December 2, 2020

“Great Expectations” — Charles Dickens in Performance

By Stuart Mitchner

On December 2, 1867, Charles Dickens gave the first of 80 public readings in America, a grueling tour undertaken in spite of pleas from friends and colleagues concerned about his health. Arriving in Boston, he was welcomed by adoring crowds and the mid-19th-century equivalent of paparazzi; in New York City people began lining up at three in the morning for tickets, waiting in two lines, each almost a mile long.

In Charles Dickens, A Critical Study, novelist George Gissing refers to the “disastrous later years” that show Dickens as a “public entertainer … shortening his life that he might be able to live without pecuniary anxiety.” The American readings ended in late April 1868, earning him $250,000. He died of a stroke in early June 1870. He was only 58.

“A Dreadful Locomotive”

After attending one of the Boston readings, Ralph Waldo Emerson told the wife of Dickens’s American publisher, James T. Fields: “He has too much talent for his genius; it is a dreadful locomotive to which he is bound and can never be free from nor set at rest. You would persuade me that he is a genial creature, full of sweetness and amenities and superior to his talents, but I fear he is harnessed to them. He is too consummate an artist to have a thread of nature left. He daunts me! I have not the key.”

The locomotive analogy is especially prescient since what inspired it was the performative energy Dickens gave to comic passages that had left Emerson “convulsed with laughter,” according to As They Saw Him, a volume published on the 1970 centenary of Dickens’s death. Imagine Emerson’s response had he been present at the public readings a year later in England featuring the author/actor’s sensational recital of the murder scene in Oliver Twist during which he impersonated Bill Sikes “beating out the brains of the pathetic Nancy, as she cowered beneath the blows of his pistol-butt, blinded with her own blood and shrieking ‘Bill! dear Bill!’ “

According to his reading tour manager George Dolby, Dickens had become convinced that “the powerful novelty” of the Sikes-Nancy murder would help “keep up the receipts.” While his close friend and eventual biographer John Forster “strongly disapproved of such a macabre subject,” Dickens nevertheless “threw himself violently into ‘getting it up’ with every possible dramatic effect.”

“Two Macbeths!”

In an article on the 2012 Dickens bicentenary, I compared the excitement created by Dickens in the 1860s with that roused by the Beatles in the 1960s, where in-person appearances by the “Fab Four” were greeted by tearful, screaming multitudes. Dickens had been warned by a doctor “that if one woman cries out when you murder the girl, there will be a contagion of hysteria,” as in fact happened when “readings of the Murder” led to a “contagion of fainting with as many as a dozen to 20 ladies taken out of the auditorium on stretchers.” The Shakespearean actor William Macready gave Dickens a Victorian variation on “two thumbs up,” dubbing “the Murder the equal of two Macbeths.”

Such “grisly success” only spurred Dickens on; “the horrible perfection” he’d achieved made him all the more determined to continue “come what might.” The damage inflicted was immediately evident. After the first reading of “Sikes and Nancy,” tour manager Dolby found Dickens “in a state of great prostration.”

Given the context and the timing, it’s hard to ignore Emerson’s “dreadful locomotive” metaphor when reading Dolby’s account of a railway accident during the tour: “We received a severe jolt which threw us all forward in the carriage, the brakes were suddenly applied, a lumbering sound was heard on the roof of the carriage, and the plate-glass windows were bespattered with stones, gravel, and mud.”  Dickens was shaken not so much by the relatively minor mishap as by the memory of his brush with death on June 9, 1865, when his train plunged into a ravine near Staplehurst, killing 10 passengers. The next chapter in As They Saw Him is titled, “The Iron Will of  a Demon: After Staplehurst,” the symbolic implications of the event having motivated him to make the most money in the shortest time “without any regard to the physical labor and risk.” Thus his obsessive commitment to the readings. In March 1866 he admitted as much, saying “I have just sold myself to the Powers of Evil.” 

Addressing the audience of his farewell reading at St. James’s Hall on March 15, 1870, Dickens announced, “In but two short weeks from this time I hope that you may enter, in your own homes, on a new series of readings at which my assistance will be indispensable; but from these garish lights I vanish now for evermore, with a heartfelt, grateful, respectful, affectionate farewell.” By the “new series of readings” he meant the anticipated completion of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, left unfinished when he died on June 9, 1870, five years to the day of the Staplehurst accident.

“Great Expectations”

According to history’s timetable, the Dickens Express arrived in 1812 and departed in 1870. Now, with less than a month remaining in the sesquicentennial year of his departure, there’s another reason to celebrate the first week of December, since it was on December 1, 1860, 160 years ago yesterday, that the first installment of Great Expectations appeared in All the Year Round, the journal he owned and edited.

In his new book The Mystery of Charles Dickens, A.N. Wilson calls Great Expectations the “apogee” of the author’s achievement, “the only novel in which there is no wasted paragraph, no waffle, no padding, no dud or redundant characters and no illustrations [Wilson’s emphasis]. It did not need illustrations because it is the most devastating and the most inward of all his psychodramas. Every page hits you like a heart attack.”

If Wilson’s analogy held, any reasonably susceptible reader would be dead by the end of the opening chapter. And although subsequent editions did come with illustrations, they were of a darker, more realistic order than the charming Dickensian cartoons of Leech, Cruikshank, and Phiz. Wilson is right, however, in suggesting that mere imagery can’t match so “devastating and inward” a narrative.

Magwitch Speaks

Given the disappointing sales of A Tale of Two Cities in All the Year Round and the fact that readers missed his characteristic verve and comic energy, Dickens made sure to infuse the opening chapter of Great Expectations with the life or death devotion he gave to his public performances. He has everything working for him in the first scene: the mood, the time of day, the churchyard cemetery with the gravestones of Pip’s parents, “a memorable raw afternoon towards evening” with “the dark flat wilderness” of the marshes “beyond the churchyard, intersected with dykes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it,” and “the low leaden line beyond” of “the river,” and “the distant savage lair” of the sea “from which the wind was rushing.”

While David Lean’s 1946 film does justice to the prose, and while the actor playing the convict (Finlay Currie) and the boy playing Pip (Anthony Wager) are excellent, no one except perhaps Dickens himself could give you what you experience as a reader when Magwitch sends Pip home to bring him some food and drink and a file:

You bring me, to-morrow morning early, that file and them wittles. You bring the lot to me, at that old Battery over yonder. You do it, and you never dare to say a word or dare to make a sign concerning your having seen such a person as me, or any person sumever, and you shall be let to live. You fail, or you go from my words in any partickler, no matter how small it is, and your heart and your liver shall be tore out, roasted and ate. Now, I ain’t alone, as you may think I am. There’s a young man hid with me, in comparison with which young man I am a Angel. That young man hears the words I speak. That young man has a secret way pecooliar to himself, of getting at a boy, and at his heart, and at his liver. It is in wain for a boy to attempt to hide himself from that young man. A boy may lock his door, may be warm in bed, may tuck himself up, may draw the clothes over his head, may think himself comfortable and safe, but that young man will softly creep and creep his way to him and tear him open. I am a-keeping that young man from harming of you at the present moment, with great difficulty. I find it wery hard to hold that young man off of your inside. Now, what do you say?

Pip says he’ll get the file and what food he can find and so he does and then some (a pork pie and a bottle of sherry filched at risk of a beating). What does the reader say of that speech? This reader thinks Shakespeare would approve.