Speaking Dickens

At a time of universal celebrations for the bicentenary of Dickens’s birth, Victoria Kastner suggests how best to enjoy the great man’s works

During his bicentennial year, when worldwide praise for Charles Dickens threatens to reach its saturation point, there is a simple way to rediscover his genius. Read his novels aloud. The distance between his era and ours vanishes when we speak his words. Starting with The Pickwick Papers in 1836 and ending with Our Mutual Friend in 1864, Dickens wrote fourteen complete novels in twenty-eight years. This astonishing accomplishment represents only a small percentage of the eight million words he produced in his lifetime. As journalist, essayist, correspondent, and playwright as well as novelist, Dickens was so prolific that almost no one has read his entire oeuvre. Within this torrent of exceptional prose, he reserved his finest efforts for his novels. Today the general public regards them as the sole source of his fame. Dickens created each of these fourteen works with a perception we have since largely forgotten: the majority of his readers were in fact not readers at all, but listeners.

Dickens was described by his contemporaries as “the greatest reader of the greatest writer of the age,” and he was certainly the most sought after. He had wanted to be an actor since childhood, and animatedly read his newly completed novels aloud to family and friends. In December 1844, he rushed home from Italy in order to read The Chimes (his second Christmas book, written one year after A Christmas Carol, and similarly meant to be read aloud in a single sitting). He wrote to his wife Catherine the following day: “If you had seen Maclise [a painter who was one of Dickens’s closest friends] 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.” His readings began in 1853 as charity fundraisers, but by 1858 they had evolved into the paid public performances that brought Dickens wealth, fame, and a more personal connection with his readers than any previous author had ever known. Initially Dickens read A Christmas Carol in its entirety, but soon replaced it with a series of familiar vignettes--some poignant, mostly humorous--taken from various novels. One critic wrote, “He does not only read his story; he acts it.”

In addition to inventing the public reading, Dickens invented the serial novel. Every one of his novels appeared first in serialized form--usually in monthly parts--comprised of two or three chapters and two illustrations. Dickens composed serially as well, modifying characters and plotlines in response to his readers’ reactions. Who were these readers? Nearly everyone. Dickens was read by servants and aristocrats, parents and children, the newly literate middle classes and the poorest and the richest alike. Very often they read his novels aloud--in drawing rooms, social halls, snuff shops, servants’ quarters, nurseries, and tea rooms. Monthly intervals gave his listeners time to hear them, his readers time to review them, and everyone time to study the illustrations and speculate on the plot while they awaited the next installment.

We revisit this world when we read Dickens out loud today. Speaking his words rather than scanning them creates a slower pace and spotlights his minor characters: hapless Sloppy, determined Betty Higden, demented Miss Flyte. Only speech could capture Dick Swiveller’s barroom rhymes, Pecksniff’s pomposities, and the (literally) breathtaking punctuation-free paragraphs of Flora Finching. We also have time to envision London as Dickens saw it on his restless walks of fifteen or twenty miles a night. The self-declared foe of Ignorance and Want, Dickens was apparently never assaulted by criminals, though he saw and spoke with them often as he traversed London’s dim streets. Among his greatest literary gifts was empathy. His richest characters were often based on impressions he gathered in one single swift glance.

Consider reading the opening passage of Bleak House out loud. Or the description of Mrs. Jarley’s waxworks in The Old Curiosity Shop. Or choose one of Dickens’s own public readings--the uproarious “Mr. Bob Sawyer’s Party” from The Pickwick Papers, or the harrowing and ghastly death of Nancy at the hand of Bill Sikes from Oliver Twist. Finish the evening as Dickens would have, with a humorous account from David Copperfield, titled “David and Dora’s Courtship and Young Housekeeping.” Or best of all, read aloud an entire Dickens novel, divided into its original installments. Share it with others, or read it solely to yourself. Your own voice--saying Dickens’s own words--is the only audience you’ll ever need.

Victoria Kastner, Historian at San Simeon

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