Charles Dickens as Reader

by Edwin Watts Chubb

Charles Dickens


My first sight of Dickens, writes Herman Merivale in a gossipy article in an English magazine, was characteristic enough. I was in the second or third row of seats with some friends, at one of his readings of Oliver Twist. As Thackeray was a gossip on the platform, so Dickens was an actor. Like all speakers and actors, he longed for sympathy somewhere; an unanswering audience kills us, on whichever side the fault may lie. In the days of my political measles I have harangued a London audience for an hour and twenty minutes when I have meant to speak for a quarter of an hour; and in an out-of-the-way Hampshire district, where I had gone on purpose to address the rurals for a set hour, I have sate down, covered with confusion, in ten minutes, not being able to hit on anything that interested them at all. I saw too plainly, in all their good-natured faces, that they regarded me as the greatest ass they had ever seen, or as an odd kind of cow gone wrong, and of no use to the three acres. Dickens's audience that night was dull, and he became so, too. I was disappointed. His characters were not lifelike, and his acting was not good, and got worse as he went on. It was the inevitable law of reaction. His audience bored him, and he began to bore me, amongst the rest. He was not "in touch" with us, that is all; and his eyes wandered as hopelessly in search of some sympathetic eye to catch them, as the gladiators of old, for mercy in the circus. Then suddenly, at one point of his reading, he had to introduce the passing character of a nameless individual in a London crowd, a choleric old gentleman who has only one short sentence to fire off. This he gave so spontaneously, so inimitably, that the puppet became an absolute reality in a second. I saw him, crowd, street, man, temper, and all. For I am, I may say, what is called a very good audience. I like what I like, and I hate what I hate; and on one occasion growled at the theater so audibly at what I thought some very bad acting that I began to hear ominous cries of "Turn him out!" It was the first night of one of my own plays, Dickens's electric flash bowled me over so completely and instantly that I broke into a peal of laughter, and as we sometimes do when hard hit, kept on laughing internally, which is half tears, and half hiccough, for some time afterwards. Upon my word, I am laughing now, as I recall it. It was so funny. The audience of course glared at me with the well-known look of rebuke. "How dare you express your feelings out loud, and disturb us!"

But Dickens's eye—I wasn't much more than a boy, and he didn't know me from Adam—went at once straight for mine. "Here's somebody who likes me, anyhow," it said. For the next few minutes he read at me, if ever man did. The sympathetic unit is everything to us. And on my word the result was that he so warmed to his work that he got the whole audience in his hand, and dispensed with me. Only once again—oh, how like him it was!—he fixed me with his eye just towards the end of the reading, and made a short but perceptible pause. I wondered what was coming—and soon knew. The choleric old party in the street had to appear for one passing instant more, and fire off one more passing sentence. Which he did—with the same results. Good heavens! what an actor Dickens was.

When that reading ended—with the success which it deserved—never did that most expressive of all human features, the eye, thank a boy more expressively. Over all things cultivate sympathy. If antipathy goes with it, so much the better. If the magnet must attract, it likewise must repel. Dickens was a magnet of the magnets; but in his case I must confess, that when a modern specimen tells me he can't laugh at him, he makes me feel rather as Heine felt when somebody told him that he—the somebody—was an atheist; frightened.

... Dickens is perhaps best described as to my immense amusement, and by the most delicious misprint I ever saw, I found myself once described in the "Visitors' List" in an English paper abroad—"Human Marvel, and family." It looked like some new kind of acrobat. Of Charles Dickens's great kindnesses to me in after days, and of some personal experiences of his stage passion, at the end of his life, I ventured to gossip with readers of the Bar, some months ago, in a paper called "With the Majority." In one sense, yes; but in another—in what a minority, Thackeray and he!