Category Archives: Charles Dickens

Happy Birthday to the Most Irritating Houseguest Charles Dickens Ever Had

Hans Christian Andersen was born in Odense, Denmark, on the second of April, 1805. As a small child, Andersen’s father read to him Arabian Nights - thus introducing the young child to both classic literature and what one might deem a “fairy tale”. At the age of 14, he moved to the capital to become an actor – and though he was accepted into the Royal Danish Theatre… once his voice changed the school advised him to focus instead on becoming a poet… a suggestion that he later turned into authorship.


Fairytales seemed to be part of Andersen’s literary journey from the beginning, as several of his early stories revolved around tales he heard as a child himself. By the age of 30, Andersen was already writing profusely and showing his work. In fact, in 1833 at the age of 28 he had already received a small travel grant from the king of Denmark to travel through Europe and log the stories he found there. And, well… write he did!


Andersen is most well-known for his fairytale translations, no one can deny this fact. In 1835 he published the first two installments of his Fairy Tales, with the second installment arriving only two years later. Unfortunately, his collection which included tales such as The Princess and the PeaThumbelinaThe Little Mermaid, and The Emperor’s New Clothes did not sell well at first. Part of the problem was in the translations of these well-known stories. Andersen’s ability to write did not cover his lack of innate foreign language skills.

After honing his skills and continuing to publish fairy tales for ten years, Andersen finally had a breakthrough in 1845 after his translation of The Little Mermaid appeared in Bentley’s Miscellany (a periodical). Soon after, his story was published in a few volumes following its reprint, including Wonderful Stories for Children. A review of the story was published in The Athenæum in London in February of 1846, and the review sang its praises as “a book for grandfathers no less than grandchildren, not a word of which will be skipped by those who have it once in hand.” Andersen became a king of fairytales (of sorts) and would continue translating and publishing them until 1872.


During his heyday of publishing fairytales from around the Europe, Anderson published various travelogues that he had written during his many journeys abroad while accumulating stories for his collections. Though his travel journals do approach the subject matter in a similar way to his contemporaries’ travel journals, singularly he used his own strengths to expand the style to meet his own requirements. He combines factual evidence and graphic/detailed reports of his experiences with more reflective and meditative verse on various concerns, including his authorship, the issue of timelessness,  and the essence of works of fiction in the travel writing genre. His travelogue In Sweden even contains local fairy tales! (The man just didn’t know how to take a break…)

In 1847 a most happy occurrence happened for Andersen – he traveled to England for the first time and enjoyed resounding success among his fairytale fans. Andersen was able to meet one of his idols, one Charles Dickens, at one of the many parties of a Countess of Blessington. Both authors resonated on certain levels – they were both immensely popular (though Dickens more so, of course), and both took the time to portray citizens of the lower classes in their works. A decade later, Andersen visited Dickens at Gads Hill Place, Dickens’ home – a visit which unfortunately turned into an over-extended stay of over five weeks. Dickens and his family were dismayed that their Victorian politeness allowed a man, even one as highly respected and liked as Andersen, to overstay their welcome by so long. (Read our blog on the extended stay here.) Eventually Andersen had to be asked to leave, and Dickens stopped communication with the author, much to Andersen’s confusion.


When Andersen turned 67, he took a tumble out of bed and unfortunately was never able to recover from his injuries. Andersen developed liver cancer shortly thereafter and died surrounded by friends (having never married). He was internationally esteemed at the time of his death, and to this day his name immediately recalls international fairytale stories to all of our minds! Happy Birthday to the king of fairy tales, Hans Christian Andersen!



New Acquisitions for Your Viewing Pleasure

The recent fairs have given us a fair amount (pun intended) of new inventory! As we haven’t posted one in a while we thought it might be nice to give you an in-depth look at some of our latest and greatest… though there are many more ready to go home with their new owners! Check out our website’s categories for more info on these and other awesome titles.

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We would be remiss in sending our hometown book fairs love without beginning this blog with one of our favorite local finds! DeWitt’s Guide to San Francisco was published in 1900, and is illustrated by nearly 20 engravings! The city guidebook lists tourist sights, hotels, restaurants, banks, businesses, churches, clubs, schools, etc. Love San Francisco? Perhaps you should see what has changed in the last 118 years! See it here.

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This cabinet card photograph depicts three young girls, most likely of the Utes tribe, where they resided in the southern end of Colorado. The photograph itself is circa 1890s, when the town of Rouse, Colorado (now a ghost town) was home to, what was in 1888, the largest coal mine in the state. View this amazing piece of 19th century photographical history here.

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This 1890 edition of The Care of the Sick has a beautiful gilt illustrated binding – and is a solid Very Good copy of this handbook for Nurses, detailing care for the ill both at home and in the hospital. You love nursing material as much as we do? Check it out here!

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We also have a pretty spectacular collection of children’s series books – Nancy Drews, Tom Swifts… Hardy Boys? All can be found on our website and on our shelves! Some series books are not quite so well known as these, however… like this copy of The Bobcat of Jump Mountain. Part of the Boys’ Big Game Series, this title was published in 1920 and our copy still has its original dust jacket! Did we mention it is signed and inscribed by the author, the year of publication? See it here.

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Now this may look like nothing special, but in fact these two volumes make up a first US edition of Oliver Twist… and we would be remiss Dickens specialists indeed if we did not include one of his titles in this list! Now certainly Oliver Twist needs no description to provide its storyline or enforce its importance… so let’s just say that this rare set is not often offered in the trade. See it here.

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Kind of a strange leap from our classic main man, but here offered as well is a 1941 1st edition of rogue author Henry Miller’s The World of Sex. Bibliographers Shifreen & Jackson have speculated that the 3 states of the first [ours given priority] runs of this work may each have had a run of 250 copies. This first state binding is increasinly uncommon, especially in its original jacket – as ours is! Expand your horizons here.

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And while we’re on the subject, here is another fun find from the fairs! We almost feel like the mid 20th century Gilbert Vitalator requires no explanation except for their own marketing! With this vibrator attached to your fingers… “…you’re ready for the thrill of your life. Press your fingers against your body on the spot you wish to massage, and flip the switch. Things happen quickly here, but they can be explained slowly. The Vitalator sets up a vibration which travels to your finger tips and flows through them to your body. But it is not merely a vibration. If you had a pencil in your fingers, set to paper, it would be tracing tiny ovals with lightning rapidity. This rotary movement – this “Swedish massage” action – in the secret of Vitalators superior benefits.” Woohoo! Can be used by men and women, apparently. See this funny body massager here

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This poem, Dickens in Camp was written by Bret Harte shortly after Dickens’ death in the 1870s. Published in a fine press edition in 1923 by John Henry Nash in a run of only 250 copies… and it is signed by the famous publisher! Check out this wonderful tribute to our main man here.

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This Red Cross WWII campaign promotion poster advertises Toys for Kiddies – an initiative where patients in military hospitals designed and created handmade toys for children in homes and orphanages at Christmastime. With the materials provided by the Red Cross, apparently the men spent months making and competing to produce the most creative children’s toy of the season. See this 1940s broadside here.

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Last but not least, we offer as a tribute to the wonderful OZ themed California fair just a couple weeks ago this beautiful 1st edition, 1st printing of Frank L. Baum’s The Woggle – Bug Book, inscribed by the author to one Ruth Bailey Ingersoll in 1905 – the year of its publication. Said by bibliographer Bienvenue to be “remarkably difficult for collectors to find, particularly in good condition. … the large book is one of the most delicate and ephemeral of all Baum’s publications”, we are lucky enough to offer a very pleasing Very Good copy of this unusual early Baum title here at Tavistock Books! Check it out here.


We hope you’ve enjoyed this brief list of some fun new items on our shelves! Stay tuned throughout the rest of book fair season to see more of them.



Why We Should Thank Charles Dickens on His Birthday!

Every year we post a blog about Dickens around this date… it is his birthday, after all! What better way to honor our main man than keep his writing and memory alive? This year we thought we’d do something a bit different – instead of a long rambling blog about some aspect of his life, we thought we would remind you of a few ways that you see Dickens’ influence every day!


Happy 206th birthday, Chuck!

Dickens re-built Christmas.

True, Prince Albert (of Albert and Victoria) is often given the credit for reviving the Christmas holidays and traditions – he was the instigating factor in setting up a Christmas tree for the royal family! However, Dickens’ depictions of Christmas and the season at the time certainly helped people around the world begin to see Christmas as a time for joyous celebration with their loved ones!


Where would we be without this word, which has become a household term for a deplorable level of poverty and poverty stricken folk.

“It is a far, far better thing that I do…”

Many people attribute current celebrities ability and humor in characterizations and voices from Dickens! One of his interesting habits was to do all the voices of his different characters during his reading tours. Often, it was the way the characters spoke and expressed themselves that made the lines humorous. As Professor John Mullan of University College London said, “Quite a lot of the time, if you were simply to describe the plot situation of one of the set pieces that you find very funny, it’s not very funny at all… But it is very funny. The extraordinary thing he does introduce to the novel is the comic potential of the way people talk.” Voila!

And we couldn’t very well have a blog thanking Dickens without bringing up some of the terms and phrases he brought us! Just think of these words, coined by none other than our main man!


The creeps


On the rampage



Very cool, eh? Happy Birthday indeed!


Charles Dickens & the Beginning of “The Pickwick Papers”

By Margueritte Peterson

Get yourselves ready for one of the most morbid (therefore, we celebrate it in high style) days of the year… the anniversary of Dickens’ death! Every year we do a Dickens blog around this day, though I prefer to think of it more as a celebration of life blog, rather than as a homage to his death. Last year we wrote about Dickens’ last (and unfinished) work, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. This year, with your permission, I would like to focus on one of his very first works – The Pickwick Papers. 

To be completely honest, the Pickwick story never grabbed my interest as other works by our main man. No Great Expectations love story, no Christmas Carol morality lesson, no Tale of Two Cities history… what about it could be so enthralling? Now, in all fairness and honesty, I did not scramble to read The Pickwick Papers in order to write this blog. All the information in this blog is found via research. I’ll let you in on a little secret, however… after writing this blog, I just may have to pick it up and begin reading!

As we’ve stated in blogs past, Dickens didn’t begin his career desperate to become a writer. His first passion was to be an actor – and he (most likely, as it seems everything Dickens did he did well) very nearly got his wish – until he became ill before his first audition and was unable to perform. For reasons we may never know, Dickens did not try to book another audition and never attempted to become an actor again. Instead, he settled down as a political journalist in London. His first published collection of writings was called Sketches by Boz and consisted of various character sketches originally found in his periodicals. Sketches was immediately popular and Dickens rapidly gained success and fame. 

One of the original illustrations by Seymour.

One of the original illustrations by Seymour.

Here’s where the Pickwick story gets interesting. Amusingly enough, Pickwick was not an original idea by Dickens. Pickwick actually began when publishers Chapman & Hall asked Dickens to provide text to match illustrations by (somewhat) popular cartoonist Robert Seymour. Even Dickens later admitted that the idea was not his – that it was Seymour’s. However, the presumption that The Pickwick Papers would have amassed the popularity that it did without Dickens – is completely false. 

[Now, I do hope that this blog does not come across as hating on our main man - not at all! I am not trying to say that Pickwick was not at all his idea, though it was what bought him much in the way of fame and success. (Though, that is, you know, technically true about how it all began.)] What I do aim to do with this blog is to bring to light a slightly tragic tale that isn’t well-known about the origins of the Pickwick Papers. 

One of the more difficult scenes Seymour had to illustrate for Pickwick.

One of the more difficult scenes Seymour had to illustrate for Pickwick.

What is fact and known about the beginnings of the book is that after Chapman & Hall picked up on his idea, Robert Seymour was contracted to make 4 engravings for each written installment of the book (as usual for the time, they were published in installments) and he and the publishers chose Dickens to write the book alongside the illustrations. However, before the second episode could be completed, Seymour committed suicide in his home in Islington, following severe stress and a mental breakdown. The mental breakdown could, possibly, have had something to do with the very little monetary advance Seymour was paid for the Pickwick installments, and also with his struggle to illustrate according to Dickens’ text (according to sources at the time, Seymour envisioned a much more light-hearted tale than he ended up illustrating, at the beginning). In any case, Seymour did struggle with depression, and the somewhat ugly truth of the matter is that, after his death, when Dickens teamed up with “Phiz” to illustrate the rest of the text and introduced the Cockney character of Sam Weller, the series became immediately more popular and sold in much higher volume. 

Check out our holding of Pickwick illustrations, circa 1837!

Check out our holding of Pickwick illustrations, circa 1837! See it here>

So what does this all mean? Truthfully, in my (not-so) humble opinion… it means… not much. It is a sad tale, that makes it sound a bit like Seymour got the short end of the stick, yes. However, I think that the fact that the series did not become interesting to readers until Dickens had full control of the text and the full cooperation of the illustrator - is important. We know Dickens was a performer, a writer, a  journalist, and a well-known socialite (eventually)… perhaps we should agree that he possibly also knew what the people wanted! And though Pickwick might not have began with Dickens’ imagination, he was, ultimately, the one who truly brought the text to life. So on this anniversary of Dickens’ death, remember the man as he was – someone who immortalized stories, not just wrote them!


Adah Isaacs Menken’s Relationship with Charles Dickens: A Blog in Honor of his Upcoming 204th Birthday

By Margueritte Peterson

 “[Menken] is a sensitive poet who, unfortunately, cannot write.” -Charles Dickens

Screen Shot 2016-02-02 at 10.16.57 AMAdah Isaacs Menken died in Paris on August 10, 1868, only eight days before her collection of poems, Infelicia would be published. Dedicated to Charles Dickens, Infelicia highlights Menken’s complicated relationship with her literary contemporaries—and, perhaps, her unfailing talent for generating publicity. Details about Menken’s early life are difficult to corroborate because Menken herself told so many different versions of her story. Most experts agree that she was born on June 15, 1835 in Memphis, and that her given name was Adah Bertha Theodore. She moved to Lousiana as a young child, grew up there, and launched her acting career there. From Louisiana, Menken traveled throughout the South and West. Meanwhile, she launched her writing career with “Fugitive Pencillings,” which appeared in Texas’ Liberty Gazette and the Cincinatti Israelite.

The year 1856 brought the first of Menken’s multiple marriages, to Alexander Isaacs Menken. The two were (supposedly) divorced already when Menken entered her next marriage with prizefighter John Heenan in 1859. But Heenan and Menken separated shortly thereafter; Heenan was scandalized to find that his new wife was still legally married to her first husband. By this time, Menken had already begun traveling in bohemian and literary circles. A regular at Pfaff’s, Menken met Walt Whitman, who greatly influenced her work.

Menken in Mazeppa - where she caused quite a stir.

Menken in Mazeppa – where she caused quite a stir.

Soon Menken was “not known for her talent, but rather for her frenetic energy, her charismatic presence, and her willingness to expose herself.” Indeed, Menken’s primary claim to fame was her performance in Mazeppa. Menken played the role of a man, and in one scene she was lashed to the back of a running horse…wearing nothing but a flesh-colored body stocking.

The play debuted in Albany in June, 1861. Menken’s manager, Edwin James was a sports reporter for the New York Clipper (and a former lawyer who’d inspired the character of Striver in Tale of Two Cities.) James managed to get reporters from all six of New York’s daily papers to attend, along with reporters from three weeklies and two monthlies. Although the Civil War had already broken out, Menken’s performance grabbed headlines. Mark Twain saw Mazeppa at Tom Maguire’s Opera House in San Francisco. Though he had formerly dismissed Menken as a “shape actress,” her performance changed his mind. On September 13, 1863, he wrote a column called “The Menken—Written Especially for Gentlemen.” His assessment of Menken was less than sterling:

“Here every tongue sings the praises of her matchless grace, her supple gestures, her charming attitudes. Well, possibly, these tongues are right. In the first act, she rushes on the stage, and goes cavorting around after ‘Olinska’; she bends herself back like a bow; she pitches headforemost at the atmosphere like a battering ram; she works her arms, and her legs, and her whole body like a dancing-jack: her every movement is as quick as thought; in a word, without any apparent reason for it, she carries on like a lunatic from the beginning of the act to the end of it. At other times she ‘whallops’ herself down on the stage, and rolls over as does the sportive pack-mule after his burden is removed. If this be grace then the Menken is eminently graceful.”

At any rate, Menken continued to bring crowds to theatre after theatre. Always the shrewd self-promotor, she would arrive in a new city and immediately ensure that her photograph was hanging in every shop window. By now Menken had also gotten into the habit of inventing stories about herself. She also frequently exaggerated the extent of her relationship with famous figures, particularly those in the literary world.

Mazeppa opened in London on October 3, 1864. Charles Dickens attempted to attend an early performance, only to find that the show was already sold out. The ticket manager recognized Dickens and offered him a private box, but Dickens declined. It’s long been rumored that Menken used the incident as an excuse to meet Dickens, but it’s likely that Menken started that rumor herself. The two traveled in the same social circles, and Dickens may even have attended some of Menken’s “literary salons” at her rooms in the Westminster Hotel. But there’s little evidence to suggest a deeper relationship, and even the rumor of an association with Dickens would have bolstered Menken’s reputation.

Meanwhile, Menken’s connection to Dickens’ contemporary Algernon Charles Swinburne was anything but a rumor. Fearing that Swinburne had lost his interest in the opposite sex, his associates set him up with the sexy Menken. After Menken’s death, Swinburne would say of her, “She was most loveable as a friend, as was as as a mistress.”

A shot of the inserted facsimile letter in our holding of Felicia.

A shot of the inserted facsimile letter in our holding of Felicia.

By 1868, Menken had published more than enough poems to publish a collection, which she titled Infelicia. Menken made another probably-calculated move: she dedicated the book to Charles Dickens, who by now enjoyed the Victorian equivalent of rockstar status in both England and America. The first edition included an engraved portrait of Menken on the frontispiece, along with a poem that Swinburne had written for her. It also included a facsimile of a letter that Dickens had supposedly written to Menken, thanking her for the dedication.

While Dickens did indeed thank Menken for the dedication, the facsimile was actually comprised of two different letters Dickens had sent to Menken. Thus this first edition was quickly suppressed, and subsequent editions don’t include the facsimile. This only added to the sensation that already surrounded the book. The dedication to Dickens left many speculating about the true nature of their relationship, and Menken’s untimely death had catapulted her back into the headlines.

Meanwhile, her relationship with Swinburne and the fact that the frontispiece bore a Swinburne poem led some to suggest that Swinburne or his assistant, John Thomson, had actually authored Infelicia. Critics soon pointed out, however, that the poems were riddled with flaws and simply weren’t that good. They eventually accepted the work as Menken’s, arguing that Swinburne was too talented to write it.

Infelicia went through a number of editions in England and America, mostly pirated. The book made its last appearance in 1902. It’s now quite rare to find a copy of Infelicia that bears that facsimile letter from Charles Dickens.

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Dickens’ Final Chapter: The End of His Life and His Last (Unfinished) Work, The Mystery of Edwin Drood

Charles Dickens was only 58 years old when he passed away. He had long pushed himself too hard for the love of his work and his followers, and in the summer of 1870 (June 9th, to be exact) he succumbed to the exhaustion and after experiencing a fatal stroke, was laid to rest. His work, however, has gone on to be remembered since, and the author has never been out of print. His final work, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, has long fascinated fans, as the murder mystery was unfinished at his death and Dickens never [formally] named the murderer. On this the 145th anniversary of the author’s death, we look at his last years and his final work – a novel that he persisted on writing, even while suspecting his end was near.

Dickens, toward the end of his life.

Dickens, toward the end of his life.

Dickens’ health began to decline when he was involved in the Staplehurst rail accident on June 9th 1865 (5 years to the day before his death, coincidentally). On his return from Paris with his young mistress Ellen Ternan and her mother, the train they were traveling on plunged off a cast iron bridge that was under repair. Luckily, the only 1st class carriage to remain on the track was that one in which Dickens was traveling. Until more aid arrived to tend to the victims, Dickens scrambled around the horrific scene offering brandy and a hat with water, looking after the dead, dying and wounded around him. The tragic incident cast a shadow on Dickens’ life – the horror and absolute panic he experienced led to sleepless nights and night terrors for the rest of his short life. Always the author, however, before leaving the scene of the accident he remembered his unfinished manuscript of Our Mutual Friend was on board and went back to retrieve it.

Though the Staplehurst accident could be viewed as the “beginning of the end” for Dickens, what truly sapped the author’s strength and health was his insistence on the readings that he provided for his fans all over England and United States. These readings were not Dickens merely climbing up to a stage and reading his work aloud to audiences. The author planned his every look and every nuance, practiced scenes until he had them perfect, and left an impression with his audiences that they had just seen the characters they knew and loved on the stage before them. Quite the actor, Dickens had auditioned for a stage career as a young man, but when a cold prevented him from making the tryout, he turned toward a journalism career. In any event, the public readings took much more out of him than his audience realized, and Charles Dickens slowly succumbed to the stress he placed on himself. His farewell readings, lasting from the 6th of October 1868 to the 22nd of April, 1869, took the last of his energy. He began to experience fits of giddiness and paralysis and even collapsed while on tour in Lancashire; Doctors ordered the rest of his “performances” to be cancelled. Dickens retreated to his house, Gad’s Hill Place, in Kent, and under instructions to rest and recover, he began work on what was to be his final novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Drood was set to be published in only twelve installments, a shorter publication decision than his usual 20 printed parts of a couple chapters each. Though Dickens supposedly mentioned that the murderer was $#&@%#^$ in the @&#^*#*$&@* with the $*#&@*#$& (wouldn’t want to “kill it” for the rest of you), that information is based on the statements of Dickens’ son and also of his close friend John Forster (not unimaginable divulges, but still not ever found to be public knowledge from the author himself). This open-ended story yielded an amazing treat to the public – the chance to finish a Dickens book themselves! Strangely, the first three attempts to complete Dickens’ original tale were written by Americans. The first of them, published in 1870, was more of a farce than a continuation, with the author not even trying to continue Dickens’ style or even storyline (he even magically transported the characters to finish their mystery in the United States ). The second attempt was slightly more serious, a New York journalist named Henry Morford liked the story so much that he traveled to Rochester and published his ending serially from 1871 to 1872, and allowed the character of Edwin Drood to survive the murder attempt. The third effort, which to me seems to prove the gullibility of humans, was written by a Vermont printer named Thomas James. James claimed to have been a “ghost-writer” of sorts (pun intended)… by channeling Charles Dickens’ departed spirit.


                   A performance of “Drood.”

In 1914, London’s ‘Dickens Fellowship’ held a mock-trial for Drood’s uncle John Jasper (oh, whoops… did I ruin it for you?). A group of well-known writers made up the characters (G. K. Chesterton stood as the judge, George Bernard Shaw the foreman of the jury, etc.). The jury returned with a ruling of manslaughter, and in a great dramatic ending, Chesterton “ruled that the mystery of Edwin Drood was insoluble, and fined everyone, except himself, for contempt of court.” (Wikipedia). There have been four film adaptations of the book, a two-part television drama, a radio reading, and perhaps most interestingly, a musical comedy based on the book. As to this latter, Rupert Holmes wrote the script, music and lyrics to the musical with a twist – at the end of the play, the audience decides by vote which of the characters is the murderer. Not only that, but the audience also picks a romantic ending between two characters of their choice! Holmes wrote alternate endings for every possible voting outcome, even the most unlikely. The actors must memorize and rehearse each possible ending before performing in front of a live audience with an opinion! The production, now titled “Drood,” was first performed in 1985 and was quickly opened on Broadway for a total of 608 performances. It won five 1986 Tony awards, including the award for Best Musical.

A theatre production of "Drood" when the audience is helping choose the ending themselves!

A theatre production of “Drood” when the audience is helping choose the ending themselves!

Now I may not be one for assumptions, but in my personal and ridiculously humble opinion I believe that Dickens would be ecstatic about this new development in the reading of his novel. As I said earlier, the author was always a fan of the stage and wore himself ragged engaging his audiences in a way that no readings had ever done before. In a way, above the movies and the television spots and the proposed written endings for the novel, the musical arrangement of his last and mysterious work with the alternate endings and the audience’s participation seems to me like exactly what the author would have wanted. Engagement, imagination and creativity as a group – just what Dr. Dickens prescribed.

In any event, Dickens clearly left behind a great impression on many future generations of readers and writers. His last work has sparked more investigation and speculation than any of his other works, due to the fact that it remained unfinished – an invitation for his admirers to become involved in a story of (partly) their own making. A more important notion to take away from his final days, however, is that the author loved his work and his readers so much that he didn’t stop working until the very end. And just think, all for our enjoyment! Even now, 145 years to his dying day, enthusiasts and admirers continue to devote their academic and creative minds to understanding the man and his final, unfinished novel.

A page from Dickens' unfinished manuscript of The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

A page from Dickens’ unfinished manuscript of The Mystery of Edwin Drood.


Theatrically Speaking: Charles Dickens, his Amateur Theatricals & his Performances at the Podium

No one reading a Dickens novel can deny the author’s enthusiasm for the theatrical. To see a young orphan used and abused by adults at every turn, to have to bear a young girl dying and her desolate grandfather withering away by her grave, or a miser being shown the error of his ways by ghosts… Dickens captured the hearts and attention of readers all over the world, and was, quite arguably, the most popular writer throughout the Victorian period. However, Dickens “the author” was not merely that – he was a man of many talents, much of which sat in the dramatic arts. A known producer of amateur theatrics, an actor himself, and performer until the day he died – Dickens captivated the world and unfortunately paid the ultimate price for living for his audiences.


A youthful Dickens.

Dickens as a Young Performer

Charles John Huffam Dickens was born in Portsmouth, England in 1812 into what started out as an idyllic childhood that soon turned into a slightly unstable family situation. Because of his father’s debts, the author was forced to leave school at the age of 12 to work in a blacking warehouse where he earned six shillings a week pasting labels on pots of boot blacking. This formative time in Dickens’ childhood gave inspiration to many of the traumas portrayed in his works – most notably Dombey & Son and Old Curiosity Shop. Later on in life, Dickens would live with a fear of his literary talent failing him, and the constant looming possibility of ruin and poverty. One could argue that these fears, when present in the most popular celebrity of Victorian England, stemmed from this early age and his abbreviated childhood, as he was called upon at an early age to contribute to the family earnings.

Dickens grew up with a love of performing, and in 1832 at the age of 20 Dickens gave serious thought to becoming an actor. He went so far as to arrange an audition for himself at the Lyceum Theatre through the help of the then-current stage manager. Unfortunately (for Dickens, rather than for us), he came down with a severe cold the day of the audition and was unable to attend. Dickens continued with a steadfast love of theater and attended as often as he could.


Dickens’ Theatricals and The Frozen Deep

Once Dickens achieved great success with his writings (beginning with Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist and only becoming more intense and thrilling as installments of his novels went on), his almost super-human energy (the author reportedly walked about 12 miles every day) allowed him to humor his theatrical side and stage amateur performances with the help of family and friends. In 1852, after the author and his family moved to Tavistock House in London, Dickens converted the schoolroom into a miniature theater, “capable of holding an audience of ninety” (Fitzsimmons, The Charles Dickens Show p. 26). He and his children, along with their friends, put on performances every few weeks, and Dickens excelled in as many aspects of the theater as he did in literature. His longtime friendship with Wilkie Collins was often a great inspiration in these times, and Collins even wrote some plays specially to be performed by the Dickens household.

Engraving of the end scene in "The Frozen Deep", Dickens as the wild Wardour lying on the frozen ground. (Illustrated London News, 17th Jan. 1857).

Engraving of the end scene in “The Frozen Deep”, Dickens as the wild Wardour lying on the frozen ground. (Illustrated London News, 17th Jan. 1857).

One of the last amateur performances Dickens was to participate in was The Frozen Deep, a tragic theatrical written by Collins (with the significant editing and assistance of Dickens) in which Dickens played the role of Richard Wardour, as well as stage manager. Not only would this production prove to be significant in the way of theater (its success warranted a performance in front of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert), but it also was the momentous occasion that brought Dickens together with his later love, Ellen Ternan. Ellen, an 18-year-old young actress that was hired by Dickens, along with her mother and older sister Maria to play in The Frozen Deep, would soon become the scandal that the public blamed for the dissolution of Charles’ marriage to his wife, Catherine Hogarth.

Though the home theatricals soon dissipated, as Dickens bought the country home “Gad’s Hill Place” in Kent and, though very much frowned upon, separated from his wife, Dickens was soon to begin the next phase in his thespian career with a series of Reading Tours that he would continue until a few months before his death.


Dickens and his custom-made podium, specially designed by himself so as to not cut his body language off from his audience!

Dickens and his custom-made podium, specially designed by himself so as not to cut his body language off from his audience.

A One Man Show

“For the readings were an entertainment. They were not readings in the literal sense of the word. Dickens was a magnificent actor, with a wonderful talent for mimicry. He seemed able to alter not only his voice, his features and his carriage but also his stature. He disappeared and the audience saw, as the case might be, Fagin, Scrooge, Pickwick, Mrs. Gamp… or a host of others. Character after character appeared on the platform, living and breathing in the flesh” (Fitzsimmons p. 15). Dickens began reading professionally at a time when some say his literary powers were beginning to decline. Though he got some serious negative feedback from a few close friends about the idea (his longtime friend John Forster, for one, told Dickens that it was demeaning for an author to perform his own work), Dickens persisted. After reading in Edinburgh to an audience of over 2000, Dickens explained his euphoria at performing his work to Forster in a letter, “I must do something, or I shall wear my heart away. I can see no better thing to do that is half so hopeful in itself, or half so well suited to my restless state.” Fitzsimmons attributes much of Dickens’ wish to read (and possibly rightfully so) to its use as an outlet for his restlessness and miserable situation at home, and to the idea that he could make use of his theatrical talents and desire to be a thespian, all the while earning money to assuage his fear of living in poverty.

Dickens’ readings, however, exacted a great emotional strain on the author, and were obviously a direct contributor to his much too early demise. He performed many “shows” in a very small period of time, and the constant traveling, worry and keeping up of a charming & animated façade took its toll. However, Dickens refused to relent and disappoint his audiences. Reportedly, while giving a reading in Baltimore on his birthday in February of 1868, the distinguished statesman Charles Sumner came to visit the author at his hotel at 5 in the afternoon, and found Dickens in a right state, “covered in mustard poultices and apparently voiceless” (Fawcett, Dickens the Dramatist p. 171). At Sumner’s protestations against the author performing that evening, Dickens’ traveling manager George Dolby stated that, though he had told the author that it was ill-advised to perform that evening, Dickens would take the stage despite his ill health. In the words of Dolby to the statesman, “You have no idea how he will change when he gets to that little table.”

It was during this intense scheduled period of readings that Dickens was involved in the Staplehurst rail crash, an incident that left the author in even poorer health from the strain on his nerves and his subsequent mistrust of the rail system. Directly after the accident, Dickens helped tend to the wounded and dying, and got back on the train to rescue his unfinished manuscript of Our Mutual Friend. Little known to the public, Ellen Ternan and her mother were traveling with Dickens from Paris when the accident happened, and Dickens was able to avoid an appearance at the inquest in order to save Ternan the scandal such a fact would immediately produce.

The front page of The Penny Illustrated Paper, dated March 19th, 1870 - just four days after Dickens' final public reading.

The front page of The Penny Illustrated Paper, dated March 19th, 1870 – just four days after Dickens’ final public reading.

One of the continued strains on the author, with regard to his reading performances, was his portrayal of Nancy’s murder by Bill Sikes, taken from Oliver Twist. The absolute terror and melodrama of the scene took a great toll on Dickens, so much so that Dolby wrote, “That the frequency with which he persisted in giving this Reading was affecting him seriously, nobody could judge better than myself, living and travelling with him as I was.” Disregarding this constant strain on his nerves and his extreme bouts of depression and illness, Dickens persisted. If anything, this obsession with portraying the murder scene with voice as well as action just perfectly for his audiences shows the energetic state of his mind, despite a failing body and spirit.

Ignoring his declining health and personal turmoil, Dickens continued to read publicly until just three months before he suffered a fatal stroke, with his last public reading given on 15 March 1870. Dickens was to conduct reading tours for over a decade – and not any single performance to less than a full house. There is no doubt in our minds that should this literary icon have chosen the stage rather than the pen, he would have found similar great success and admiration for his work.


Dickens the Renaissance Man

Dickens will always be remembered for his literary genius – the man who created universal and beloved characters and stories, the man who became the face of English literature. Additionally, Dickens should also be remembered for his all-around charm and allure, for his ability to captivate audiences with more than just words, but with his entire being.

Tavistock Books maintains a specialty in the works of Charles Dickens – first editions of his work, Dickens in parts, his plays, his biographical works, and even letters, pictures, and items related to the author and his life. Hence the name of our shop after the London home Dickens turned into an amateur theater for his friends and family. Look out next week for our monthly list of “Select Acquisitions”, also titled “Theatrically Speaking” – a list of crossovers between literature and the performing arts. Email Margueritte at to be added to our Mailing List! 

An older Charles Dickens.

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