From the Publisher
"A biography of Boz by a great English actor, who seeks to reverse the orthodox argument that Dickens’s obsession with theatrical drama made his books sentimental and lachrymose. . . . Callow argues that it is Dickens’s attention to stagecraft and the power of drama that’s made folks like The Artful Dodger and Miss Havisham seem three dimensional."
—The Daily Beast
"In this insightful biographical study, Callow, a seasoned actor and director, shows how the theatricality that caused Dickens’ legs to swell also vastly enlarged his literary art. . . . Itself as enchanting as a well-directed stage play, this narrative will delight any lover of Dickens."
—Booklist, starred review
“[Simon Callow’s] admiration for his subject glistens on every page. . . . The author shows us the vast, adoring crowds and tallies the enormous psychic and physical costs of Dickens’ myriad performances and celebrity. Callow makes us wish we’d been in those crowds to watch this astonishing magician weave his literary spells.”
“A celebration, jubilant, vigorous, imaginative, and, as Dickens might have said, an all-round sizzler.”
—John Carey, The Sunday Times (London)
“This is the book we have long been waiting for and only Simon Callow could have written it. . . . A marvelous book that deepens and enriches our understanding and enjoyment of Dickens.”
—Michael Slater, author of Charles Dickens: A Life Defined by Writing
“Callow . . . writes with great authority and elegant insouciance, which makes this ‘biography with a twist’ very entertaining.”
—The Independent (London)
“It is one of the many virtues of this book that Callow not only admires his subject, but has got inside him.”
—The Guardian (London)
"Of the several books published this year in honor of the bicentennial of Dickens’s birth, this by Callow is in many ways the best because it has all the gusto that a popular biography of Dickens—a man who “could do nothing by halves”—should possess. . . . The best biography for Dickens newcomers and a wonderful read for all."
—Library Journal, starred review
Of the several books published this year in honor of the bicentennial of Dickens's birth, this by Callow is in many ways the best because it has all the gusto that a popular biography of Dickens—a man who "could do nothing by halves"—should possess, along with the sound understanding of, and insight into, its subject's life. Callow (My Life in Pieces) is an actor with writing in his blood; Dickens was a writer who encountered the theater as one of his earliest and deepest loves. Dickens wrote for the theater with little success; his casts of characters and their memorable turns of phrase, the drama and comedy, went best into his fiction. Here is the life familiar to Dickens's devoted readers, but expressed with marvelous brio and an instinctive recognition of this man who demonstrated an empathy for the urban unempowered while ruthlessly driving to maintain his own dominance and control in personal and professional terms. VERDICT The best biography for Dickens newcomers and a wonderful read for all.—Margaret Heilbrun, Library Journal
Callow (My Life in Pieces, 2011, etc.) rehearses the life of Dickens with a sharp spotlight on the importance of the theater and of performance both in Dickens' life and in his fiction. The author is a front-row fan who has read Dickens' works repeatedly and whose admiration for his subject glistens on every page. It's hard not to admire the Dickens appearing here, a man whose Promethean production and energy make Trollope-Updike-Oates look a tad slothful. Writer of serial novels (he was producing The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist simultaneously), creator of the most beloved Christmas story outside the Gospels, editor of his own literary magazines, performer of his own works, husband (not an attentive one), father of 10, philanthropist…all in an age when rail travel was a novelty and writers still used that old-fashioned word processor, a pen. Callow generally follows the traditional narrative line of Dickens' life (with emphasis on his early and never-ending interest in theater), chronicling his time in the blacking factory, his indigent father, his schooling (very little), his rise in the world of letters, his friendships (literary and otherwise) and his enormous, trans-Atlantic celebrity. Callow doesn't ignore--though he does diminish a bit--Dickens' very human failures: his long affair with actress Ellen Ternan, his harsh treatment of his wife and his petulance and even pomposity in his dealings with publishers. But Callow's greatest achievements are his analysis of Dickens' prodigious thespian skills and his generation of an absolute love affair with his readership. The author shows us the vast, adoring crowds and tallies the enormous psychic and physical costs of Dickens' myriad performances and celebrity. Callow makes us wish we'd been in those crowds to watch this astonishing magician weave his literary spells.
Read an Excerpt
When he was a young graduate, Michael Slater, the current doyen of Dickens studies, was asked by his tutors at Oxford what he wanted to study for his PhD. When he said ‘Dickens’, they looked at him aghast. Dickens was simply not part of the accepted canon. After vainly trying to dissuade him, they sent him off to Another University for advice and guidance, after which he then commenced his life’s work, to the benefit of all Dickensians everywhere. Half a century later, the situation is entirely reversed: there is a non-stop tsunami of scholarly studies of Dickens from every possible angle. Dickens and Women, Dickens and Children, Dickens and Food, Dickens and Drink, Dickens and the Law, Dickens and Railways, Dickens and the Americans, Dickens and Europe, Dickens and Homosexuality, Dickens and Magic, Dickens and Mesmerism, Dickens and Art, Dickens and Stenography, Dickens and Publishing. As yet, I have not come across a book on Dickens and Dogs, but it can only be a matter of time: a perfectly interesting and not especially slim volume is just waiting to be written. The multifariousness of Dickens makes him virtually inexhaustible as a subject. These studies have run alongside and to some extent been the outcrop of the huge transformation in academic attitudes to Dickens, particularly with regard to the later novels, which were largely dismissed by critical opinion in his lifetime.
There has also been a magnificent procession of major biographies, from Edgar Johnson in the 1950s to Fred Kaplan in the 1980s, Peter Ackroyd’s sublime act of creative self-identification with Dickens in the 1990s, Michael Slater’s revelatory account of, as he puts it, a life defined by writing, to the most recent, Claire Tomalin’s vivid survey of the Life and Work. Dickens has never been more present. So it takes some cheek on the part of one who is by no means a Dickens scholar to offer yet one more account of the man who called himself Albion’s Sparkler. I dare to do so because my relationship to the great man is a little different from anyone else’s. In an exchange that Dickens himself might have relished, the late dramatist Pam Gems went to see one of her plays performed by that fine actor Warren Mitchell. She noticed that one or two lines in the text had changed. Reproached by her, Mitchell replied, ‘Pam, Pam: you only wrote ’im. I’ve been ’im.’ I have, over the years, been Dickens in various manifestations, from reconstructions of the Public Readings on television, to one of Dr Who’s helpers; I have also been involved in telling his life story, through the wonderful play that Peter Ackroyd wrote for me, The Mystery of Charles Dickens. Presently I am involved in performing two of his monologues, Dr Marigold and Mr Chops, and his solo version of A Christmas Carol. In order to do all of this, I have needed to find out what it was like to be him, and what it was like to be around him. I have immersed myself, on an almost daily basis, over a period of nearly fifteen years, in the minutiae of his life, above all seeking out personal reminiscences and his own utterances rather than exegetic texts.
Over the years, since a thoughtful grandmother thrust a copy of The Pickwick Papers into my hands as I repined in the itchy agony of chicken pox – from the moment I started reading, I never itched again – I have read virtually everything he has written, with the mixture of joy and frustration that all readers of Dickens except for fundamentalists experience. But it is not the writing that is the focus of the present book: when the content of a novel is autobiographical (which to one degree or another many of them are), I have of course discussed it, but my primary concern has always been to convey the flavour of one of the most remarkable men ever to walk the earth: vivacious, charismatic, compassionate, dark, dazzling, generous, destructive, profound, sentimental – human through and through, an inspiration and a bafflement.
Inevitably, as the title of the book declares, I have focused on the theatre in Dickens’s life. In recent years there has been an exceptional sequence of books that analyse the influence of the theatre on Dickens’s work in subtle and deeply illuminating ways – books by Robert Garis, Paul Schlicke, Deborah Vlock, Malcolm Andrews, John Glavin. Again, this is not the territory of the present book, which looks at the histrionic imperative so deeply rooted in Dickens, but beyond that is interested in Dickens on the stage of life, as he would certainly have thought of it. I have always been concerned with the peculiar quality of his personality, described with remarkable consistency by his contemporaries as theatrical. The books, therefore, to which I have had most recourse are the ones that have given me the man as he lived and breathed: Forster’s richly moving three-volume Life, the very first biography, written by the man who knew him better than anyone else, and whose perpetual sense of astonishment at his friend sings out on every page; the glorious twelve-volume Pilgrim Edition of the Letters, wherein Dickens speaks again, fresh, funny, tortured by turns; the Speeches, edited by Fielding, all improvised but faithfully transcribed to give a unique sense of Dickens the public man; Philip Collins’s wonderful collection of reminiscences and interviews; and the superb and constantly illuminating chronology by Norman Page, which in its dry way gives as well as anything written a sense of the sheer amount of abundant living that Dickens crammed into his rather short life. In the end, of course, this biography, as with any other, is a selection of the man: playing Dickens, and performing his work, has been like standing in front of a blazing fire. If I can convey any sense of that, I will have succeeded in my aim.