“Literature was his wife, the theatre his mistress, and to the very end he was tempted to leave the one for the other.”
So writes actor Simon Callow in a concise summary statement in his biography of Charles Dickens, Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World. Many biographers have tackled Charles Dickens over the years, the most notable in contemporary times being Peter Ackroyd. But few if any could bring the understanding of acting and the theater that Callow brings to the subject.
Born into a middle-class family, Dickens knew both the comforts of home and the terrors of what happens when those comforts are snatched away, as they were when his father kept falling deeper into debt, to the point where he was sentenced to debtor’s prison. From an early age, the young Charles was a performer, enjoying the attention and using the attention to feed some desperate needs within himself.
As a young man, he was tempted to go into acting, and even had a scheduled audition, but he was forced to miss it because of a bad cold. Instead, he went into journalism, and then into writing sketches using the pen name of “Boz,” and from his early 20s he became famous. The sketches led to serialized novels, and what Charles Dickens produced over the course of his literary life changed the face, heart and soul of literature forever.
Callow delves into all of this, and his engaging and witty style masks the very tight control he maintains over the biography. And it is tightly written, emphasizing how theater informed the novels Dickens wrote, the plays he produced, the public readings he gave, and even his professional editorial and personal family life. Dickens was the writer, director, and producer of his life, and the life of his family and even many of his friends.
Theater is Callow’s lens, and he uses to examine everything from Dickens’ boyhood horror of working in a blacking factory; how his novels were written; what happened to the marriage with his wife, Catherine Hogarth, and the relationship with the actress Ellen Ternan; to how his intense desire to connect with his audience ultimately contributed to his death.
Callow knows his subject as an actor knows a role; Callow has performed his subject this year in the stage play The Mystery of Charles Dickens.
With this biography, Callow invites us to be part of that fully engaged audience that Dickens connected with so well. And we come to understand the author for the performer, and actor, that he was.
Related: Simon Callow and Charles Dickens