Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World, a Biography by Simon Callow

Book ReviewSimon Callow’s biography of Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World
Title: Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World
Author: Simon Callow
Published: Vintage 2012

Perhaps no one alive today has done more to shine a light on Charles Dickens, the man and his works, than Simon Callow (Charles Dickens 7 February 1812 – 9 June 1870). Callow has achieved a most delightful and compelling biography.

Callow himself performs one-man shows of Dickens life, along with adaptations of selected novel scenes for the stage. This is appropriate because Dickens often thrilled audiences by acting out scenes from his novels when his public readings burst into dramatic performances. Callow carries on the tradition, becoming much more than a scholarly biographer, but a dramatic virtuoso who breathes new life into the 19th-century author and his creative genius.

Dickens wrote from life. The statement has become a cliché, but no one can say it more truly than Dickens. Callow does a marvelous job mapping the biographical facts with characters and scenes in the novels. Even Dickens’ famous detailed descriptions of quaint shops and other charming nooks of 19th-century London—they derived from intentional explorations of hundreds and hundreds of those shops with the express purpose of describing them later.

One of Dickens’ favorite pastimes was to walk London streets for miles and miles, hours on end, every day, sometimes with a friend, sometimes alone. He also haunted theaters and tried his hand at acting early in life. He was conversant with stage life and made use of that knowledge in his stories as well. Also notably, Dickens’ depictions of child labor came from his own consignment to forced child labor in a blacking factory.

Many of Dickens’ contemporaries recognized themselves and each other in the novels. Several of the novels’ lawyers, proctors, courts, and even specific court cases were lifted straight from the real thing. An anguished protest from one such person (Jane Seymour Hill) characterized in early chapters of David Copperfield (Miss Mowcher), moved Dickens to significantly improve her characterization in later chapters (197). He could modify characters and plot direction in-progress, because the novels first appeared as magazine installments over the course of a year or more.

Connecting the real-life elements with the stories makes Callow’s biography all the more compelling. The astounding breadth and variety of characters in Charles Dickens’ novels speaks to both the brilliant writing of the author and of the fascinating colorful culture of Victorian London.

Simon Callow provides a beautiful and thorough discovery of Dickens the exceptional human being, through his vibrant and compassionate telling of the life of the author. Callow also provides fascinating insights into Dickens’ superhuman energy, imagination and intellect. Callow’s biography gives a deep look into Dickens’ creative life, the interplay between creative output and personal circumstances, and the profound psychological battles Dickens fought throughout his life.

It’s hard to say which part of Charles Dickens’ genius was the greater: storytelling, artistic writing, descriptive detail, complex plot organization, sheer high-level imagination, mixing fantastical with real to make them indistinguishable. There is no end to the ways Dickens is remarkable. Callow highlights these qualities vividly, while keeping the main focus on the man himself, his motivations, his conscience, his physical and mental struggles, and his complicated personality. Callow brings us inside, where we really get to know Dickens on a personal level.

Simon Callow achieves his own remarkable work of genius in this biography of Charles Dickens. The work shows moving affection as well as deep understanding of its subject. Our lives are fuller because of Dickens’ novels. And we are fuller because of Simon Callow’s work of art in this biography.

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