Monday, March 29, 2010

"He had in an extraordinary degree the dramatic element in his character," or, Dickens as a performer

I'm very excited about a book I picked up today (which, by the way, in the Dodo Press edition I got, is easily the best-looking out-of-copyright print-on-demand book I've seen yet), Charles Kent's Dickens as a Reader (1872). It's a posthumous account, by a friend of Dickens, of the dramatic readings that consumed so much of Dickens's time, creativity, and energy in the final decade and more of his life, making use of Dickens's own notes and plans and describing the readings as seen
both from before and behind the scenes, from the front of the house as well as from within the shelter of the screen upon the platform.
I've only had a moment to flip through the book thus far, but this passage amused me enough to seem worth sharing:
So real are the characters described by Charles Dickens in his life-like fictions, and so exactly do the incidents he relates as having befallen them resemble actual occurrences, that we recall to recollection at this moment the delight with which the late accomplished lady Napier once related an exact case in point, appealing, as she did so, to her husband, the author of the "Peninsular War," to corroborate the accuracy of her retrospect! Telling how she perfectly well remembered, when the fourth green number of "Nicholas Nickleby" was just out, one of her home group, who had a moment before caught sight of the picture of the flogging in a shop-window, rushed in with the startling announcement--as though he were bringing with him the news of some great victory--"What do you think? Nicholas has thrashed Squeers!" As the Novelist read this chapter, or rather the condensation of this chapter, it was for all the world like assisting in person at that sacred and refreshing rite!
"Sacred and refreshing" sounds like the way Wodehouse might describe a miscreant receiving half a dozen of the best, doesn't it? Though if anyone ever had it coming, it was surely Squeers . . .

The remembrance as described makes me wonder what the bookshop window looked like: do you think the bookseller created or commissioned his own poster or stand-up of the scene, or did he just prop open a copy of the book to Phiz's illustration, reproduced above? It also reminds me of the oft-repeated tale that, during the publication of The Old Curiosity Shop, American readers greeted transatlantic passengers just off the boat with the urgent question, "Is Little Nell dead?" Caleb Crain, reliable haunter of libraries, looked into that tale a while back; you should click through to find out what he learned, and you'll get Oscar Wilde's wonderfully mordant take on Nell as a bonus.

{One last, unrelated note: I promise I won't do this often, but I think you might enjoy the post I wrote earlier tonight for the the blog of the Quarterly Conversation, the Constant Conversation. It's got Greeks, chutzpah, and Boswell--what more could an I've Been Reading Lately reader want?}

1 comment:

  1. This is such a fascinating post - thanks indeed for sharing it. I think that the book sounds quite a find. Have you ever seen Simon Callow reading Dickens as Dickens? It was on UK TV a few (by which, I think I mean about 10) years ago at Christmas - and I would be amazed if there wasn't something on u tube. I remember enjoying it hugely.

    Lovely blog -

    Thanks indeed!