Acclaimed actor and writer Simon Callow offers a fresh perspective on one of the greatest novelists in the English language, Charles Dickens, in this lively, colorful biography.
Dickens was one of the first true celebrity authors. Thousands of fans in Britain and America eagerly awaited each new installment of his stories, and flocked to see him on his legendary speaking tours. Not only did he create an incredible cast of characters on the page, but he was also a dazzling mimic and storyteller, and he wrote, stage-managed, and acted in plays for the public.
Throughout his life, from his childhood performances in pubs to his legendarily powerful reading tours, Dickens was fanatical about the stage. Callow reveals Dickens' genius on and off the page and offers a compelling insight into a life that was driven as much by performance and showmanship as by literature.
"A celebration, jubilant, vigorous, imaginative, and, as Dickens might have said, an all-round sizzler." (John Carey, The Sunday Times [London])
"Callow...writes with great authority and elegant insouciance, which makes this "biography with a twist" very entertaining." (The Independent)
"It is one of the many virtues of this book that Callow not only admires his subject, but has got inside him." (The Guardian)
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I really loved this audiobook. Simon Callow is a gifted writer as well as a gifted actor, and I really can't imagine hearing anyone else read his book.
He has a unique perspective on Dickens. He's played him in various contexts: on a couple of episodes of "Doctor Who," for one thing; and in a one-man show written especially for him by Peter Ackroyd, who has written his own distinguished biography of Dickens. He seems to have "psyched" Dickens and gives him to us in a broadly sympathetic portrait, but still "with all his imperfections on his head." (Dickens treated his wife badly, eventually moving out and taking up with the actress Ellen Ternan. Callow explains all of this, mostly from Dickens' perspective, but he doesn't attempt to whitewash it.)
As a biography, it doesn't have the same level of detail as Claire Tomalin's (also) wonderful book on the subject. Tomalin provides much additional information about the early years and about Dickens' often fraught relationships with his publishers and with his children; those things appear here as well, but in a more condensed form.
Callow mentions but doesn't offer a literary analysis of the novels and stories (although he does offer some choice observations on specific characters). He's after something different: Dickens engaged with the world in general and with the world of theater in particular. He recounts many anecdotes about Dickens and the theater. Dickens was an accomplished amateur actor. And the processes used in creating characters are not all that different in the two professions: when writing, Dickens would often jump up and run to the mirror, where he would try out various expressions before returning to his desk.
He drew on his acting abilities in the readings he gave in later years - readings that often left his audiences shuddering or crying. One famous scene he often performed was the murder of Nancy by Bill Sykes, from "Oliver Twist." The scene left both him and his audiences wrung out and exhausted - and the toll it took on him may have actually shortened his life. Callow's own brief recreation of this scene will knock your socks off.
In another life, Callow speculates, Dickens would have made a terrific actor/manager in the William Charles Macready mode. (Macready was one of his friends, along with Wilkie Collins and William Makepeace Thackeray.)
It's a wonderful introduction to Dickens' life. If you feel the need to explore further, Tomalin's biography is also available on Audible. But I'd start with this one. It impressed me enough to make me want to read even "Edwin Drood," and for me, that's pretty impressive.
- Tad Davis
Simon Callow's writing and narration are sublime.