On February 7 at 7pm in our U District store (fireside), we will be hosting a birthday party for the one and only Charles Dickens. Our host, used book buyer Brad, wrote the following essay to generate some excitement. Enjoy:
Why Read Dickens ALOUD?
In 1853 Charles Dickens, the most popular novelist on Earth, gave a public reading of “A Christmas Carol,” his most popular story, to benefit charity. The reading was a sensation, raised an enormous sum, and resulted in a clamorous demand for more readings. For the next five years, and, in fact, for the rest of his life, Dickens read regularly for the benefit of charity. But in 1858, Dickens began to read his work “professionally,” i.e. for profit, and he quickly became the first, and perhaps the only, novelist in history, to earn more from reading his work aloud than he did from publishing it. He read in London, and in provincial towns, in theaters and public halls, before royalty, and, at his insistence, to audiences of working people at discounted ticket prices they could afford. He also read in America. The crowds hoping to buy tickets in New York, formed a full day before the box-office opened, stood in subzero weather, stretched three quarters of a mile and kept warm by dancing, singing, and fist-fighting.
In 1868 Dickens, whose health was failing, in part as a result of the physical and emotional strain of touring and performing, went on his emotional Farewell Tour. Dickens had come to depend on the readings and the direct connection they provided him with his readers. Giving the readings up was insisted on by his doctors, but to some considerable extent, it may be said that ending the readings was also his undoing. By 1870, at only 58, Dickens was dead.
So what was the magic of these public readings? The most obvious factor was the unprecedented popularity of Dickens’ books. There was hardly an English-speaking household during his lifetime that did not know Dickens’ novels and stories, either in their serialized form in magazines, as books, or in their innumerable adaptations to the stage. Those that couldn’t read, gathered to hear the books read aloud. Nothing in English since Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, was as widely known as Pickwick, et al.
Authors had been giving popular paid lectures for more than a generation, perhaps most famously Coleridge and Hazlitt. Dickens himself had been giving private readings of his work to a select circle of friends and critics for years before he began to read in public. But what Dickens did, by accepting a fee to read his books aloud, was new, and, in the beginning, he worried such performances might hurt his reputation. Instead, Dickens found his unique connection with his audience was infinitely deepened. As a novelist, Dickens was loved. As a reader, he was worshipped. And if the majority of the recorded witnesses to his performances are to be believed, it was only right that he was.
Already a much admired amateur actor, Dickens the reader was a phenomenon. Thomas Carlyle, not a man known for his enthusiasm, described Dickens as “an entire theatre company… under one hat.” Dickens did not simply read his stories, he acted them. Having carefully selected and edited his text, working and reworking each reading for maximum effect in both humor and pathos, the author then “became” each of his character; in his most famous dramatic reading, the murder of Nancy from Oliver Twist, he was first Fagin, then Sykes, then Nancy, in turn. The transformation was electrifying.
And always he was Dickens as well. When his audience laughed, Dickens laughed. When the death of little Paul Dombey made tough old Scots cry during a reading in Edinburgh, Dickens wept along with them.
Everywhere he read, audiences came to see not simply a famous author, but the friend who had introduced them to Mr. Pickwick, who had mourned with them the death of Little Nell, who had spoken for them against the inequities of their society in Hard Times and in the editorials in his magazines, and who had rejoiced with them in their happiness, at the wedding of Nicholas Nickelby (and many thereafter.) Dickens, it was felt, and is still felt by his readers, is ours.
And that is the key to the remarkable success of Dickens’ readings: his audiences felt they knew him as well as they knew his books. And Dickens felt much the same about his audience. While he disliked autograph-hunters, and committee-men, and provincial receptions, he genuinely loved his readers and was moved by, and deeply grateful for, their affection.
Dickens considered the greatest compliment of his life to be from a working man who, approaching him in the street after a performance, thanked Dickens for his reading of the previous evening, “… and for all the light” Dickens had brought into his home, over the years.
So why should anyone attempt to reproduce, even in tribute, something of the magic of a reading by Charles Dickens? Obviously, it would be impossible to capture the unique thrill of hearing the author read his own words. A number of great British actors have presented Dickens readings onstage. Most famously, Emlyn Williams regularly performed “An Evening with Charles Dickens,” and more recently, Simon Callow and Miriam Margoyles have both done one-person-performances as well. The public readings of A Christmas Carol are a tradition the world over. But there is something to be said for anyone, amateur, enthusiast, or common reader, reading the words of Charles Dickens aloud. Luckily, the texts of Dickens’ own readings have been preserved. But even if only reading the opening chapter of A Tale of Two Cities in a classroom, or one of the Christmas stories in the family circle, the pleasure of Dickens, for reader and listeners, is enhanced by the sound of his words in the air, by the shared laughter and tears, by familiarity of the stories, by the echo of his own voice, coming back to us, however faintly, from those famous readings of more than a century ago. It is the voice of a friend.