Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Dickens as a reader

One of the reasons that there were three years between Great Expectations and Our Mutual Friend, and then another five before The Mystery of Edwin Drood, was that Dickens was devoting much of his time to his highly lucrative (and draining) reading tours. Most biographers put at least some of the blame for Dickens's early death on the grueling pace and physical demands of his reading tours. By all accounts, however, they were brilliant performances--sentimental and overblown by today's taste, perhaps, but gripping and effective, carrying away audience after audience.

In his account of Dickens's reading career, Charles Dickens as a Reader (1872), Dickens's friend Charles Kent, who wrote his book at the suggestion of Dickens and had access to the author's marked-up performance manuscripts, reminds us at the opening that not every writer is even a competent reader. He illustrates that with a story of Dr. Johnson and Virgil Thomson:
According to the grimly humorous old Doctor, "He [Thomson] was once reading to Doddington, who, being himself a reader eminently elegant, was so much provoked by his odd utterance, that he snatcehd the paper from his hand, and told him that he did not understand his own verses!"
Kent's book is admiring to a fault, but it's still of interest to any dedicated Dickensian. What's perhaps most interesting is the realization Kent comes to when he looks at the marked-up manuscript for Dickens's reading of the scene from David Copperfield where Emily runs off:
The wonder still is to us, now that we are recalling to mind the salient peculiarities of this Reading, as we do so, turning over leaf by leaf the marked copy of it, from which the Novelist read; the very wonder, we repeat, still is to us how, in that exquisite scene, the very words that have always moved us most in the novel were struck out in the delivery, are rigidly scored through here with blue inkmarks in the reading copy, by the hand of the Reader-Novelist. Those words, we mean which occur, where Ham, having on his arrival, made a movement as if Em'ly were outside, asked Mas'r Davy to "come out a minute," only for him, on his doing so, to find that Em'ly was not there, and that Ham was deadly pale. "Ham! what's the matter?" was gasped out in the Reading. But--not what follows, immediately on that, in the original narrative: "'Mas'r Davy!' Oh, for his broken heart, how dreadfully he wept!"
Kent goes on to give a number of specific examples of lines Dickens cut but whose emotional sense he managed to convey by tone or expression. Frustratingly, he doesn't give any further details of how Dickens achieved his effects in this case, which perhaps would have been difficult to determine outside the actual moment. But the complicated choices of what to omit are a reminder of what Kent notes elsewhere in the book: that Dickens, ever the craftsman, devoted copious attention to assembling his reading manuscripts.
It was not by any means that, having written a story years previously, he had, in his new capacity as a reciter, merley to select two or three chapters from it, and read them off with an air of animation. Virtually, the fragmentary portions thus taken from his later works were re-written by him, with countless elisions and eliminations after having been selected. Reprinted in their new shape, each as "A Reading," they were then touched and retouched by their author, pen in hand, until, at the end of a long succession of revisions, the pages came to be cobwebbed over with a wonderfully intricate network of blots and lines in the way of correction or of obliteration.
Oh, to have seen him in action!

1 comment:

  1. Have you looked at "Sikes and Nancy," from Oxford World Classics? Transcripts of Dickens's prepared texts for readings, with all of his notes. Quite fascinating. Mysteriously out of print, and available from Amazon Marketplace with their usual inscrutably bizarre range of prices -- from $1 to over $100, for what appears to be identical paperback copies...