Callow (My Life in Pieces, 2011, etc.) rehearses the life of Dickens with a sharp spotlight on the importance of the theater and of performance both in Dickens’ life and in his fiction.
The author is a front-row fan who has read Dickens’ works repeatedly and whose admiration for his subject glistens on every page. It’s hard not to admire the Dickens appearing here, a man whose Promethean production and energy make Trollope-Updike-Oates look a tad slothful. Writer of serial novels (he was producing The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist simultaneously), creator of the most beloved Christmas story outside the Gospels, editor of his own literary magazines, performer of his own works, husband (not an attentive one), father of 10, philanthropist…all in an age when rail travel was a novelty and writers still used that old-fashioned word processor, a pen. Callow generally follows the traditional narrative line of Dickens’ life (with emphasis on his early and never-ending interest in theater), chronicling his time in the blacking factory, his indigent father, his schooling (very little), his rise in the world of letters, his friendships (literary and otherwise) and his enormous, trans-Atlantic celebrity. Callow doesn’t ignore—though he does diminish a bit—Dickens’ very human failures: his long affair with actress Ellen Ternan, his harsh treatment of his wife and his petulance and even pomposity in his dealings with publishers. But Callow’s greatest achievements are his analysis of Dickens’ prodigious thespian skills and his generation of an absolute love affair with his readership. The author shows us the vast, adoring crowds and tallies the enormous psychic and physical costs of Dickens’ myriad performances and celebrity.
Callow makes us wish we’d been in those crowds to watch this astonishing magician weave his literary spells.