cairney is recorded as having said that he felt Burns had taken over his career.

Miriam Margolyes performed Dickens’s Women at the Duke of York’s Theatre in 1991. This was broadcast on BBC Radio Four and subsequently released on audiocassette. It’s an interesting development in the solo reading performance, as Dickens’s Women was in effect a lecture on Dickens and women, and Dickens’s women in fiction, illustrated with performances of the evidence.  A noted feature of her performance, which made the whole thing come to life and help the feminist thesis go down pleasantly, was her splendid rapport with the audience. This mixture of entertainment and polemic has proved influential. 

Fiona Shaw performed T.S.Eliot’s The Waste Land, which was a triumph at literary festivals at Dublin and Brussels in 1995. One of the finest solo performers we have is Tom Conti, who famously took over from Peter O’Toole in Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell and is currently on tour in the one man show based on the life of John Barrymoore, One Helluva Life, which was written by William Luce.

Even such a selective summary as this gives a good idea of the vigorous tradition of the literary solo performer, which has endured well into the twenty-first century. Nevertheless, it’s clear in scanning the tradition, that Dickens crops up repeatedly in offering the challenge in one-man showmanship. English academic, Professor Philip Collins earned an excellent reputation reading Boz in public.[13] In the USA, Kirk Witmer earned a solid reputation touring as

Mr. Dickens, concentrating on performances in schools and colleges, mainly featuring a dramatic one-man performance of A Christmas Carol. Charles Dickens’s great- great-grandson, Gerald Charles Dickens does a show entitled “Mr Dickens is Coming!”. [14]He offers two one-man shows, more or less based on Dickens’s original readings. His appearance at the Landmark Center, St Paul, Minnesota, was part of the twenty-fifth anniversary celebration of Department 56, the St Paul-based company whose products include Victorian and Dickensian collectibles. He stood on a simply furnished stage, among the tea tables where the visitors have high tea before the show. He is not in role as Charles Dickens, but talks about Dickens’s life and writings and illustrates this with excerpts from the fiction. Apparently his audiences frequently ask him where Dickens lies in the 21st Century, and he answers: “Somewhere between Marlene Dietrich and Princess Diana”.[15]

4.Simon Callow in Peter Ackroyd’s ‘The Mystery of Charles Dickens’     (top)

Simon Callow has seemingly been waiting in the wings some while to recreate Dickens’s public readings. He said in a speech at the end of this show at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin, in October 2001, that he owed much to Micheal MacLiammoir, who had been the inspiration for his impersonation of Dickens. He had once worked briefly as the great Irishman’s dresser “and the experience changed his life”. It was MacLiammoir’s performance in The Importance of Being Oscar, which had inspired him to impersonate Dickens and he felt compelled to pay homage to the inspiration Micheal MacLiammoir had given him.[16] 

Callow first appeared as Dickens doing public readings on television on BBC-2 in December 1996. The BBC, possibly feeling the need today to proclaim its dedication to public broadcasting, seldom hesitates to trumpet its cultural hegemony. The Corporation did not hold back on this occasion, claiming on air that their Christmas television series of Dickens readings given in costume by Simon Callow was an "authentic recreation" of Charles Dickens's public readings. This is highly questionable.  True, Callow looked the part, bearded and wearing the kind of clothes Dickens wore for the readings. We were assured that the  corrected texts, as edited by Dickens for his readings, were used. The famous desk had been recreated. But these were all trimmings. The whole thing, replete with audience rigged out in Victorian oddments, resembled something between elaborate family charades and an edition of the BBC Television show ‘The Good Old Days[17]

But Simon Callow’s  performance did not ring true. The voices were insufficiently differentiated and the delivery lacked convincing impersonation and commitment. One was always conscious that here was a clever actor, trying hard to sound like Dickens’s character. The magic, the fire, the contagious vivacity that all who witnessed Dickens read and whose testimony survives, was just not there. The Sikes and Nancy murder would have caused no one to faint, and his rendition of Pickwick scarce raised a laugh. Yet the evidence of contemporary audiences is that Dickens produced laughter, tears, shrieks, screams and hysterics.

These televised readings did not fulfill his Dickensian ambitions. The urge to follow MacLiammoir continued to fire him on: “I did a show called ‘The Importance of Being Oscar’, about Oscar Wilde, which was written by a great Irish actor called Micheal MacLiammoir. He invented this idea of telling the life story of a great writer through becoming his characters and becoming him” he says in BBC publicity material: “It was such a pleasure and I thought we must find another writer…..the criterion was that the person was not only a wonderful writer but that his life should have been deeply interesting. When you look at English writers, Dickens is about the only person who fulfils these criteria. I thought ‘Who could possibly write this?’ Ackroyd came immediately to mind. I knew him a little bit socially, and I knew he was interested in writing for the theatre….” [18]

The “acclaimed” show, The Mystery of Charles Dickens, made its name on stage, on tour as well as in London’s West End, before it was given its radio production on  BBC Radio Four in April 2002 and later televised on the new BBC Culture and Media Channel, BBC-4.  Simon Callow’s impersonation of nigh on fifty Dickens characters became a wonder of the age, and he is now touring the world with it. It has appeared at the Belasco Theater, New York.  It’s already out on video and audio cassette, (with a ready education market). And it’s a hugely enjoyable and successful show. But it leaves some nagging thoughts behind.

Unlike previous one man Dickens shows, this is not a performance anthology.  It’s a scripted biography illustrated with excerpts of the fiction. And it has a case to argue. As he actually explains during his act, this genre, performed biography, was invented by his idol, the Irish actor, Micheal MacLiammoir.  It works very hard to earn its “Mystery” – mainly with psychological explorations of the author’s life.

Nevertheless, the real mystery is the obvious one -– the dazzling genius which moves millions. The basic assumption of the Ackroyd script is that the answer lies in Dickens’s psychology, including his sexual psychology.

I have long found this avenue of enquiry fatuous.  The dynamics of his family life, the horrors of Warren’s Blacking, lust for his young sister-in-law, love affair with a young actress and all that, may well explain the mess Dickens was in -- but this proffered farrago of psychobabble sheds little useful light on the enduring mystery -– why his fiction makes such an impact on us.  Our admiration for the Iliad or the Odyssey would hardly be increased should the poet’s biography be discovered, would it? Does any of this heady cocktail of Freud and Edmund Wilson help us understand Dickens’s literary genius? The obsessions of this script may well tell us more about Ackroyd than it tells us about Dickens, but that’s another story.

Dickens’s life and work is too vast a subject, with far too much material to be crammed into one show, however well condensed. But there were a few curious emphases and omissions. This reading of the biographical evidence offered little comment on the novelist’s relations with his mother, or his first love, Maria Beadnell. The script was rather unfair to Dickens’s father. There are serious distortions -- John Dickens was not released from the Marshalsea  simply because he inherited a small legacy. He made an arrangement with his creditors and was released under the Insolvent Debtors Act. Charles was soon after removed from Warren’s and sent to school. This had not pleased Dickens’s mother. Aware how short they would be with Charles's wages gone, she was anxious things should be patched up and that Charles go back to Warren's shop. John Dickens wouldn't hear of it.

John Dickens began to work as a reporter.  He’d retired on a modest pension  and begun a second career as a journalist. He learned shorthand and soon became a parliamentary reporter for the British Press and later worked for the Mirror of Parliament. In the meantime, Charles had left school and worked as a clerk in the law firm of Ellis and Blackmore, Gray’s Inn. Charles must have been encouraged by his father’s example, for he, too, learned Gurney’s shorthand, and soon obtained employment as a parliamentary reporter on the Mirror of Parliament.

It seems to me that Dickens's father deserves a bit more credit for furthering his son's eventual career as a writer. His example must have encouraged Charles to go into journalism. Parliamentary reporting not only gave him personal insight into the behaviour at the Mother of Parliaments, but also required him to travel extensively in following election campaigns –- experiences he obvious drew upon when writing Pickwick Papers.

 In the script, however, the impression is certainly given that the main inspiration for Pickwick had been the experience of the Marshalsea Prison. (These curious biographical distortions are later rehearsed in Ackroyd’s equally acclaimed BBC-2 television series, Dickens and Dickens: Public Life and Private Passion, the BBC book published to accompany the series).

Despite his off-the-peg psychology, Peter Ackroyd is mysteriously reluctant to undertake serious examination of Dickens's sex life. But Dickens had an adventurous and varied sex life from adolescence, during his infatuation with Maria Beadnell. When he moved from Tavistock Place to Gad's Hill in September 1860 he burned nearly all the letters from his friends.  We’ll never know what evidence these letters contained, but from the hints which remain in what has survived, as well as some odd comments of his behaviour noted by others, a fair amount may be inferred. It seems Dickens had an adventurous and varied sex life that involved more than just going to the music halls, the theatres and spending convivial evenings with friends.  He writes knowingly of the demi-monde in his fiction, and young females fall to preying males.[19]

The earlier novels --Nicholas Nickleby, Dombey and Son, David Copperfield  -- show that he’s familiar with the ways of the wicked world. He knows all about the customs and usages of the traffic in which young seamstresses supplemented their income, and when, where and how they could be picked up.

Dickens is usually portrayed as an advocate of family values, loving marriage partnerships, sound morals, but all the evidence suggests that his days as a young man about town suggests far more than going to places of public entertainment. In a letter of 1841 to Daniel Maclise, he attempts to entice him on a trip to Margate. As a bait he offers the fact that: "...there are conveniences of all kinds at Margate (do you take me?) and I know where they live". Much evidence has surfaced in various biographical work that  -- like Thackeray, and Wilkie Collins and the rest of them  -- Dickens was a consistent sexual adventurer. John Forster, understandably, suppressed much. Dickens probably thought he’d covered his tracks in the Tavistock Place bonfire. His letters from Macready, Ainsworth, Forster, Maclise, Lytton, and many others, went up in smoke.  (He asked his friends to destroy his letters to them, but fortunately not all of them obliged).  His young children remembered having "roasted onions in the ashes of the great". Dickens himself said that he wished "every letter I had ever written was on that pile" but many of his letters survived, and some of them offer interesting evidence.

Forster must have felt very sensitively as to Dickens’s relationship with Wilkie Collins, for he cut all references to Wilkie Collins in his Life of Dickens, and the omission may be significant -- Collins lived a vigorous sex life. He was personally rather proud of the fact that he’d been seduced in Italy at the age of thirteen -- by a married woman three times his age. This story he recounted with relish to Dickens.

Collins and Dickens were frequent visitors to Paris after they became friends in the early 1850s. Here they savoured what Dickens called the "diableries" together. Dickens himself admitted to perpetual trips to France at this time. It was so easy to cross the Channel from this part of southern England. He spoke French well, although his accent was not perfect, he was voluble. Dickens had been fascinated by France and French life since his thirties, and often made the trip with bachelor friends. As he wrote to his Swiss friend, William de Cerjat, in October 1864:

"....my being on the Dover line, and my being very fond of France, occasion me to cross the channel perpetually.....away I go by the mail-train, and turn up in Paris or anywhere else that suits my humour, next morning. So I come back as fresh as a daisy".

These trips to France always did his neuralgia a power of good, he claimed. His accounts of these trips seldom seem convincing. It’s possible that he may have been visiting Ellen Ternan, or passing the time in other ways. In any case he described them as solitary, "tours of observation" or "visiting a sick friend" or going for "a quiet tour" or to "evaporate for a fortnight" or even "a Mysterious Disappearance". After Dickens had left his wife for the young actress, Ellen Ternan, Wilkie Collins frequently twitted him about his being "as chaste as Diana" while on reading tours, which pleasantries he denied.

A few months after the novelist he’d burned the evidence he began writing Great Expectations, a masterpiece about guilt, memory and buried secrets.

In The Mystery of Charles Dickens Peter Ackroyd mysteriously plays down Dickens's obsessive love for Ellen Ternan.  She seemed to fill the gap left by the disappointing reunion with Maria Beadnell. (Though these matters get a fuller airing in his later Dickens documentary series for BBC-2). His treatment of Catherine Dickens was more vile than portrayed here. The animosity was quite startling. His alienation from Catherine certainly encouraged him to embark on public reading tours of his works. His treatment of Catherine alienated several of his literary friends. Kate Storey, who knew Dickens's daughter, recorded her recollections of her father's behaviour at this time:

"My father was like a madman when my mother left home. This affair brought out all that was worst -- all that was weakest -- in him. He didn't care a damn what happened to any of us. Nothing could surpass the misery and unhappiness of our home".

There was far more to the Ellen Ternan affair than The Mystery of Charles Dickens suggested. Ackroyd mysteriously asserts that there was no evidence that Charles and Ellen physically consummated their love.  Witnesses recorded that Ellen Ternan accompanied him to Paris and they returned together. There has been some surmise that Ellen was actually living in France and that the novelist went to visit her. It has even been suggested that she secretly gave birth to his child. His son Charles said, "There was a child, but it died". (There is evidence of a second child born in 1867, which lived only a week). Ellen returned with him to England in June and was on the train to London with him at the terrible Staplehurst railway accident -- very well dealt with in the script.

Dickens and Ellen continued their relationship. He took various addresses with her in Peckham and Slough. As the indefatigable Claire Tomalin convincingly suggests the novelist died in compromising circumstances in Nelly's company and his body secretly removed to Gad's Hill. 

But as a tour de force this is a tremendously exciting show. The range of material – from Sketches to last works is impressive. Callow’s command and range are indeed breath taking, if too readily barnstorming. Nevertheless, this is a far more exciting and committed performance than his previous venture in reading Dickens on BBC television 1999. However, the range of the selected material goes well beyond what Dickens himself ever actually performed in his own readings.

From Nicholas Nickleby we get Vincent Crummles. We get the death of Little Nell from The Old Curiosity Shop -- and clunkingly, we get that cheap jibe from the immortal Oscar about having a heart of stone etc. The remarks about Ignorance and Want from A Christmas Carol which Dickens himself carefully excluded from his own readings are worked in. He does not do the storm with the death of Ham and Steeforth -– a Dickens tour de force. But we get a long section of Bleak House about the fog, which Dickens himself never featured. He uses Great Expectations as evidence of Dickens’s failed marriage to Catherine and additionally used a good sample of miscellaneous “characters”. We get Podsnappery from Our Mutual Friend, which Dickens never did at his readings, and we get the Sikes/Nancy murdrer. Callow works hard at the pathos and melodrama, but his comic characters just fail to ignite that irrepressible laughter. His mimicry and deployment of verbal mannerism are inexhaustible. Mrs Gamp was particularly memorable. It’s all hugely enjoyable – but the mystery of Charles Dickens remains.

It’s only to expected, in Britain at the moment, with our craze for “authentic” performances of Baroque music, the Globe Theatre, the “Shakespeare Experience”, Civil War battle re-enactments and British television’s filling its schedules with documentary history programmes (replete with childish costumed recreations), that so much is claimed for the “authenticity” of this Simon Callow Dickens one-man show. Some developments in the one-man show are worth pondering to shed light on Peter Ackroyd’s The Mystery of Charles Dickens as performed by Simon Callow. Fortunately, quite a lot is known about Dickens’s readings.

5. “Authenticity” and Dickens’s Public Reading Tours     (top)

The celebrated reading tours, which Dickens embarked on towards the end of career, had a long gestation. It’s clear to me that he was mainly influence by his admiration for the great Charles Mathews (1776-1835), the greatest one-man show of the day. In his youth, Dickens spent his evenings at Vauxhall Gardens or various theatres. Mathews was among his favourite performers, who had been one of the best comic actors of the day, excelling in classic roles by Sheridan, Colman, Macklin and Shakespeare. It seems that Mathews grew tired of the limited roles offered to his talents in conventional dramas, and -– additionally handicapped by lameness -– developed his own idiosyncratic solo act.

He came on stage as himself, not in a role, and narrated some spiel, which was constructed to involve travel and encounters with numerous different characters. This offered considerable opportunities to display his wide-ranging talents in recitations, songs, impersonations and mimicry. He used limited props and quick costume changes to appear as a dazzling array of varying personality types, all clearly labeled by verbal mannerisms. (This method of character becomes basic in Dickens’s fiction). His range of mimicry and caricature manifested itself early in his career. In 1817 he had appeared in The Actor of All Work, that George Colman wrote especially for him. Here a country manager interviews various actors for roles in his company. This gave Mathews the opportunity to play numerous characters. The results were astounding. Other sketches -- The Trip to Paris, Mr. Mathews and his Youthful Days, The Trip to America -- followed.

Dickens was fascinated by Mathews's ability to assume one character after another, altering voice, stance, gesture, totally and wholly within a split second. He told John Forster: "I went to the theatre every night, with a very few exceptions, for at least three years....and going where there was the best acting; and always to see Mathews wherever he played".[20]

The impact of Charles Mathews on Dickens was considerable, affecting the very nature of his fiction and undoubtedly influencing the way the novelist performed his works in the public readings. Critics have acknowledged the Mathews influence on the writing. Robert Garis opined:

The first impression, and a continuing one, in Dickens’s prose is of a voice manipulating language with pleasure and pride in its own skill…there is the constant and overt intention to dazzle us with verbal devices, leading us to applaud…..a self-exhibiting master of language…Dickens is a performing artist, displaying his verbal skills in familiar modes and in a theatre created by the insistent and self-delighting rhetoric of his voice”.[21]

Dickens wanted to entertain the masses, of course, but he also to make as much money as possible. All the evidence strongly suggests he bountifully succeeded in both endeavours. John Forster recorded in his biography of Dickens: “…. in these days of lecturings and readings, a great deal of money might possibly be made (if it were not infraga dig) by having Readings of one’s own books. It would be an odd thing. I think it would take immensely[22].

Charles Dickens was a natural actor. Schoolfellows attest his willingness to play the fool in class.[23] Evidence from his family confirm that creating characters, acting them out, perfecting expressions and voices, sometimes in front of a mirror, were often preliminary to written creation. From the beginning there was a very strong connection between the oral and the literary in his art. There is a good case for arguing that in embarking on his career as a reader of his own work was really not a change of career, but an extension, a development, of his art as a communicator. If you look back at the fiction, even in the earliest works, you can see that it is all really there. The actor Martin Jarvis, an admired performer of several Dickens’s roles  -- Pip, Nicholas Nickleby, Uriah Heep –- described in the television documentary that all an actor required to recreate the tone and voice of the character was there on the page. The text gave you the stage directions and dialogue spoke itself. Using Uriah Heep as an example, he pointed out that Dickens actually wrote that Heep could not smile, only widen his mouth and extend the strong lines either side of his mouth. He then demonstrated that if you pulled your face into the expression that Dickens accords to Uriah Heep, the nasal, sneering, whine of Heep’s voice comes naturally.  Professor Philip Collins, drawing on his experience of reading Dickens to audiences, commented that he empirically found evidence of this rhetorical quality in Dickens’s writing during his preparation for his public readings:

As a performer, I certainly became aware of felicities in rhythm, accuracy of pointing, which are, for anyone with a modicum of platform skill much easier to demonstrate in performance than to describe analytically[24]

Dickens’s eldest daughter Mary (“Mamie”) recorded in My Father as I Knew Him 1900 that the novelist told George Henry Lewes: “every word said by my characters was distinctly heard by me”. She has left this celebrated account of her observations of Dickens while he was writing. She was recovering from an illness and was resting in the room where he was working:

One of these mornings I was lying on the sofa endeavouring to keep perfectly quiet while my father wrote busily and rapidly at his desk, when he suddenly jumped up from his chair and rushed to a mirror which hung near, and in which I could see the reflection of some extraordinary facial contortions which he as making. He returned rapidly to his desk, wrote furiously for a few moments, and then went again to the mirror …. the facial pantomime was resumed, and then turning toward, but evidently not seeing me, he began talking in rapidly in a low voice…..he had not only lost sight of his surroundings, but had actually become in action, as in imagination, the creature of his pen”. [25] 

George Woolley, who was working as a gardener at Gad’s Hill while Dickens was composing Edwin Drood, confirmed Dickens’s lifelong method of writing. While about his tasks he could hear the novelist at work in the wooden chalet he used as his study. Woolley could hear Dickens clearly declaiming: “I wondered what it was at first, and then I found out it was Mr. Dickens composing his writing out loud”.

As an infatuated adolescent, Dickens had determined to become an actor to impress his first ladylove, Maria Beadnell. To this end, he worked up several of Mathews’s routines (as well as other well-known roles), which he declaimed when he was out on his walks. He also took a series of lessons with Robert Keeley.[26] The theatrical and performing element is fundamental in Dickens’s art and – I believe -- was present from its very origins.

When Dickens thought he was ready for the plunge, he wrote to Mathews and asked for an audition, describing himself as a natural mimic with  "a strong perception of character and oddity". He was invited to audition before Mathews and Charles Kemble (one of the greatest actors of the day, with a range as wide as Garrick's).[27] However, on the day, Dickens had a very bad cold. He wrote to say he was unable to come but would make another appointment.

It’s frequently said that with this cold potentially a very great actor was lost to the Victorian stage. He never lost his love of the theatre and acting, and became an impressive amateur actor and eventually a mesmerizing performer of his own works.

It was in 1843 that Charles Dickens treated John Forster and friends to a reading of A Christmas Carol.  A year later he treated them to The Chimes. This time the audience included William Charles Macready, the great Victorian tragedian. In January 1853 Dickens suggested he raised money for the Birmingham and Midland Literary and Scientific Institution with a public reading of A Christmas Carol:

“It would take about two hours, with a pause of ten minutes half way through. There would be some novelty in the thing as I have never done it in public, though I have in private and (if I may say so) with a great effect on the hearers”. [28]

He knew he could do it, and relished the excitement of feeling his power over an audience. He told his wife soon after The Chimes reading: “If you had seen Macready last night – undisguisedly sobbing and crying on the sofa as I read – you would have felt (as I did) what a thing it is to have power”. [29]

The projected charity public reading of A Christmas Carol took place on 27 December 1853 before an audience of two thousand.  He gave a few more charity readings and his fame as a spirited and entertaining public reader of his own works soon spread. Within a couple of years we find him writing to Forster from Folkstone: “…I am going to read for them here on the 5th of next month, and have answered in the last fortnight thirty applications to do the like all over England, Ireland and Scotland”. [30]

He was now forty-six with a quarter of a century’s experience as a writer behind him. Although his reputation was now firmly established and the bread was returning on the waters -- by the mid 1850s he could anticipate an advance of some £6,000 on a new novel and he would be paid £1,000 for a short story – his expenses were considerable. If he embarked on professionally reading his work he would no longer have the irritation and stress of dealing with publishers. I don’t think he ever forgot or forgave the publishing industry in general and Chapman and Hall in particular for the disappointment of his earnings from A Christmas Carol – six thousand copies of the first edition had been sold on the day of publication. He’d been hard pressed for money and gleefully anticipated at least £1,000. But the first six thousand copies showed a profit of only £230. He had not the least doubt that Chapman and Hall had run the expenses up (plates, engraving, colouring, printing) purposely to increase the sum to be taken against the author’s payment. [31]

Dickens realized that reading to public audiences would cut out the publishing middleman. And in 1858 he began professional reading tours of his own work. Although part of the embryonic one-man show tradition I have attempted to outline, what made Dickens’s performances special was that for the first time a famous writer, and public figure – one might almost say, a celebrity -- was appearing in public as a performer of his own works – and in the main, reading to a public that was familiar with his fiction. He was soon to learn that exhausting though these tours were, reading was a sure fire way of earning considerable sums. Dickens was to make an international reputation and a vast fortune as the greatest one-man show of the age. These readings, as any who witnessed would testify, were a vent for his deep and powerful feelings and passions, of his vast range from comedy to pathos. He gave several tours of British cities and the USA. The final reading took place in March 1870, only months before he died.

The final series of readings included an item worked up from the murder of Nancy by Bill Sikes in Oliver Twist. He told John Forster:

"I have made a short reading of the murder in 'Oliver Twist'. I cannot make up my mind, however, whether to do it or not. I have no doubt that I could petrify an audience by carrying out the notion I have of the way of rendering it. But whether the impression would not be so horrible as to keep them away another time, is what I cannot satisfy myself upon. What do you think?" [32]

Forster was not impressed. He thought that it was too grisly for a public reading. Dickens's manager, George Dolby[33], was very taken with the idea, but thought that it would tax the novelist's health and energies too much. (It may well have shortened his life). It was decided to try it first on a small, select audience in London.

On 17 November 1868 it was presented to a specially invited audience of about a hundred at the St James's Hall. They saw Sikes round on Nancy, they saw him rain blows down on her helpless body, they saw her bloodstained face upturned begging for mercy. They were overwhelmed. A physician among the audience told him: "My dear Dickens, you may rely upon it that if only one woman cries out when you murder the girl, there will be a contagion of hysteria all over this place".  A well-known critic said that he thought the murder was the most amazing thing he had seen but that he had an almost irrepressible impulse to scream and if anyone had cried out, he, too would have followed.

He began his twelve farewell readings at St James's Hall, London, on 11 January 1870. The Sikes and Nancy reading had now been worked up to a tremendous tour de force.  Edmund Yates saw him read at St James' s Hall on 27 February 1870 and wrote this account in Tinsley's Magazine:

"Gradually warming with excitement he flung aside his book and acted the scene of the murder, shrieked the terrified pleadings of the girl, growled the brutal savagery of the murderer, brought looks, tones, gestures simultaneously into play to illustrate his meaning, and there was not one of those who had known him best or who believed in him most, but was astonished at the power and versatility of his genius...It is here of course that the excitement of the audience is wrought up to its highest pitch, and that the acme of the actor's art is reached. The raised hands, the bent-back head, are good; but shut your eyes and the illusion is more complete. Then the cries for mercy, the 'Bill! dear Bill! for dear God's sake!' uttered in tones which the agony of fear prevails over the earnestness of the prayer, the dead, dull voice as hope departs, are intensely real. When the pleading ceases, you open your eyes in relief, in time to see the impersonation of the murderer seizing a heavy club and striking his victim to the ground".

His final reading on 15 March 1870 was attended by over two thousand and thirty people, and three times that number were turned away at the doors of the hall. As he strode on the platform at 8 o'clock exactly, the entire audience rose as one and cheered him to the echo. His last reading was a triumph. He had chosen to end his career with excerpts from Carol and Pickwick. An eyewitness attests that ill though he might have been, at this last performance he was at the peak of abilities:

"Not a point was lost. Every good thing told to the echo,that is through the echoing laughter. Scrooge, Fezziwig, the Fiddler, Topper, every one of the Cratchits, everybody in 'The Carol'.... were all welcomed in turn, as became them, with better than acclamations. It was the same exactly with 'The Trial from Pickwick' -- Justice Stareleigh, Serjeant Buzfuz, Mr Winkle, Mrs. Cluppins, Sam Weller, one after another appearing for a brief interval, and then disappearing forever, each of them a delightfully humorous -- one of them in particular, the Judge -- a simply incomparable impersonation". (Charles Kent: Charles Dickens as a Reader 1872)

At the end of the reading the applause was deafening, everyone stood. He returned to the platform and suddenly a great silence fell. He said:

"....It would be worse than idle -- for it would be hypocritical and unfeeling -- if I were to disguise that I close this episode in my life with feelings of very considerable pain. For some fifteen years, in this hall and in many kindred places, I have had the honour of presenting my own cherished ideas before you for your recognition; and, in closely observing your reception of them, have enjoyed an amount of artistic delight and instruction which, perhaps, is given to few men to know...."

He told them that he had always been grateful for the warm support of his public, but it was best to retire at the full flood tide of their favour. But, referring to the serialization of Drood, he reminded them:

"....in but two short weeks from this time I hope that you may enter, in your own homes, on a new series of readings, at which my assistance will be indispensable; but from these garish lights I vanish now forever more, with a heartfelt, grateful, respectful, and affectionate farewell".

 He left the stage to tumultuous applause. Tears poured down his face.

At the end he was able to realize a lifelong ambition, to be a great performer. But he was also revealing what was basic in his method of composition -- acting his characters out in front of an audience as he was wont to do in front of a mirror at home, when he created them. Dickens characters are said to be caricatures: this is not quite right -- they are dramatic creations who find themselves in narrative prose fiction, larger than life, but no less true.

These readings had their reward -- it has been estimated that in total he made some £45,000 from his reading career. The Sikes and Nancy reading was always successful, and audiences astounded. But the reward was achieved at personal cost. The impact on his health of the Sikes and Nancy murder is well documented.

6.Charles Dickens, Solo-Performer     (top)

Two aspects of Dickens’s performances as a reader of his own works need to be explored here. One concerns the actual repertoire, what did he select to read? And secondly, what was he actually like as a solo performer? We shall then be able to assess to what extent The Mystery of Charles Dickens might be accepted as an authentic recreation of is celebrated original.

We have considerable evidence from which to build up a very reliable impression of Dickens’s readings, including good textual source material of the texts he used, eyewitness accounts of his performances and the evidence of friends and intimates. Professor Philip Collins assesses this evidence in the Introduction to his edition of Sikes and Nancy and Other Public Readings 1983,[34] to which this discussion is obviously indebted.

Nearly all the novelist’s prompt copies have survived, with his own annotations and stage directions (“very strong”, “cheerful narrative” “tender” etc).[35]  We have two fairly detailed personal accounts of Dickens as a performer of his own work, by Kate Field and Charles Kent.[36]W.M.Wright, a reporter, attended many of Dickens’s readings in America, with a volume of the texts of Dickens’s readings on his knee.[37] As he followed the performances, he wrote comments on gestures, vocal effects, mannerisms etc. in the margins. This is fascinating and important eyewitness evidence.[38] Rowland Hill, a Bedford journalist, has left his detailed account of Dickens’s performed readings of A Christmas Carol.[39]  Various memoirs and biographies – of Charles Dickens junior, E.L.Blanchard, Percy Fitzgerald, Rudolph Chambers Lehmann -- contain fascinating insights into Dickens’s art as public performer of his own fiction[40]. Dickens’s manager for the tours, George Dolby, left a book full of interesting and useful details. [41] Several twentieth century scholars, notably Philip Collins, Walter Dexter and Raymund Fitzsimons, have used the evidence to some effect in assessing the novelist’s achievement as a reader.[42] David Ponting, who toured with his own acclaimed solo performance as Dylan Thomas in the 1970s, writing from his experience as a professional performer, shed some light on Dickens’s art in an essay published in 1983. [43]

Thanks mainly to the indefatigable Professor Philip Collins, we have fairly detailed information as to the selection of excerpts the novelist elected to use, and the manner in which he adapted them as well as his annotations by way of stage directions.[44]

Dickens used few properties for his readings. He used a portable stage rig which included desk, carpeting and –- very important this -– specially designed gas lighting. He had a specially designed reading desk, with a carafe of water and a glass. Obviously, Dickens appeared as himself. But this needs to be qualified. By the time he began these readings, he was one of the most famous men in the country, more often than not, recognized wherever he went. It’s scarcely stretching the point to say he was a “celebrity” in the modern sense of the term, but certainly a prototype of what we recognize by that term today. He was, then, a familiar figure. But over and above that, in the main, his audience would be familiar with his work. No introductions to any excerpts were needed. This state of affairs can no longer be taken for granted.  It is attested that when Dickens mentioned a character – such as Sam Weller – just before beginning an excerpt, his audiences would burst into spontaneous applause, as if Sam himself were to appear in person before them.

The style of his performances has been meticulously observed, and all witnesses attest to his natural and unhistrionic manner. He was not camp, affected or self-conscious. No Vincent Crummles he!  On the contrary. Professor Collins notes that compared to the standard platform orators of the day, Dickens was restrained, dignified and natural performer. [45] A newspaper reporter in New York in 1867 noted: ”He carefully avoids making his dramatic faculty too prominent. He does not, except on very rare occasions, act thoroughly ‘out’; he suggests, and suggests very forcefully; but leaves to his hearers to supply what he does not feel it necessary to delineate…This is just what the very best reading – that is, reading and not acting – ought to be”.[46] 

Unlike most professional actors, he did not ignore his audience. He was consciously and deliberately aware of them and of their participation in making the event what it was -- personally joining in and sharing their laughter, fear or emotions. Many of the comments he made to Forster have been preserved in the biography. At Dover the audience wouldn’t let him go, but sat applauding like mad. He found a most delicate audience at Canterbury. At Dover:” the people in the stalls set the example of laughing, in the most curiously unreserved way; they laughed with such really cordial enjoyment, when Squeers read the boys’ letters that the contagion extended to me. For one couldn’t hear them without laughing too…” [47] He reported that the audiences at Newcastle were very fine, and very earnest: “…while they can laugh till they shake the roof, they have a very unusual sympathy with what is pathetic or

passionate”. [48]  Time and again, he notes how readily his audiences responded to the range he offered -– from the comedy of the trial Bardell versus Pickwick, and Bob Sawyer’s Party, to the pathos of Little Paul Dombey’s death and the sublime climax of the deaths of Ham and Steerforth in the storm sequence in David Copperfield and the terror in the murder of Nancy from Oliver Twist.

With years of amateur theatricals at his disposal, Dickens performed as a character actor, assuming the shape, expression, mannerisms as well as voice of these various identities. The magnetic effect on his audience stands out, which he held almost as if enchanted. This is well evidenced from the very beginning of his public reading career. Another aspect of his "unworldly" psychologically supercharged or "otherworldly" qualities, I believe, is to be located in the apparently hypnotic effects of his public readings. Two things in particular stand out in Dickens's performances -- his strange, uncannily compulsive power over the audience wherever he read. They would laugh, cry, roll about in the aisles, hold their breath, scream with fright, literally at his bidding. And then there is his strange ability to assume character, to become in public view, in the space of a split second, another person -- he was Bill Sikes, Justice Stareleigh, Paul Dombey, Scrooge. And the audience believed they saw the very character, not Dickens "pretending" to be Scrooge, but that Scrooge stood before them.

He himself was conscious of this power, commenting after a Christmas reading in 1853: "They lost nothing, misinterpreted nothing, followed everything closely, laughed and cried with the most delightful earnestness, and animated me to that extent that I felt as if we were all bodily going up into the clouds together".

Everybody who went to these public readings noticed the extraordinary fixating qualities of his eyes. Some comments of Americans who witnessed his performances are preserved. They say his eyes were like "like exclamation points" which "mingled kindness and sharpness" with "a look of keen intelligence about the strong brow and eye -- the look of a man who has seen much and is wide awake to see more"; eyes "unlike anything before in our experience; there are no living eyes like them". [49]

A certain Miss Cockran, who was determined not to be moved or "taken in" by Dickens's performances, found that in person he was absolutely irresistible: "He is a wonderful magician", she said.

For some, however, the magic did not always work. Mark Twain attended one of his readings at the Steinway Hall in New York in April 1868. As always with the immortal Twain, he is very careful not to be “taken in” by anything or anybody (particularly by Europeans), and the observation is sharp, critical and misses nothing. Consequently, the details of this account are invaluable. Dickens was a “thin-legged old gentleman, gotten up regardless of expense, especially as to shirt-front and diamonds, with a bright red flower in his button-hole”…. And the “fashion he has of brushing his hair and goatee so resolutely forward gives him as comical Scotch-terrier look about the face, which is rather heightened than otherwise by his portentous dignity and gravity”.  Nevertheless, Twain pays full credit to the wonderful machinery of the mind that could “create men and women, and put the breath of life into them and alter all their ways and actions, elevate them, murder them, marry them, conduct them through good and evil, through joy and sorrow, on their long march from the cradle to the grave…”

Twain provides useful details as to the stage apparatus:

Mr. Dickens had a table to put his book on, and on it he had also a tumbler, a fancy decanter and a small bouquet. Behind him he had a large red screen – a bulkhead – a sounding-board, I took it to be – and overhead in front was suspended a long board with reflecting lights attached to it, which threw down a glory upon the gentleman, after the fashion in use in picture-galleries for bringing out the best effects of great paintings. Style! There is a style about Dickens, and style about all his surroundings”.

At the time that Twain saw him read, Dickens was tired and not in bad health, so some allowances must be made. But in Twain’s opinion, Dickens was a bad reader, in one sense: “because he does not enunciate his words sharply and distinctly – he does not cut the syllables cleanly, and therefore many and many of them fell dead before they reached our part of the house…” He was a great deal disappointed in the readings, which he found rather monotonous and Dickens’s voice husky. He seems particularly to lament the mechanical, unfeeling manner of novelist’s performance. The pathos, he found, was “only the beautiful pathos of the language – there is no heart, no feeling in it – it is glittering frostwork; his rich humour cannot fail to tickle an audience into ecstasies save when he reads to himself. And what a bright, intelligent audience he had! He ought to have made them laugh, or cry, or shout, at his own good will or pleasure – but he did not. They were much tamer than they should have been”.

Twain made a few comments as to pronunciation and general acting. I guess Dickens’s accent was slightly strange to him. He notes that Dickens pronounced Steerforth “St’yaw-futh” – which e found “a little Englishy”. But on the whole he does not comment much on the accent. The acting varied. Peggotty’s anger at learning of the disappearance of Em’ly was “excellent – full of spirit” but that his account of the search for her was “bad” and Mrs. Micawber’s inspired suggestions as to the negotiation of her husband’s bills was good and “Dora the child-wife, and the storm at Yarmouth, where Steerforth perished, were not as good as they might have been ”. His summing up is ungenerous -– every passage he read, with just the few exceptions already mentioned, “was rendered with a degree of ability far below what his reading reputation led us to expect”.[50]

Twain’s comments must be understood in the light of the way Twain looked at the world and in particular his feelings as a an American -– and a Southwesterner -– in reaction to Dickens’s comments about America and Americans in Martin Chuzzlewit and American Notes. Twain’s comments on Dickens’s reading are very much in the manner of his comments on Europe and Europeans in Innocents Abroad.[51] 

Bearing in mind that very often his audience was to be numbered in thousands his abilities at communicating with vast numbers of people were considerable, even if Twain qualified his praise considerably. Forster believed that humour was Dickens’s leading quality, his highest faculty as a novelist, and that this quality was abundantly represented in his public readings.

From this brief summary it is clear that Simon Callow’s realization in The Mystery of Charles Dickens bears little resemblance at all to the novelist’s performances.

7.What Did Dickens Read to the Public?     (top)

 The texts Dickens selected to read in public were taken in the main from the early works, those published before David Copperfield 1849-50.  The only exceptions were a few items from the later Christmas Stories published in All the Year Round, such as Boots at the Holly-Tree Inn and Doctor Marigold. This was very much in accord with contemporary taste. His earlier fiction was then held in higher regard than the later post Copperfield novels. Modern critical and academic influence has reversed this. The fashion now is to regard the early work as of interest mainly in terms of the long apprenticeship necessarily served in order more fully to realize his potential “greatness” as a novelist -- with Bleak House, Hard Times, Little Dorrit, Great Expectations, Our Mutual Friend representing his greatest achievement. 

Dickens public readings certainly had their origins in his early attempts in reading A Christmas Carol and The Chimes to a small circle of friends. The repertoire he toured with contained such fiction as well as two excerpts from Pickwick Papers and one episode each from Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, Martin Chuzzlewit, Dombey and Son and David Copperfield.

Additionally, it should be noted, he tended to concentrate here on pathos and comedy, not on social comment. Significantly, in his public readings from A Christmas Carol he omitted the visions of Ignorance and Want.

It is clear from the evidence that in cutting, editing, rewriting the material he used for his readings, and from the detailed accounts we have of his actual performances, that he continued to be creatively involved in his compositions right to the end.  There was no final, definitive text of any of the excerpts Dickens selected for his various public readings. They were in a constant state of on-going revision.

Whatever claims are made about the “authenticity” of the Simon Callow show, the material he “reads” bears but slight resemblance to what Dickens actually read. The first readings he gave, the Charity Readings in the mid 1850s, were taken from Christmas Books, A Christmas Carol and The Cricket on the HearthFor his first paid public readings he added The Chimes to this selection. He cut and edited the texts to suit his purpose throughout the reading tours. His early readings of A Christmas Carol took three hours –- later this was severely cut as to be accommodated with other reading texts.

In selecting texts it’s obvious that he was very much guided by the need for excerpts which needed no “curtain raising” introductions, and which had good closing lines.

Eventually he settled for a selection including:

Bardell versus Pickwick and Bob Sawyer’s Party from Pickwick Papers

The Yorkshire School from Nicholas Nickleby

A Christmas Carol

Mrs. Gamp from Martin Chuzzlewit

Little Paul from Dombey and Son

The Death of Steerforth and Ham from David Copperfield

The Poor Traveller at the Holly-Tree Inn’ and

Doctor Marigold’ from the Christmas Stories

 Sikes and Nancy Murder from Oliver Twist.

Throughout these readings he was just as creative as ever, and ever conscious of his need to communicate with his audience –-the Sikes and Nancy Murder was constantly revised/rewritten from its inception in 1868.[52] Some items were revised, used, and then dropped.

The readings may be characterized. Apart from Doctor Marigold, there was nothing later than David Copperfield. The general quality was humour and comedy, although the story of Paul Dombey added pathos and the Sikes and Nancy Murder notoriously added terror and the mortal storm in David Copperfield aspired to the sublime. And the qualities for which Dickens is nowadays singled out -- time and time again –- the reformist, politically aware and socially satirical, almost totally absent.    He even omitted the figures of Want and Ignorance in A Christmas Carol. (which, as I mention early, deliberately feature in The Mystery of Charles Dickens). Also, despite the rhetorical nature in the way the texts were constructed so as to make the best public effect, they were not rhetorically delivered. Witnesses attest that his manner was not actor-managerish, barnstorming or hectoring.

When we compare the evidence of the readings with Callow’s performance of Peter Ackroyd’s script we find claims of authenticity cannot be sustained. The manner of the delivery is self-conscious, highly rhetorical. It gave me some idea what a Vincent Crummles imitation of Orson Welles might have been like. The ready interplay between audience and performer was seriously lacking. This was made clear in the television version that, interestingly enough, was a straight filming of the live stage show. When a character was announced, there was none of that spontaneous cheering and applause historically recorded. The concentration on biographical stuff and emphasis on Dickens as a social reformer lessened the pathos content, and this was untypical of its great original. Real laughter was seldom ignited. This was not a man talking to a group of friends, but an “actor” showing off his paces -- oratory rather than story-telling. Simon Callow’s elocution teacher is surely proud of him.

The selection of items made little effort faithfully to represent what Dickens himself did in his readings, including as it does excerpts from Bleak House, Little Dorrit, Great Expectations and Our Mutual Friend, while omitting the sublimities of the mortal storm in David Copperfield, the pathos of Paul Dombey’s death and the centrality of A Christmas Carol to the real nature and impact of these celebrated one-man shows.  It’s clear that any claim to “authenticity” must be resisted. 

Of course the script by Peter Ackroyd had ambitions further than simply recreating the experience of a Dickens reading, or presenting a reading anthology –- it aspired to be a performed biography illustrated with excerpts from the novelist’s writings. But much of this biographical material, which is given even freer rein in the three part BBC-2 Television series, Dickens, needs some serious qualification.

8.Dickens: BBC-2 Television Series     (top)

In May 2002 on three successive Saturday evenings BBC –2 transmitted a much-trumpeted three part “dramatized documentary” series Dickens, written and presented by Peter Ackroyd.  It was directed by Chris Granlund and the executive producer was Andrea Miller.

The fascination with things Dickensian has several times tempted British television to present the life of Charles Dickens on the small screen – Mr. Dickens of London 1968 (starring Michael Redgrave); The Great Inimitable Mr. Dickens 1970 and Dickens of London 1976[53]. Dickens, BBC-2’s three part drama-documentary series, was certainly the most intellectually ambitious. But it was one of those vastly ambitious attempts in which dazzling success is a mere breath away from failure. The format was not promising -- Peter Ackroyd, celebrated biographer of London as well as  Dickens (which, inevitably, has been “highly acclaimed”), wandered about the streets of London (mainly at night) telling us all about our greatest novelist. This show perpetuates much the same kind of nonsense as The Mystery of Charles Dickens.

Dickens is presented in the standard British television current affairs/documentary format as established by such TV stalwarts as Panorama, The Money Programme, Newsnight etc. We have a presenter, who appears before us to act as a well-briefed ringmaster introducing the various guest witnesses, who duly appear to do their stuff. Our presenter here is Peter Ackroyd himself, who crosses the frontiers of historic time with ease, appearing in modern Britain one minute and the next transferred by the “magic of television” (with a little help from computer graphics) to “Victorian” London. He’s a Doctor Who, a Time Lord, a diachronic tourist, who reminded me of Marius Goring flitting between 18th century France and Modern Times in Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death 1945. For some reason, Ackroyd achieves these time-shifts dressed in a dark overcoat and wearing black leather gloves. With his slightly non-commissioned officer looks he resembles a chauffeur who has left his peaked cap in the car.

The act had its enchantments, however. One minute he’d be in street banging on about John Dickens languishing in prison for debt and then, lo an behold, the Marshalsea, (which closed its doors on its last prisoner in 1842), appears before us. Ackroyd is, of course, a celebrated authority on London, and clearly has the subject at his fingertips.

There is much about the nature of the evidence and the witnesses, which troubles me. Traditionally in UK factual television these guests are expert witnesses who have been well briefed, and are edited in and out to deliver the goods on cue. In format, the series represented itself as a standard television documentary, with a presenter (Ackroyd), introducing excerpts from interviews with expert witnesses. These were quite a line up, including Charles Dickens himself (Anton Lesser); [54] the novelist’s parents, (Timothy West and Prunella Scales); W.M.Thackerary (Geoffrey Palmer); John Forster (Kenneth Cranham); Kate Dickens (Helen McCrory); Ellen Ternan (Natasha Little) etc.

It was a bold idea to contribute to the documentary feel of the series by introducing talking heads. Casting is an art. But unfortunately several of these performers brought memories and associations that damaged or distorted credibility. Geoffrey Palmer (Thackeray) has served a long apprenticeship in testy and stuff shirt roles, such as Lionel Hardcastle in the BBC-1 sitcom, As Time Goes By, and as Sir Frederick Ponsonby in the film Mrs. Brown. Miriam Margolyes (Catherine Dickens) inevitably reminded me of her definitive creation of Flora in the film Little Dorrit. Prunella Scales (Dickens’s mother) has played numerous roles but will always be remembered as the feather-brained wife of John Cleese in BBC-1’s sitcom Fawlty Towers and currently stars on UK television as Dotty, the scatty shopper in Tesco supermarket commercials. Natasha Little (Ellen Ternan) carried some baggage from her previous incarnation as Becky Sharp in Andrew Davies’s dramatization of Vanity Fair, which received immense publicity -– especially in Radio Times and on BBC Radio Four -- as bodying forth a sexually manipulative, go-getting woman of the 90s.

Then there is the matter of the evidence these talking heads obligingly delivered. The narrative of Dickens is stuffed out in the expected mode of the day with evidence -- re-enactments and footage from library or newsreels -- in this case, television costume drama excerpts. Some of the enactments are silly, but pass muster. About the use of scenes from the BBC and commercial television adaptations, of frankly varying merit, more serious objections must be raised. Many of them bear much the same resemblance to Dickens’s fiction as the 1812 Overture does to War and Peace.  But there are more serious reservations as to their validity as evidence. And this is a serious flaw. Can British television costume drama be passed off as valid biographical or historical evidence? There is considerable difference between saying Dickens based this or that character on so-and-so, or this was inspired by such-and-such experience or location, and passing a television drama production of it as the thing-itself. This is simply legerdemain.

Additionally, it needs to be asked: How is it possible to illustrate literature with television? Would we tolerate an exegesis of Shakespeare with excerpts from Verdi's operas? Or Wagner or Richard Strauss or Mozart with musical examples played on a concertina? It is a fallacy, universally acknowledged by far too many people that Dickens wrote for television. Need one point out that Dickens did not, in fact, write television dramas, but novels -- narrative prose fiction -- which is quite a different thing.  Granted, television is a visual medium, but it allows itself too freely to be picture led. Using these television excerpts may have saved on costs, who knows?  -- But it certainly reinforced the unfortunate impression that television has its head stuck up its own arts programming. 

Not to belabour the point too severely, there are examples used here which seriously misrepresent the matter. BBC-2’s Great Expectations, written by Tony Marchant, jettisoned all the humour of its great original[55]. BBC-1’s David Copperfield featured a badly miscast Bob Hoskins as Micawber. ITV’s Oliver Twist kowtowed to Political Correctness and evaporated all “Jewishness” from its Fagin (Robert Lindsay). We are required to forget that Dickens actually described Fagin as “a very shriveled old Jew, whose villainous-looking and repulsive face was obscured by a quantity of matted red hair”. OK, so this is not very pleasant, but that is what our greatest novelist actually wrote. One needs only to recall the problems which the release in New York of David Lean’s Oliver Twist  in 1946 to realize how much things have changed in half a century.[56]

We need to ask, is this documentary about Dickens the novelist, or about our socio-political mores at the beginning of this second millennium?

Then there’s the question of these expert witnesses and their testimony. They appear before us in costume and make-up, sitting more or less at ease in Victorian surroundings and talking to us, irresistibly like  wax-works come to life.  Those splendid words of Mrs. Jarley’s came irresistibly to my mind:

“….so like life, that if wax-work only spoke and walked about, you’d hardly know the difference. I won’t go so far as to say, that, as it is, I’ve seen wax-work quite like life, but I’ve certainly seen some life that was exactly like wax-work”. [57]

But it was not the British actorish discipline that gave me unease, so much as the nature of some of the evidence. As any professional television pro might or might not be prepared to tell you, the art in handling expert witnesses in documentary making resides in getting them to say what you want them to say. You don’t necessarily interview them in the hope they might along the way shed some useful light on the matter in hand, but (like a cross-examining lawyer) you set them up to deliver more or less what your case requires. The process is enshrined in one of my favourite oxymorons, “real” television documentary.

But in this BBC-2 Dickens we have witnesses who needed no prompting –- because they’re obligingly speaking from a script –- Peter Ackroyd’s script. And it sounds good. But let’s not forget, that among the many splendid gifts the generous gods bestowed upon the infant Ackroyd was a terrific touch in pastiche –- recall the acclaim that greeted The Last Testimony of Oscar Wilde in 1983. And it’s here that that the phrase about the truth, whole truth and nothing but the truth comes willy-nilly to mind – for what we get here is only partially truthful.

Timothy West, as the novelist’s father, is touching, sensitive and kindly. He showed little of the rolling orotundity recalled by those who knew him (which Dickens used in the creation of Micawber). [58] Dickens’s mother, who seems to have been a feather-brained and scatty creature, (original of Mrs. Nickleby) is played here by Prunella Scales, as a rather a sweetly lightweight character.  This is an interesting interpretation, as most of the evidence we have as to her character comes to us in through Dickens’s evidence which was probably distorted by memories of her having wished him to continue his labours at Warren’s Blacking.[59] But let the world remember, this was the lady who taught her son, Charles Dickens, to read.

William MakepeaceThackeray is here given to rather snide and sneering comments, ever ready to jeer at Dickens’s lack of “class”. This was true, to a limited extent, but elsewhere Thackeray generously called him “a divine genius” and spoke of him “with awe and reverence” and had many warm and positive things to say about Dickens. These get no mention here.[60]

John Forster, Dickens’s loyal friend, confidant and biographer, was notoriously touchy, insensitive, bullying, opinionated, tactless and rude (and was the original of the immortal Podsnap). [61] Yet, played here by Kenneth Cranham, he is thoughtful, gentle and reflective, who thinks carefully before he speaks. Charles Dickens appears in person, of course, in the person of Anton Lesser. He looks good, and is polite and considerate to his interlocutor – but shows none of that flashing, bright-eyed demonic spirit we have all heard so much about. Was it something the BBC put in his tea before they filmed him?

As to the general case out lined in Dickens, Ackroyd’s thesis is strongly indebted to previously influential (if now somewhat discredited) work by pioneers from the ranks of Freudians and Left Wing literary opinion leaders.  The series is heavily indebted to critics who pioneered the revaluation of Dickens as a novelist to be taken as seriously as George Eliot, Joseph Conrad and D.H. Lawrence -- such writers as T.A. Jackson and Edmund Wilson. Jackson attempted to demonstrate that Dickens, with his class-consciousness, anti-materialism and reforming zeal was a Marxist manqué, and Wilson was convinced that the novelist’s art was compensation for the psychological damage life inflicted on him.[62]

Freud made a considerable impact on literary critical theorizing in the inter-war years, but in Britain, as academic psychology began seriously to question his scientific validity, there was a marked decline in the application of Freudian ideas to literature. But here in Ackroyd’s work there is considerable unacknowledged debt to Freud in much of what passes for critical insight in this spiel. [63] Freud, indeed, seems fundamental in the inter-connecting belief systems of the Ackroyd/Callow axis.[64] I have to come clean here and say that I regard much of Freud not only as daft, but also of limited use as far as literature is concerned.   I’m encouraged by the fact that for decades now Freud has come in for rigorous academic and scientific overhaul, especially in UK psychological circles. Indeed, in spite of Jacques Lacan [65]and the current fashion for Literary Theory, Freudianism remains “controversial” in Britain. We seem less gullible than in dear old Ernest Jones’s day[66]. I’d like to cling the old idea that the real basis of scientific respectability lies in the tried and tested hypothesis -– the fact that similar tests yield similar results.

Peter Ackroyd’s case is that “suffering” (especially childhood experiences in the blacking factory) gave the world Dickens’s literary achievements. This ties in very well with Freud’s theories about childhood experiences forming our personalities into adulthood. [67] I’ll stick with that example for the moment, though a lot of fun could be had, (as several critics before Ackroyd have demonstrated) exploring the relationship between Dickens and his mother, his father and his young sister-in-law, Mary Scott Hogarth, to show how this affected the novelist’s adult sexual relationships and –- eventually –- his art. But I’m always tempted at this point to ask:

 “If these things made him the artist he was, then where is the work of all those other fellows who worked in blacking factories, had problematic parental relationships and fancied a young female relative or two?

Suffering and creativity are not inevitably connected. The fact is, Dickens was a novelist, and that is why he wrote novels. We will never know what part childhood factory experiences or a wayward libido had to do with it, and frankly it’s not really our business (nor is it really very interesting, although Ackroyd’s indulgence in this farrago of navel contemplative Viennese morbidity may tell us a lot about him).[68] But personally, I don’t think Warren’s Blacking explains all that much. The real mystery of Dickens’s genius remains unexplained.

Additionally, Ackroyd dutifully follows the beaten path towards the claim that a large part of our greatest novelist’s greatness lies in his successful reforming zeal. This strikes me as aesthetic distortion, for we are here invited to support the claim of his greatness as a novelist, very largely on the evidence of his supporting desirable social reforms. In other words, is he politically OK? If this is a valid line of argument, it must follow, that the more “OK” a writer is, the “greater” he/she will be regarded as a novelist. We need to place far more emphasis on a writer’s artistic achievement, than on political correctness. Otherwise, we must agree that Thomas Armstrong, Factory Boy 1840, is a great Victorian novel -– which it is not the case[69]. Few novelists suffer from the nonsense of Political Correctness as much as Dickens. But that is the price he’s had to pay for so clearly having his heart in the right place.

But in fact, it’s no easy matter to present Dickens as a social reformer. There is invariably the danger of confusing his art with his work for good causes. This will always cloud sound aesthetic judgment. The attempt is dutifully made by those academics and men of letters of a liberal persuasion seeking to claim Dickens as one of their own. Yet, Yorkshire schools notwithstanding, it’s difficult directly to associate him with the successful achievement of specific reforms.  Oliver Twist failed to put an end to workhouses -- not abolished until the Post War Settlment put in place by the Labour government elected in 1945 at the end of the war in Europe. He was not opposed to capital punishment, though he was against public executions. Did he attack industrialism and the factory system? Nowhere does he describe organized physical labour or the factory system. He lamented the death of young children, but did not use fiction to attack the exploitation of the young in British factories. His horror at female prostitution focused itself on getting these working girls to forego vice, to repent and achieve a state of grace and bodily cleanliness. Carbolic soap seems to have played an important role in this desirable process.

9. Was Charles Dickens a Democrat?     (top)

He constantly barracked British parliamentary democracy and its institutions. Originally, Dombey was to be shown going into parliament as away to further his ambitions [70] and there are unfavourable references to politics and politicians in Hard Times -- MPs are called “dustmen” and the Houses of Parliament are the “National Dustheap”. Possibly he learned to despise politicians from his days as a parliamentary reporter. Certainly the few who appear in the novels are not held up for our admiration -– Gregsbury in Nicholas Nickleby, had “a loud voice, a pompous manner, a tolerable command of sentences with no meaning in them, and, in short, every requisite for a very good member indeed…” James Harthouse MP in Hard Times is a vile, reptilian creature. The Commons was a useless place -- Twemlow tells Veneering in Our Mutual Friend, that “the House of Commons is the best club in London”. The journalism, too, offers much evidence of Dickens's loathing of modern politics.[71] It is true that he bitterly loathed the aristocratic and moneyed interests, who held largely responsible for much of the sufferings of the poor, but did he support “power to the people”? His depictions of public behaviour once aroused are not encouraging. A few pages of Barnaby Rudge will prove that. He was obviously deeply concerned at the possibilities of mob behaviour when public order collapses. In this neglected novel, several strands come together. Dickens had voluminously researched the Gordon Riots that were, up to then, the worst public riots in British history. Charles Mackay's Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Behaviour of Crowds 1841[72] was in his library at Gad's Hill. Dickens was a young parliamentary reporter when one of the most dreadful political riots took place during Reform agitation in Bristol in 1831. Reading Thomas Carlyle's History of the French Revolution 1837 kindled his interest in mob violence. Dickens read it constantly and carried it in his pocket. According to John Forster, Dickens claimed to have read it five hundred times.

The most considerable and alarming mass political movement of Dickens’s lifetime was Chartism, circa 1836-1850. Many felt that parliamentary reforms achieved under the 1832 Reform Act were insufficient, and Chartism was a mass movement pledged to petition for considerable radical political

reforms. [73] The movement attracted two clearly differentiated adherents – those who believed in reform through argument and persuasion (Moral Force Chartists) and those who believed reform could only be achieved through direct action (Physical Force Chartists). After the terrible consequences of the Newport Rising 1839 and movement’s failure to petition Parliament violence became more implicitly threatening. There was considerable public anxiety. As the economy deteriorated, the Chartist challenge became more pressing and public order became an issue, Dickens found the manifestation of the mob an ever more fascinating subject.[74] The Anti-Corn Law League was formed in 1838. In 1839 there were Chartist riots in Birmingham during July where force was used against the imported Metropolitan Police and again at Newport in November. Britain had survived the Chartist threat -- Dickens himself had served as a Special Constable during the height of Chartist agitation in 1848.

The 1840s were a period of political unrest in Europe, and British newspapers carried reports of revolutions in Paris, Berlin, Budapest, Vienna. Dickens had been an eyewitness of the Genovese revolution in 1846. In January 1858 there was an assassination attempt on Napoleon III in which ten people were killed and 150 injured. As France assisted the attempts to free Italy from Austrian domination, revolutions occurred in Tuscany, Modena, Parma, Bologna, Ferrara and Ravenna.

These events were bound to have been in the novelist’s mind during the composition of A Tale of Two Cities.  The cover illustration tells us all we need to know. It shows us what happens when the social order breaks down and politics erupt into the streets.  The quiet, orderly and consequently industrious life in England is contrasted with the violence, injustice and insecurity of revolutionary France. Hablot Browne's engraving shows prosperous, mercantile London at the top (ships, merchandise, peaceful panoramic cityscape) and French revolutionary violence at the bottom of the page (guillotine, tumbrel, agitators, crowds dressed in their revolutionary caps). But, apart from his obvious fear of public violence, it has little to say in terms of social comment. The major impression of the novel is the elemental sweep of mob violence. Despite the passages inserted about the abuse of power by the aristocracy to justify the rising of the French people, Dickens's revolution is totally devoid of any political idealism. Sydney Carton martyrs himself to save the skin of an aristocrat. The most memorable of the revolutionaries is Madame Defarge, whose zeal is motivated more by personal vengeance than the wish to make the world a better place. By the time we reach the sections where Monsieur Defarge and his followers at the wine shop are plotting to rebel, adding names to the list of people to be revenged upon, it is all pure Tappertit and personal vendetta -- in Barnaby Rudge Simon Tappertit ‘pricked’ the Maypole Inn for destruction because it housed his rival in love, Joe Willet.

All attempts to accommodate Dickens into the Literary Hall of Fame on the grounds of Political Correctness are bound to fail. We would all like Dickens to read The Guardian, to vote Labour, oppose fox hunting with dogs, support gay rights and working men and women in their collective struggle against capitalism and all that -– but facts have to be faced. In making the case for Dickens-the-Reformer much use is made of Hard Times for evidence of the zealously radical reforming Dickens. Here we get the novelist’s views in high definition, and it’s worth looking at them. He pitied the poor, as a radical should, but like a good bourgeois, was alarmed when the people combined collectively to get something done.

Hard Times is problematic. Possibly more than any other Dickens novel, it has been critically reconstructed and recreated to suit the ideology of more critics than any other.[75]The result has been a construction of Hard Times by Leavis out of John Ruskin and William Blake in which I can scarcely recognize as Hard Times by Charles Dickens. The process reached apogee in the Open University style BBC-2 Television version (Christmas 1994) billed as "a film by Peter Barnes" which turned this curious and untypical novel into a glum tract. Here we find the industrial system identified as a prime source of social evil and malaise.

This was certainly not Dickens's view. He regarded matters as far more complicated than simply damning the evils of industrialism. Aware of widespread poverty, he saw it was essential people had the opportunity to work. When the evidence is properly examined and not selectively assembled to accord with the views of armchair theorists, we can understand Dickens's motives for not readily supporting the Ten Hour Bill. Dickens resisted such efforts for change. He thought they might limit people's chances to work:

"This question involves the whole subject of the condition of the mass of people in this country.... and I greatly fear that until governments are honest, and Parliaments pure, and great men less considered, and small men more so, it is almost a cruelty to limit even the dreadful hours and wages of labour which at this time prevail. Want is so general, distress so great, and poverty so rampant -- it is, in a word, so hard for the million to live by any means -- that I scarcely know how we can step between them and one weekly farthing. The necessity of a mighty change, I can clearly see; and yet I cannot reconcile it to myself to reduce the earnings of any family -- their means of existence being so very scant and spare..."  [76]

Dickens resisted campaigning for reducing working hours, but supported the need for better housing ands sanitary conditions for the labouring classes. In effect, the novelist’s position was much the same as such traditional Conservative parliamentarians as Sir Robert Peel. The evidence is quite remarkable. In 1844 Peel wrote to explain to Queen Victoria why he was unable to support the Ten Hour movement because it “exposed the manufacturers of this country to a very formidable competition with those of other countries, in which labour is not restricted….it would incur great risk of injury to our commerce, and therefore our means of employing manufacturing industry….”[77]

The position these otherwise worthy Victorians took strikes us as curious and indeed, questionable, but it was not unusual among the governing classes as well as among the captains of industry. Richard Cobden and John Bright, both otherwise associated with humanitarian and fair reforms, opposed the Ten Hour Bill in 1844.[78] Only a few months later, in the summer of 1844 a Factory Act was passed which restricted the hours of female workers to twelve hours and those of children between eight and thirteen to six and a half hours. This was the same year as Samuel Laing's prize-winning essay 'National Distress' which revealed the effects of machinery on the nation's working classes:

"About one third plunged into extreme misery, and hovering on the verge of actual starvation; another third, or more, earning an income something better than that of the common agricultural labourer, but under circumstances very prejudicial to health, morality and domestic comfort -- viz. by the by the labour of young children, girls, and mothers of families in crowded factories; and finally, a third earning high wages, amply sufficient to support them in respectability and comfort".

As I read it, Dickens’s argument is that harmonious relations between employers and workers are both possible and desirable. Society as a whole would benefit from the wealth created by industry by such social co-operation. He would have been aware from reading the newspapers what misery strikes brought -- the terrible miners strike of 1844 for example. He saw for himself the strike of the Preston cotton operatives while writing Hard Times. He would therefore have every reason to dread conflict and to hope for harmony. He loved humanity too much for it to be otherwise. I think Humphrey House and George Orwell are much safer analysts of this curious novel. It was written at a time when organized labour was hardly beginning, or, at least could offer little industrial muscle to help workers’ conditions. Trade Unions were not legalized until years after Hard Times in Gladstone's first ministry of 1868-74. Picketing was not covered by the law nor unions protected from prosecution under the conspiracy law until Disraeli's Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act of 1875. Therefore, as Dickens realized, to encourage innocent men and women into open defiance of their employers (as the trade union agitator, Slackbridge, attempts) was cruel and misguided because employers at that time had considerable powers under the law.  You only have to read the accounts of conditions during the mining strike of 1844 to see the horrors Dickens wanted to avoid.[79]

Bearing this in mind gives greater understanding to the argument of Hard Times. Dickens sympathized with individual hardship (Stephen Blackpool) but feared the threat of organized labour (trade unions). This appears central in Dickens’s thinking. Scrooge, for example, did not denounce capitalism. He simply became a more humane, and -– I think this is Dickens’s message – consequently a better employer and in Dickens’s view, a better human being.

But the really central question remains:

Is literature to be evaluated in direct ratio to its social reforming impact?

Is an author a reformer under another name?

Is literature the continuation of politics by different means?

There is a very strong argument to be urged against this particular, political and reformist case in establishing Dickens’s “greatness” as a novelist.  Not only does it reduce literature to mere utility. But there are difficulties in basing claims of his greatness mainly by attempting historically and specifically to relate his work to particular reforms achievements. Surely, to limit the interest of his work solely in its historical moment is to minimize its timeless, and therefore its classical, stature? It locks Dickens into some alleged historical, political specificness that restricts the imaginative, mythological and universal impact of his art. From this arises the question: what of lasting value can creative literature have that spoke solely and merely about conditions between the 1830s and 1860s? It was Edmund Wilson who brashly claimed that the story of Pickwick headed directly for the prison. Does anyone today read Pickwick Papers for the effect on their reformist spirit of its prison the scenes? Do any read Oliver Twist because it’s about the harshness of the workhouse? Or Nicholas Nickleby because it attacks corrupt boarding schools? Or Dombey and Son because it portrays the consequences of railway speculation? No. I think Dickens continues to be read, generation after generation - – and read in many languages and in many countries that do not share our historical experience –- because in reading Dickens we share our common humanity, and see beyond particular characters, situations and events, and perceive the great, timeless, archetypal, universal qualities behind the narratives that make us what we are. In observing this we have to confront a very strange fact. Although Dickens very largely shapes our very sense of Victorian times -- we can’t think of Victorian England without seeing things very much in his terms –- nevertheless he is not really a “Victorian” novelist. He seems to belong to a much more ancient tradition. When we hear the term "Dickensian" we usually understand it to imply something quaint, old fashioned, innocent, early Victorian, Christmassy, jovial or grotesque. But Dickens’s art has something quite different that makes it uniquely powerful. His work is quite different from Disraeli's, Thackeray's, George Eliot's, Trollope's, Hardy's, Kingsley's, Mrs. Gaskell's -- or any other Victorian novelist. It is the dream-like, otherworldly, almost mythical quality that gives it such a haunting impact. This sense of the mysterious powers his way of looking at the world, and making us see the world, at once familiar yet strange and mysterious, that recalls  Oscar Wilde’s remark in The Picture of Dorian Gray 1891:  "It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible".

Thomas Mann, writing of Freud, said that when a writer has acquired:

"... the habit of regarding life as mythical and typical there comes a curious heightening of his artistic temper, a new refreshment to his perceiving and shaping powers, which otherwise occurs much later in life; for while in the life of the human race the mythical is an early and primitive stage, in the life of the individual it is a late and mature one. What is gained is an insight into the higher truth depicted in the actual; a smiling knowledge of the eternal, the ever-being and authentic..."[80]

10.The BBC Throws the Book at Us.     (top)

Without embarking on a lengthy exegesis as to the current state of British culture, it’s possible briefly to suggest that things have certainly changed in recent generations. Unquestioned acceptance of high or elite culture has certainly been eroded. Cultural production and consumption has become more popular if not populist. Richard Hoggart, born to a working class family in Leeds, won a scholarship to university and moved, in effect, from one cultural landscape to another. With social mobility came the insight into our cultural condition. He wrote the classic diagnosis of our culture in The Uses of Literacy 1957, that postulated the existence of two concurrently healthy traditions – artisan and working class popular culture, and professional middle class elite or high culture. He lamented the first signs of the new commercialized of popular culture –- juke boxes, coffee bars and the mass media. Nearly half a century later we live to see the triumph of industrialized populist commodified culture. These are very considerable changes and they have not passed without comment.

If we needed to focus examination on just one area British broadcasting would certainly be as good as any. The BBC continued its dutiful pursuit of the public service ideals inherited from its great founder,  John Reith.[81] Reith believed that broadcasting should not be either a means of making money by supplying entertainment to the masses, nor a mouthpiece of the state. A free and independent public broadcasting corporation placed the BBC in a position of splendid monopoly where, under his management, radio would provide information, education and entertainment. For Reith, broadcasting had a moral, spiritual and educative role, which was part of his vision for a genuinely modern representative democracy under a constitutional monarchy. These broadcasting principles survived the advent of television as well as commercial broadcasting, only to wither during the triumph of Thatcherism when the tendency was towards replacing the ethos of public service broadcasting by the imperatives of the market.

The world has changed, market forces have tended to predominate and the British broadcasting industries have to be aware that they exist in a global market. Popularity has tended to overshadow aesthetic values.[82]

The old days when the BBC led, rather than followed, public taste and opinion have probably gone forever. Elite culture has now yielded to populism and Post Modernism. A television series such as Lord Clark’s Civilization, transmitted by BBC-2 in 1969, would be unthinkable today. The cultural assumptions on which it was so confidently based could no longer be taken for granted[83]. Lord Clark’s series somehow typified the old BBC at its best and was in many ways its high water mark. The Corporation had for several generations attempted to propagate the cohesion and homogeneity of British culture in the face of fundamental Post War, post 60s social change[84].

The quiet cultural revolution has now reached flood level, and the mass media are noticeably populist. Several recent books lamented and discussed the wide-ranging symptoms of these cultural developments -- John Humphrys's Devil's Advocate, George Walden's The New Elites, John Drummond's Tainted by Experience, John Tusa's Art Matters. The publication of one volume, which attacked sentimental populism, Faking It: The Sentimentalisation of Modern Society, apparently led to the Prime Minister’s cancelling a holiday and returning to Downing Street[85]. In effect, these writers are continuing the debate first opened by the Frankfurt School.

The very processes of cultural production and its marketing have changed, too, and the BBC has perforce accommodated itself to these changes. Major television productions are now invariably accompanied with considerable additional merchandize, including education packs, audio and videocassettes, books on how the production as made as well as the traditional book (“now a major television series”. These production processes, remind one of the Disney organization’s concept of “synergy” in which a product is not conceived as an individual entity, but is simultaneously brought into creation with a whole array of merchandize, with the sole aim of reaping as much profit as possible.[86]

The BBC is so far gone over to Post Modernism, Cool Britannia, Globalization and all the rest of it, that they throw the book at us. The BBC has at its command broadcasting and production technologies that enable such projects as Operation Boz to assume the proportions of a major onslaught. Not only radio and television but also the net. The BBC’s website proclaims:

“If you missed the ‘Dickens’ TV series on BBC Two, you can still learn all about the great man himself online. Read on for a live chat with Peter Ackroyd the secrets from our Dickens expert and the chance to see if you can survive Dickensian London.

The Corporation offers us challenge:

Dare you take a tour of Dickensian London? Play the game and you could end up meeting Mr. Pickwick, Mr. Micawber or pickpocketing for Fagin….

We are offered the chance to “chat” with Peter Ackroyd. Dickens, we are informed “…was a great self-publicist and performer” (Well, Boz had his work cut out for him, as he was born before he was able to avail himself of the BBC’s modern facilities for celebrity creation and propagation). This, and much more, we can learn from the transcript “of our live chat with Peter Ackroyd, biographer of Charles Dickens”. And there are readings to be had, too: “Dickens’s performances of readings from his novels were a phenomenon. Watch the video as actor Anton Lesser terrifies as Sikes, and brings to life Dickens’s London, ‘A Christmas Carol’ and ‘The Pickwick Papers”.

After such a cultural binge, a bit of relaxation might well be in order. Why not enjoy a quiz? “Take the quiz and then see if you need to find out more about the author and his fight for the poor. If you still want to know more, see if you’re question has been answered by our expert”.

But of course, there’s a BBC book to go with all this. [87] It’s called Charles Dickens: Public Life and Private Passions. In 1990 Peter Ackroyd’s curious biography of Dickens was well received by reviewers. Its major eccentricity, Dickens’s personal appearance and conversing with the biographer, was regarded by some as  “extending the frontiers of biography”. This is classic Post Modernism, and Ackroyd’s great gift for pastiche invariably serves him well. Public Life and Private Passion is far less ambitious. As a friend, guide and philosopher to accompany the TV series it works well enough.  My only misgiving is that it may pass as a brief, but definitive biography of our greatest novelist. The BBC-2 television series and this book list the names of no consultant. The BBC could have called upon and would happily have had for the asking, the finest expertise that the UK and the USA could offer. I raised this matter with the BBC, only to be told that they regard Ackroyd as a definitive authority on Dickens. So there.

The book once more propagates the basic thesis: “Misfortune, hardship and terror made him what he was”.  And all the familiar Freudian stuff is there  -– father’s fecklessness and imprisonment for debt, Warren’s Blacking, jilting by Marie Beadnell, fancying his sister-in-law, love affair with a young actress etc. etc. But that is where we came in…..The usual Freudian claptrap is deployed to explain the source of Dickens’s genius. Read this book, by all means. It is a good read and is handsomely produced.

But if you are really interested in our greatest novelist, you will need to widen your scope. For the for his childhood read Angus Wilson, his youth read Christopher Hibbert, his professional career, read Edgar Johnson, his historical background read Humphrey House, his love-life read Claire Tomalin, for Victorian publishing read John Sutherland. But if you want to understand how his fiction works, where do you start? And where do you end? Try at least J.Hillis Miller, John Carey, the Leavises and Steven Marcus.

Do you know, in Dickens: Public Life and Private Passion, an illustration of Mr Bumble on page 88 has the caption: “Mr Bumble from ‘David Copperfield’...”

How’s that for Authoritative? Or Definitive?

All cultural production accommodates itself to this new culture, even broadcasting’s treatment of the classics of our literature.[88] It might be shocking to contemplate, but Peter Ackroyd’s Dickens Blitz is no exception. It all has economic deep structures, of course. The causes are all to do with trade, commerce and money making. The general symptoms are not encouraging. Television programming is wholly at the mercy of the imperative of the ratings. Consequently British television drama is now almost totally given over to medical and police series. Cinema audiences are on the increase, but the really successful films achieve success by means of violence, sex and stunning special effects. When the Corporation takes on elite traditional or high culture then it must be accommodated within the format and expectations of the new all pervasive populism.

Someone said once that history is the bits of the past that are useful to the present. It’s interesting, if what we see on television is reliable evidence, that the British currently have a fascination with “history”. But it depends, of course, on what you mean by history. And we would need to enquire as to the quality of what we see. Schedules are filled up with archaeological digs, programmes about stately homes, Egyptian tombs, Roman cities, lectures illustrated by battle re-enactments and computer graphics. The craze has given us shows such as the 1900 House, the 1940s House, the Edwardian Country House. These latter fascinatingly feature modern people dressed up in period costume allegedly going about their daily lives in the past. In the best Brechtian manner they sometimes talk directly to camera and moan about how hard it is not having shampoo, the birth-pill and hamburgers. These programmes allow viewers to become diachronic tourists, which is the role assumed by Peter Ackroyd in Dickens, as our go-between ‘twixt past and present. Here we are on the beach in Norfolk. Dickens, he tells us, loved wandering about here, musing on his unhappy life, and lo and behold, even as he speaks, we see Anton Lesser (“Dickens”) strolling along the shoreline in suitably meditative mode. This time the BBC has thrown the book at us, in more senses than one, as we not only get the usual merchandize of audio and video tapes, books and other apparatus of the global market, but are invited to be interactive -- the closing announcement invites us to visit the website and “Play the Dickens Game which takes you on a tour of Victorian London……..” As the oft-quoted opening of L.P.Hartley’s novel The Go Between has it, “the Past is Another Country”, but with the aid of the modern technology, we can easily pop there and back any time.

Currently there are two main arguments to support the Peter Ackroyd Dickensfest. One is that it demonstrates the BBC’s continuing commitment to its traditional public service broadcasting ideals.  A careful examination of the evidence seriously qualifies this claim.

Secondly, the claim is made that such programes “popularize” great literature. This, too, I beg leave to doubt. If people turn afresh to Dickens expecting to find what these programmes seem to promise, I think they will be disappointed. The qualities of great art defy metamorphosis into simplicity. We are obliged to aspire to take classics on their own terms. If they have anything to say to us, they will speak to us across the centuries. All we have to do is listen, and learn to hear what they have to say.

Robert Giddings

[1] In Froude’s view, Britishness was a force for great good in the world. Our burgeoning parliamentary democracy, imperialism and version of the Christian revelation made the world a better place. The Reformation was “the root and source of the expansive force which has spread the Anglo-Saxon race over the globe”.

[2]And what is meant by Whiggism in Macaulay’s mouth? It means substantially that creed which registers the experience of the English upper classes during the four or five generations previous to Macaulay. It represents…the instinctive convictions generated by the dogged insistence upon their privileges of a stubborn, high-spirited, and individually short-sighted race”. Leslie Stephen: ‘Macaulay’ in Hours in a Library, volume 2 1876.

[3] A History of the English Speaking Peoples, four volumes 1956-8.

[4] The Years of Endurance 1793-1802, 1942; Years of Victory 1802-1812, 1944; The Age of Elegance 1812-1832, 1950 and English Saga, 1940.

[5] Simon Schama inaugurated the BBC History Lecture on 20 June 2002, with ‘Television and the Trouble With History’, broadcast on BBC-4, reprinted the BBC History Magazine, July 2002. His controversial argument was that television was as capable a medium for history as print.

[6] When researching a documentary, Who Framed Charles Dickens, for BBC-2 in 1994, we found archive film of Bransby Williams, “doing” Grandfather Smallweed. It was fascinating, and took one back to a previous era, still closely in touch with Victorian theatrical traditions.

[7]  He was also a successful playwright -- Night Must Fall 1935 and The Corn is Green 1938.

[8] Emlyn Williams’s performances were well preserved in two television programmes, Emlyn Williams as Charles Dickens (US title: Charles Dickens ) 1983.

[9] Emlyn Williams made LP recordings. These were widely used in schools and colleges.

[10] The name is variously spelled. I here us the standardized anglicized version according to modern reference works. Political correctness probably favours some form of Irish rendering and this is often adopted by fellow thespians.

[11] He was Iago in Orson Welles’s film version of Othello, an experience he recounts in Put Money in Thy Purse 1954.

[12] Dotrice earned something of a reputation as impersonator of Dickens. He played the lead in Wolf Mankowitz’s drama series for Yorkshire Television Dickens of London 1977 and later starred in BBC Radio Four’s drama about the last reading tours written by Raymund  Fitzsimons, These Garish Lights.

[13] And published an excellent and informative book, Charles Dickens: Sikes and Nancy and Other Readings 1975, which draws useful insight from his experiences in reading Dickens on stage.

[14] He is a producer and director with his own production company in England, who has appeared in the USA on The History Channel.

[15] Cathy Taylor:‘Dickens’s Theatrical Urge Survives in Descendant’, in The Old Times, volume 12, number 12, April 2002, page 3.

[16] Harvey O’Brien, in review of ‘The Mystery of Charles Dickens’ at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin, 18 April 2002, in Culturevulture.net

[17]The Good Old Days’ was a long-running BBC show 1953-83 which purported to revive the dear, dead days of British Musical Hall (vaudeville) transmitted from a surviving music hall, the City Varieties in Leeds, Yorkshire. It starred such acts as Roy Hudd, Danny La Rue, Ken Dodd and others aping Dan Leno, Marie Lloyd, Harry Champion etc. – dressed in costumes circa 1890-1914. The audience would be attired all-purpose “Edwardian” costumes. Each programme concluded with cast, chorus and audience singing ‘Down at the Old Bull and Bush’.

[18] Simon Callow, interview BBC Four, BBC Website 17 May 2002

[19] Aspects of Victorian life superbly evoked in Michael Sadleir’s popular novel, Fanny by Gaslight 1940.

[20] See Richard L. Klepac: Mr Mathews at Home 1979. For a brief account of Mathews’s stage act, see Christopher Hibbert: The Making of Charles Dickens 1967 pp 110-111

[21] Robert Garis: The Dickens Theatre: A Reassessment of the Novels 1965 pp 16, 24 and 63. Earle Davis suggests that Dickens had Macready in mind when he created villainous or melodramatic characters, cf  Earle Davis: The Flint and the Flame: The Artistry of Charles Dickens 1964 pp 60-61.

[22] John Forster: The Life of Charles Dickens 1872, Book V, Literary Labour at Lausanne, Fireside Edition ND, p 451.

[23] Christopher Hibbert: The Making of Charles Dickens 1967 pp 23-4. See also Walter Dexter: ‘Dickens’s Schooldays’ in The Dickensian, volume 22, number 1.

[24]The Listener 25 December 1969.

[25] Mary Dickens: My Father as I Recall Him 1900 pp. 47-8

[26]  Robert Keeley (1793-1869) was a well-known actor who had starred in productions at Covent Garden, the Lyceum. He made his name on the London stage in 1821 as Jemmy Green in Moncrieff’s stage version of Pierce Egan’s Tom and Jerry; or, Life in London. Keeley was a successful low comedian, with a humorous style based on his stocky appearance and slow, jerky delivery and a good line in pathos. He made a great mark as Dogbery in Much Ado About Nothing and (significantly) was a brilliant Mrs. Gamp in the stage version of Martin Chuzzlewit, in which he was especially coached by Dickens himself. He subsequently played leading roles in The Cricket on the Hearth, The Battle of Life and The Chimes (he was Trotty Veck). Keeley later partnered William Charles Macready. He married Mary Ann Goward, who was also a brilliant performer; he excelled in several Dickens roles, including Smike. She was frequently present at Dickens’s stage performances and public readings. William Charles Macready (1793-1873) was one of the most illustrious actor managers of the Victorian age. He made his mark with Richard III at Covent Garden 1819 and caused a sensation as Tell in Sheridan Knowles William Tell 1825. He was successful in Paris and USA. At Drury Lane he starred as Antony (in Antony and Cleopatra), and as King Lear and Byron’s Sardanapalus, Scoring a success in Browning’s Strafford and other melodramas. Macready made an impact in Bulwer Lytton’s Lady of Lyons and Richelieu and as Leontes (A Winter’s Tale) at Covent Garden. In 1838 he created a resounding success in Henry V (a production aided by Dickens, Forster and Maclise). Macready was responsible for the first more or less complete King Lear since Shakespeare’s day that put an end to Nahum Tate’s happy-ending version. This had held the stage since King Charles II’s time. Macready included the Fool, the death of Cordelia and a very effective storm. Dickens reviewed it for The Examiner 27 October 1849. See Michael Slater, editor: Dickens’s Journalism, volume II, The Amusements of the People and Other Papers: Reports, Essays and Reviews 1834-51 1996. The evidence suggests that Macready’s performances in Shakespeare marked an important transition stage in the break away from traditional highly rhetorical delivery of the verse towards a more natural way of speaking the lines. This was particularly noted by contemporaries, Fanny Kemble, for example, noted: “Conscious of his imperfect declamation of blank verse…induced him to adopt what his admirers called his natural style of speaking it: which was simply chopping it up into prose…” (Fanny Kemble: Records of a Later Life). George Henry Lewes reported that his declamation was mannered and unmusical “yet his intelligence always made him follow the winding meanings through the involutions of the verse, and never allowed you to feel, as you feel in the declamations of Charles Kean, and many other actors, that he was speaking words which he did not thoroughly understand”. (On Actors and the Art of Acting 1875). Macready excelled in pathos and tenderness, which especially rendered his Lear noticeable. The intense rivalry with the great American tragedian Edwin Forrest resulted in the tragic Astor Park riots in New York 1849. Dickens and Macready were very good friends. It seems likely to me that Dickens was influenced by Macready’s acting. The influence seems strong in his sense of the big “theatrical” scene and of pathos – such as the death of Little Nell and of Paul Dombey. See William Charles Macready: The Diaries 1833-1851, edited by W.Toynbee 1912; Reminiscences and Selections from his Diaries and Letters etc. edited Sir Frederick Pollock 1875: William Archer: William Charles Macready 1890.

[27] Charles Kemble (1775-1854) one of the great actor-managers of the day, was a younger brother of John Philip Kemble, (1757-1823), the great tragedian. He became able actor after a shaky start (with a weak voice and awkward manner) but developed into a very capable Orlando, Benedick, Mercutio, as well as exhibiting considerable style in Sheridan and Restoration comedy. He has an important place in the history of stage performance and production, as his production of Shakespeare’s King John in 1823 was the first that attempted authentic historical costumes of the period, designed by Planche, thus initiating the fashion for “historical accuracy”. See Bertram Joseph: The Tragic Actor 1959 pp 310 ff.

[28] Letter to Arthur Ryland, 7 January 1853.

[29] See Raymund Fitzsimons: The Charles Dickens Show: An Account of his Public Readings 1858-1870, 1970 pp 17-18.

[30] Letter to John Forster 16 September 1855.

[31] Grahame Smith: Charles Dickens: A Literary Life 1996 p 11.

[32] See Philip Collins (editor): Charles Dickens: Sikes and Nancy and Other Public Readings 1983 pp 229 ff.

[33] George Dolby was the manager of Dickens’s reading tours in the UK and USA from 1866 to 1870. Dickens approached the firm of agents Chappells, who recommended Dolby to him. He was highly reliable, considerate and loyal throughout. A large, amiable man, with a speech impediment, he supported, consoled and cosseted the novelist (whose health grew gradually declined) throughout these gruelling tours. The novelist wrote that Dolby was “as a tender as a woman and as watchful as a doctor” (letter dated 7 April 1868). Dolby wrote a highly readable and important account of the reading tours in Charles Dickens as I Knew Him: The Story of the Reading Tours in Great Britain and America 1885. This jolly man, so careful in managing Dickens, was unfortunately financially feckless and died destitute in Fulham Infirmary in 1900.

[34] Philip Collins (ed): Charles Dickens: Sikes and Nancy and Other Public Readings 1983 pp xii-xiii.

[35] These are to be found in the Berg Collection, New York Public Library; the Suzannet Collection at the Dickens House, 48 Doughty Street, London; and in the Gimbel Collection in the Beinecke Library, Yale University.

[36] Kate Field: Pen Photographs of Charles Dickens’s Readings 1871 and Charles Kent: Charles Dickens as a Reader 1872.

[37] The Readings of Mr Charles Dickens as Condensed by Himself, Boston 1868.

[38] Marginalia by W.M.Wright in his copy of The Readings of Mr Charles Dickens as Condensed by Himself, Boston 1868. This annotated volume may be seen at Dickens House, 48 Doughty Street, London.

[39] This typescript: Notes on Charles Dickens’s ‘Christmas Carol’ is in the Suzannet Collection, in the Dickens House, 48 Doughty Street, London.

[40] Charles Dickens junior: ‘Reminiscences of My Father’ in Windsor Magazine, Supplement December 1934; Clement and Howard Scott: The Life and Reminiscences of E.L.Blanchard, two volumes 1891; Percy Fitzgerald: Memories of Charles Dickens 1913 and Rudolph Chambers Lehmann: Memories of Half a Century 1908.

[41] George Dolby: Charles Dickens as I Knew Him: The Story of the Reading Tours 1866-1870 1885.

[42] Philip Collins: Dickens Public Readings: The Performer and the Novelist 1975; Walter Dexter: ‘Mr Charles Dickens Will Read’ in The Dickensian, volumes 37-39, 1941-43 and Raymund Fitzsimons: The Charles Dickens Show 1970.

[43] David Ponting: ‘Charles Dickens: The Solo Performer’ in Robert Giddings (ed): The Changing World of Charles Dickens 1983.

[44] Philip Collins edited the facsimile edition of A Christmas Carol: The Public Reading Version 1971; Charles Dickens: The Public Readings 1975 and Charles Dickens: Sikes and Nancy and Other Public Readings 1983

[45] Collins: Sikes and Nancy, op.cit. Introduction p xvii

[46] Report in New York Tribune, 11 December 1867

[47] John Forster: The Life of Charles Dickens op.cit. p 753.

[48] Ibid pp 752-3.

[49] Quoted in Philip Collins: Dickens: Interviews and Recollections 1981, volume 2 pp 300 ff.

[50] Mark Twain: ‘Special Correspondent of the Alta California11 January 1868.

[51] See Jerome Meckier: Innocent Abroad: Charles Dickens’s American Engagements 1990 pp 122-132

[52] See Philip Collins: Charles Dickens: Sikes and Nancy and Other Readings op. cit. pp239 ff.; Raymond Fissions: The Charles Dickens Show opacity pp 147-160

[53] Mr. Dickens of London 1968 starred Sir Michael Redgrave and  Juliet Mills. Dickens materializes in 20th century London and takes Juliet Mills on a curious tour of various locations either personally significant to him or that featured in his fiction. Very interesting moments are provided in sequences in which Redgrave attempts to recreate Dickens as a public reader of his own work. The Great Inimitable Mr. Dickens 1970, was written by Ned Sherrin and Caryl Brahms and produced by Ned Sherrin. It starred Anthony Hopkins as Dickens and a variety of British thespians as assorted Dickens characters, including Freddie Jones, Sybil Thorndike, Arthur Lowe and Patrick Carghill. It had effective moments, but was a bit of scrapbook. Dickens of London 1976, written by Wolf Mankowitz, was an ambitious drama series starring Roy Dotrice both as Charles Dickens and his father, John Dickens. Dickens as a young man was played by Gene Foad. It was directed by Michael Ferguson and Marc Miller. The drama attempted to present the biography, interlaced with various characters and situations that gave rise to the fiction. The series was accompanied by a readable and useful biographical volume.

[54] In fact, this was no big deal. After all, Dickens appeared in person and talked to Peter Ackroyd during his biography Dickens 1999.

[55] Am I alone in having quite serious misgivings about this dramatization of Great Expectations? Tony Marchant is, on the face of it, not really an obvious choice to handle Dickens. His previous television dramas (Take Me Home, Goodbye Cruel World, Into the Fire and  Never,Never) have been in the rather glum British social realism tradition “with attitude” (as they say). His version of Great Expectations successfully removed all traces of its author’s humour. No larks, Pip.

[56] See Kevin Brownlow: David Lean 1996 pp 230-231 and 246-9.

[57] Charles Dickens: The Old Curiosity Shop Chapter 27.

[58] See Robert Langton: The Childhood and Youth of Charles Dickens 1891 p 22 and John Forster: The Life of Charles Dickens 1872, Fireside Edition, ND pp 14-5.

[59] See Edgar Johnson: Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph 1952 pp 44, 50, 60, 99, 120 and 331-2.

[60] See Philip Collins: Dickens: The Critical Heritage 1971 pp 149-50; 260 and 253-355.

[61] See Christopher Hibbert: The Making of Charles Dickens 1968 pp 181-2.

[62] T.A. Jackson: Charles Dickens: The Progress of a Radical 1938 and Edmund Wilson: ‘Dickens: The Two Scrooges’ in The Wound and the Bow 1941.

[63] In his “definitive” biography, Dickens 1999, there is a great deal more of Jung, too.

[64] Simon Callow is on record attesting his belief that much of Charles Laughton’s histrionic genius resulted from “a pressure deriving partially from an anguished struggle with his homosexuality. His genius was to use his inner tensions in the service of great art” etc. Simon Callow: Charles Laughton’s ‘The Night of the Hunter’ in The Daily Telegraph, London 27 March 1999

[65] See Jacques Lacan: The Language of Self 1953 and Seminar One: Freud’s Papers on Technique 1987 and B. Benvenuto and R. Kennedy: The Works of Jacques Lacan: An Introduction 1986.

[66] Ernest Jones, Freud’s loyal disciple and biographer, personally advised Laurence Olivier in filming Hamlet 1948. See Ernest Jones: Hamlet and Oedipus 1949 and Norman Holland: ‘Freud on Shakespeare’ in Show, February 1964.

[67] See Richard D. Gross: Psychology: The Science of Mind and Behaviour, second edition 1992

pp. 589 ff and cf Erich From: The Crisis of Psychoanalysis 1970.

[68] The ready identification of Dickens with Ackroyd proved too tempting for journalists to resist. Andrew Billen in an interview published in wrote on The Times wrote: “I posit a time-defying Ackroyd-like theory that Dickens and Ackroyd are similar. Both came from humble backgrounds, Dickens from a clerk’s family near Portsmouth and Ackroyd from a council estate in Acton….” Etc. etc. See Andrew Billen: ‘I’m Looking Forward to Death’ in The Times 20 May 2002.

[69] A similarly sensible line might just as well be applied to much of the prescribed reading in courses on Women’s Literature, which require study of various books of dubious literary quality, simply because ideologically they further the Cause.

[70] This may be inferred from the cover design of the monthly serial parts that show Dombey in the House of Commons. Dickens eventually dropped this aspect of the novel.

[71] He castigated Parliament for the catastrophes of the Crimean War -- see ‘The Thousand and one Humbugs’, Household Words 28 April 1855; ‘The Toady Tree’, Household Words 26 May 1855; ‘Cheap Patriotism’, Household Words 9 June 1855 ; Our Commission’, Household Words 11 August 1855 and  ‘Doctor Dulcamara’, Household Words,

 18 December 1858.

[72] Charles Mackay 1814-1889 was a remarkable Scottish writer and journalist who contributed to Dickens’s journal, Household Words. He was editor of the Glasgow Argus and fine songs, many of them set to music by Henry Russell and Henry (‘There’s No Place Like Home’) Bishop.  Mackay seems to have been one of the first to attempt serious study of the curious mass hysteria located in the psychology of crowd. Mackay became editor of the Illustrated London News. Symptoms of the phenomenon Mackay described have strikingly recurred in the UK during recent times in the public behaviour at the death of Princess Diana and the public reaction to the child murders at Soham in April 2002.

[73] The People’s Charter urged universal manhood suffrage, annual parliaments, payment of MPs, equal electoral districts, secret ballot and no property qualifications for MPs.

[74] See Michael Slater, editor: Dickens’s Journalism: Volume 2: The Amusements of the People and Other Papers: Reports, Essays and Reviews 1834-51, 1996 pp137-142.

[75] This was especially the case in Britain after the Leavises’ Dickens the Novelist 1970 so grandly rehabilitated the novel to the canon after its relegation to a mere Appendix in The Great Tradition. Consequently every literary academic journeyman was obliged if called upon to be ready with an exegesis in line with this new revised critical correctness.

[76] Charles Dickens, letter to Dr Thomas Southwood Smith, 1 February 1840. It’s also interesting to note that Dr Southwood Smith, a campaigner for sanitary and industrial improvement, met the novelist while he was a Commissioner on the Employment of Young People in the early 1840s and kept Dickens fairly well informed about these matters.

[77] Sir Robert Peel, letter to Queen Victoria, 19 March 1844, in Charles Stuart Parker: Sir Robert Peel from his Private Papers, 1899, volume 3 pp147-8. Se also D.G.H. Cole and A.W. Filson: British Working Class Movements: Select Documents 1789-1875, 1965 pp. 329-30 and  J.T. Ward: The  Factory Movement 1830-1855 1962 pp 81-106 for details of the failure of the Ten Hour movement.

[78] They argued it interfered with fee bargaining for contract between employer and labour. See Hansard 15, 18, 22, 29 March and 3, 13 May 1844.

[79] "The strike had continued well on towards four months, and the mine-owners still had no prospect of getting the upper hand. One way, was, however, open to them. They remembered the cottage system. In July, notice to quit was served on the workers, and in a week, the whole 40,000 were put out of doors.... The sick, the feeble, old men and little children, even women in childbirth, were mercilessly turned from their beds and cast in the roadside ditches. Soldiers and police in crowds were present, ready to fire at the first symptom of resistance...." Friedrich Engels: The Condition of the Working Class in England 1844.

[80] Thomas Mann: Essays of Three Decades, translated by H.T.Lowe-Porter, not dated, p.422.

[81] John Charles Walsham Reith , 1st Baron, 1889-1971, first General Manager and Director General of the BBC. Pioneer of the ethos of public service broadcasting, based on the principle that broadcasting was not simply a means of earning revenue by providing mass entertainment, not simply an arm of the state, but that the BBC should champion the moral and intellectual role in the nation. Under Reith programmes mixed information, education and entertainment.

[82] See Chris Horrie and Steve Clarke: Citizen Greg: The Extraordinary Story of Greg Dyke and How He Captured the BBC, 2000 pp. 559 ff.

[83] Kenneth Clark, Baron 1903-83, was an art historian and successively Director of the National Gallery, Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford and Professor of Art History at the Royal Academy. Civilization was a thirteen fifty-minute episode series that traced the history of the arts that shaped Western European civilization.

[84] See Robert Giddings: ‘Radio in Peace and War’ in Gary Day, editor: Literature and Culture in Modern Britain, Volume Two: 1930-1955, 1997 pp158-160.

[85] Digby Anderson and Peter Mullen, editors: Faking It: The Sentimentalisation of Modern Sociey 1998. The volume contained an essay by Professor Anthony O’Hear – ‘Diana, Queen of Hearts’ -- a particular spirited assault on the public and media displays of sentimental grief over the death of Princess Diana. It was this, it seemed, which particularly activated the Prime Minister’s return. Tony Blair referred to Diana, the Princess of Wales as “The People’s Princess”. Cf Roger Scruton: An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture 1998 pp 101-4

[86] See Eric Schlosser: Fast Food Nation 2001 pp 40-42.

[87] Such is the commercial zeal of Greg Dyke’s BBC that the Corporation seems to have a book to go with everything. In September 2002 the media carried reports of the inquest into the death of a guest during a party at the home of ITV celebrity entertainer, Michael Barrymoore. It was scarcely an edifying story, involving drink, drugs and allegations of sodomy. It was rumoured that the BBC had paid Barrymoore an advance of £500,000 for a book of memoirs that was to include his account of these events.  This would have been inconceivable in Reith’s day. Following an inquest it was reported that the police were investigating allegations that Barrymoore had committed perjury at the hearings. Eventually, as rumours grew, BBC Director General, Greg Dyke, stepped in the book deal was cancelled. See Sunday Times 15 September 2002.

[88] See Robert Giddings and Keith Selby: The Classic Serial on Television and Radio 200 pp. 195 ff.