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  • Charles Dickens's Reading Copies
  • Carolyn Vega (bio)

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Charles Dickens, New York, 1867. J. Gurney & Son, photographer. Albumen cabinet card. The Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature, the New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations (hereafter Berg Collection, NYPL).

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Literary success came to Charles Dickens with the publication of his first novel, The Pickwick Papers, in 1836–37. Following Pickwick, he brought out in quick succession Oliver Twist (1837–39), Nicholas Nickleby (1838–39), The Old Curiosity Shop (1840–41), David Copperfield (1849–50), and Bleak House (1852–53) as well as A Christmas Carol (1843), four other Christmas books, three additional novels, two books of travel writing, and a history of England from the Roman conquest in 1688, intended for children. By the early 1850s, he was a world-renowned celebrity.

With his fame established, Dickens embarked on a new phase of his career: that of professional reader. He had been enthralled by the theater from a young age, attending plays as often as he could (in his late teens he went nearly every night, or so he claimed) and hoping at one point to become an actor. Later, in 1859, while referencing the incorporation of his childhood struggles into David Copperfield, he reminded the British poet Mary Howett that he had been "a great writer at 8 years old or so" but that he had been "an actor and speaker from a baby."1 As was common in the Victorian period, he participated in amateur theatricals, writing, producing, and acting in many plays, initially for small audiences of close friends and family and later, from the mid-1840s on, for large public audiences. He was an enthusiastic performer, and his skills were generally well regarded: in 1838, William Macready, a leading actor and theater manager, recorded in his diary that Dickens read "as well as an experienced actor would."2 In 1857, Dickens collaborated with Wilkie Collins on The Frozen Deep, an amateur theatrical first staged at Dickens's Tavistock House. According to Collins, Dickens played the lead role "with a truth, vigour, and pathos never to be forgotten by those who were fortunate enough to witness the performance."3

Dickens drew on his long-standing passion for performance when, in late December 1853, he gave his first readings, which were attended by nearly six thousand people. The proceeds of these performances benefited [End Page 40]

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Private Theatricals at Tavistock House—Scene from The Frozen Deep, with Charles Dickens at center in the role of Richard Wadour, ca. 1857. Later reproduced in The Illustrated London News, January 17, 1857, pp. 51–52. From T. Edgar Pemberton, Charles Dickens and the Stage (London: George Redway, 1888), + (Dickens)—B Pemberton c. 2, v. 1, facing p. 129. Berg Collection, NYPL.

the Birmingham and Midland Institute, an educational center that would be formally established by Parliament the following year. (Dickens was a lifelong philanthropist who championed many progressive social and educational causes. In the mid-1840s, he and Angela Burdett-Coutts established Urania Cottage, which provided housing and vocational training for women who had formerly supported themselves through prostitution.) For the Birmingham and Midland Institute, Dickens had pledged £500 to be raised through charity readings. He chose A Christmas Carol, which was seasonally appropriate, one of his most popular books, and among the shortest. But at nearly thirty thousand words, it needed to be cut down to an appropriate length for performance. Though he reduced the text dramatically, the first readings still lasted more than three hours.

Over the next five years, Dickens continued to give readings to benefit charities. The readings usually took place during the Christmas season, and he continued to refine his performance. By 1857, he had cut the length by thirty minutes, and in May 1858—at which point he [End Page 41]

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Ticket for a Charles Dickens reading at St. Martin's Hall, London, June 30, 1867. Berg Collection, NYPL.

transitioned from charitable to paid readings—he settled on two hours as the ideal...


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