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SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 41.4 (2001) 729-749

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Dickens's Public Readings and the Victorian Author

Susan L. Ferguson

Charles Dickens's public readings, performances in which he took up his own novels before audiences composed primarily of readers and brought the characters to life through his impersonation of them, invented a new genre of performance, one we now take for granted. But what were these performances actually like? And what do they mean to our understanding of Dickens, the man, the actor, and the writer? Available to us only through eyewitness accounts, prompt copies with their scribbled notes and Dickens's own remarks about them, the readings are difficult to analyze. Clearly the work of a performer, a man with theatrical experience and talents, the readings were, however, much more than monologues based on the novels. They were "readings," presentations done from a book, and they were "by the author," an innovation both in theatrical performance and in the role of novelist.

In order for us to gain a sense of how these events participated in the shaping of Dickens's public persona and of the idea of the "author" more generally in the Victorian period, we need to consider what we know of these performances in detail. 1 What is the significance of Dickens's deliberately simple staging of the performances, without costumes or props? What should we make of the fact that Dickens always spoke with a book before him, but sometimes closed the book before beginning to "read"? And what does it mean for a novelist to perform scenes of reading from his or her own novels for an audience? According to Michel Foucault, readers, scholars, and others seek out authors in order to [End Page 729] "reveal, or at least display the hidden sense pervading their work." 2 In his unprecedented public display of himself as the author of his works in the readings, was Dickens responding to public demand of the sort Foucault identifies, and if so, how?

My method in this essay is to bring forward, in succession, three different perspectives on the readings--focusing in turn on Dickens as actor, Dickens as reader, and Dickens as author. My synthetic analysis of these different perspectives ultimately concludes that Dickens, writing at a time when the primary models for the author as public figure were Sir Walter Scott, Lord Byron, and Thomas Carlyle, found--and, in a sense, founded--a more intimate notion of the author. 3 Though based on the idea of the author as a widely known public figure, this new idea is that the author is every reader's domestic companion and friend. Dickens's readings, while theatrical, enacted a drama in which the author took on the role of reader. In this role, he performed a scene in which the characters took central stage, thereby creating a bond with the audience as one among a fellowship of readers with a mutual affection for the characters. The drama of the readings was thus the drama of a particular kind of Victorian reading. How Dickens's public readings participated in the construction of both this idea of reading and a new idea of the author as intimate companion forms my central topic.

Dramatic Dickens

Dickens performed about 472public readings in Great Britain and America between 1853 and 1870, the year of his death. 4 The first readings, in Birmingham, were done in aid of charity; the public readings done for Dickens's own profit began in London in 1858. The readings, emerging out of Dickens's popular success as a novelist, were extraordinarily celebrated and profitable: Dickens drew large audiences, including both those who enthusiastically endorsed other Victorian theatrics and those who ordinarily eschewed the theater as improper or even morally corrupting. 5 And the readings were, without question, dramatic performances by a man with a deep love for the theater. Dickens had, as scholars have thoroughly documented, extensive theatrical experience and abilities. 6 In 1832, when he was twenty years old, he almost...


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