On a balmy Sydney summer evening thirty people gathered at The Women’s Club to hear NSW Dickens Society member Isabel Deeble talk about Charles Dickens (1812-1870) as a performer. Isabel began her interesting and informative talk with a focus on his earliest readings which featured A Christmas Carol. And for us, the audience, with Christmas just around the corner, it was easy to transport ourselves back to December 1853 when Dickens gave his first reading of his popular Ghost-Story of Christmas. Published just ten years earlier A Christmas Carol met with instant success and critical acclaim.
Fourteen years after that first public reading, in December 1867, Isabel recounted how Dickens delighted audiences during his tour of the USA noting that at his Boston reading Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882 was amongst those who attended. Longfellow’s daughter, Annie later recalling “How the audience loved best of all the Christmas Carol and how they laughed as Dickens fairly smacked his lips as there came the ‘smell like an eating house and a pastry cook’s next door to each other, with a laundress’s next door to that,’ as Mrs Cratchit bore in the Christmas pudding and how they nearly wept as Tiny Tim cried ‘God bless us every one!’”
Isabel went on to document how, back in the UK, Dickens’ first public readings for charity – to support the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children – were performed in Birmingham, to a rapturous working class crowd of 2,000 which lasted just under three hours. “How Mr Dickens twirled his moustache, or played with his paperknife, or laid down his book, and leant forward confidentially, or twinkled his eyes as if he enjoyed the whole affair immensely.”
Dickens’ described his readings of A Christmas Carol as “The brightest chapter of my life”. As Isabel pointed out Dickens’ readings of A Christmas Carol both started and ended his public performance career when he did his last reading in 1870 not long before he died in June of that year.
Having taken us through that part of Dickens’ public reading performances Isabel explored the question as to whether Dickens was the first international celebrity; a fore-runner to the rock star of the 1960’s. She pointed out that people slept out overnight to get tickets for his opening night performance in New York when 5,000 of them were waiting in the queue by 8am the morning the tickets went on sale. Was such an event the beginnings of those tickets scalpers we know today? Certainly Dickens readings were the great theatrical sensations of the day in Britain, Canada and the USA.
Isabel explored so many aspects of the phenomenon that was Dickens; stage struck all his life, she explained that it was an absolute passion of his which started when, as a small boy, his father set him up on a table to perform to those around him. We learnt that he wrote and managed his first play at six years of age at which time he directed the neighbour’s children. Both at school and as a young solicitor’s clerk he directed, acted and performed in plays.
As Dickensians know it was when he acted in the arctic melodrama The Frozen Deep, mainly written by his friend Wilkie Collins, that he met the actress Ellen Ternan with whom he fell in love and for whom he left his wife. Not that Dickens’ audiences would have known that, the most famous of all being Queen Victoria who, Isabel told us, remembered it as the greatest performance she had ever seen in a theatre.
Leaving no stone unturned, Isabel told us all about the desk which Dickens had made for his reading tours and which Mark Twain described thus:
“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 huge 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 the picture-galleries for bringing out the best effects of great paintings. Style! — There is style about Dickens, and style about all his surroundings.”
Dickens, who had compulsive energy which allowed him little time for rest, despite having a tour manager and crew to help, oversaw props and lighting, all of which took its toll on his health. Audiences were enthralled with Dickens’ depiction of the murder of Nancy by Bill Sikes in Oliver Twist which was described by one audience member. “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… Then the cries for mercy: ‘Bill! dear Bill! for dear God’s sake!’… 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.” Such efforts both raised his blood pressure and saw his family begging him to stop.
Three months after his last reading – A Christmas Carol – Dickens died aged 58 years old. Isabel ended her talk by describing how the day before he died he was talking to friends he saw at the theatre, telling them: “I should have had a company of actors, written the plays for them, that’s what I should have done with my life”. I’ve no doubt Dickensians would disagree with that!
An appreciative audience thanked Isabel for a most interesting talk which prompted much discussion. Before we left The Women’s Club NSWDS President Louise Owens congratulated Isabel and everyone agreed that a good night was enjoyed by all!