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4.7 out of 5 stars
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on 17 March 2017
Simon Callow is well known as an actor but deserves to be even better known as a writer. His insights and interpretations. Into the man and the writer are shrewd and witty. Callow the actor turned writer is a mirror image of Dickens the writer turned actor. But I'm sure Mr Callow is aware of the neatness.
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on 19 February 2014
I chose this book because it looked like an easier read than other biographies available, especially as I wasn't sure that I actually wanted to read a biography about Dickens. I thought it might be a bit dull. My goodness, how wrong I was! I can't recommend this book highly enough. For a start, if you don't know anything about Dickens, which I'm ashamed to say I didn't, prepare to be amazed and mesmerised (did you know for example that he was brilliant at putting people into trances? Maybe everyone knows this and it's just me who didn't! Once, he even put his wife into a trance by mistake!) I'm only half way through the book and had to stop to write this review as I feel I'm now on a mission to get everyone to read it! It might be a lighter read than other biogs, but it's fascinating, complex, funny, enthralling and more besides, full of incredible details about Dickens' extraordinary character and exploits. I can't ever remember a tv drama about Dickens, what a missed opportunity. I want to make the book last for weeks but can't put it down, so it may be a long night!
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on 12 March 2017
Magnificent book
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VINE VOICEon 2 March 2012
Unlike other reviewers, I knew next to nothing about Dickens before reading this book. I was immediately caught up with Callow's excitement and passion for the man but, more than anything else, with the remarkable man that Dickens was.

Like most people, I only knew Dickens from his works - having studied a couple at school (A Tale of Two Cities making quite an impact) and, of course, from the innumerable TV adaptions. The genius of Simon Callow's book is that it helps the reader to understand how those stories came about and, above all, how he came up with his remarkable characters.

This is not an exercise in hero worshipping - Callow doesn't shy away from including, in some detail, Dickens's flaws but the overriding impression is of a fierce tornado of unquenchable energy that, in the end, burned out in service of his public.

Perhaps the greatest compliment I can give is that this book has left me fascinated by Dickens and also in awe of him - not only as an author but also as a force of nature. Much like Callow himself.

The only negative is that I was slightly annoyed to find that the Kindle price is actually greater than that of the hardback. The bonus, however, was that I was able to use the built in dictionary to illuminate some of the more obscure words used by Callow and Dickens himself.
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on 15 February 2012
I cannot recommend Simon Callow's book highly enough. I wanted a history of Dickens to fill out my understanding of the man and his life, hopefully to add depth and enjoyment of my reading of his books. Mr Callow breathes life and vibrancy into Dicken's life. The book flows quickly and effortlessly. You feel you are there with Dickens, feeling every experience with him. There maybe more in depth and technical histories, but none more accessible!
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Callow has written a superbly readable and affectionate account of the great man's life, viewing it from the perspective of how Dickens' love for the world of the theatre influenced his life and work. Interspersed generously with Dickens' own words, taken from his correspondence with friends, we get a real feel for his massive personality, his sense of fun, his unstoppable energy and, yes, his occasional pomposity too.

Callow doesn't shirk from telling us about the less flattering aspects of Dickens' life - his appalling treatment of his wife, for instance, and the occasional bullying of his poor publishers. But he also reminds us of the social campaigning and the generosity to family, friends and colleagues. The account is a linear one, so we find out what Dickens was involved in at the time of writing each of his novels and get a feel for the inspiration for each one.

Callow concentrates in considerable depth on Dickens the showman - the many theatrical performances he wrote for, played in and directed in his early life; and then the tremendous and punishing public readings of his own works which came to dominate so much of his later years. Here was an author who gave generously of himself to his adoring public and who thrived on the adulation he was shown in return.

I've been in love with Dickens the writer for most of my life and now having read this sparkling biography I have fallen in love with Dickens the man! If I tell you that I cried when Dickens died (not an altogether unexpected plot development) then it will give you some idea of how much of the humanity of the man Callow has managed to reveal. I have been left wanting to re-read so many of the novels and stories, not to mention the letters - thank goodness for my copy of The Complete Works.

An exuberant and boisterous biography - a fitting tribute to this remarkable and exuberant man. Highly, highly recommended.
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TOP 100 REVIEWERon 11 February 2013
This is a book that Charles Dickens would have loved to read because it possesses in Simon Callows' narrative style all of the energy, passion, enthusiasm, and joy that Dickens found when interacting with others, especially his closest friends who included John Forster, Thomas Carlyle, and William Makepeace Thackeray. If his personal and professional lives were viewed as a stage, it was far less pleasant because he could not - despite massive effort - accommodate all the draining demands from family members (notably his parents and especially his father) as his fame and wealth grew.

Callow examines all this with exquisite precision and sensitive care but what I find most valuable in this book is his focus on the theatrical elements and implications of how Dickens lived as well as wrote and even performed. He was a keen observer of human nature, constantly roaming the streets of London at all hours of the day and night. He also delighted in roaming the streets of foreign cities and towns, as well as the hills and meadows, whenever and wherever traveling. He had a keen eye for significant details, many of which he worked into his works of fiction and non-fiction. Dickens was indeed an eager and active citizen of what is correctly characterized as "the Great Theatre of the World." He was a great storyteller with an insatiable curiosity, to be sure, but also an eager and gifted "player" onstage or off.

There is one central theme in so much of what he personally experienced, then spoke and wrote about: life's injustices. For example, when he was eleven years old, his parents agreed to let him work in a shoe polish factory for ten hours a day, six days a week. According to Dickens 25 years later in a letter to Forster, he was still amazed "that I could have been so easily cast away at such an age. It is wonderful to me, that even my descent into the poor little drudge I had been since we came to London, no one had compassion enough on me - a child of singular abilities, quick, eager, delicate, and soon hurt, bodily or mentally - to suggest something might have been spared, as it certainly might have been, to place me at a common school."

As all of Dickens' biographers have pointed out, Scenes of family harmony and cozy firesides in many of Dickens' stories seem in stark contrast to his own family life. Growing up, the family situation was often precarious due to his father's trouble with debt, which landed him in debtors' prison in 1824 when Charles was 12. Later Dickens' own family was marked by strife as his relationship with his wife deteriorated and his sons seemed to have inherited their paternal grandfather's trouble handling finances. Dickens once lamented that he had "brought up the largest family with the smallest disposition for doing anything for themselves." Dickens' extended family's constant drain on his finances, along with his built-in anxiety about money caused by his childhood, resulted in Dickens never feeling comfortable enough about his financial situation.

This is probably what Simon Callow has in mind when explaining why the adult Charles Dickens, until his death, seized every opportunity to share his thoughts and feelings about lessons learned from his own complicated childhood. "It was indeed, at a deep level, his purpose to replace darkness with light, and despair with hope, as first articulated in Pickwick: to celebrate the triumph of the spirit. But it was always a struggle. Easier in a sense to focus on social injustice."
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on 25 April 2012
This is a very readable account of Dickens' life by a clear fan of his.

I opted to read this book after seeing Simon Callow at the theatre discussing Dickens, where he brought the man to life. He achieves the same feat here. Dickens leaps from the page and at the end, you feel you knew him.
The book is very readable, for everyone, whether they are a fan or not and is approached by showing us Dickens the wannabe actor, who fell in love with the theatre at an early age and never really lost that love through his life.
The book is interspersed with quotes from Dickens' letters and speeches and provides a comprehensive account of his life.

My only slight niggle, which results in the loss of one star (because I cannot deduct half), is that I feel that Callow has underplayed the monstrous way Dickens' treated his wife, but maybe I am baised. However, if you were to only read one book about Dickens, I would recommend this to be the one. It is more accessible than the Tomalin book, although that one probably is a slightly more warts and all depiction.
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Simon Callow has written a wonderful biography of Dickens, with a specific focus on Dickens adoration of theatre, and the links between the passionate, flamboyant theatrical heart in his writing, and the man who virtually killed himself by addiction to giving all of that passionate heart to audiences, in the punishing Reading tours he gave, both in this country and in America.

I loved an earlier book by Callow, My Life in Pieces, a collection of his published writings from newspaper columns, and remember particularly being struck by the way he wrote about Dickens, who he has clearly adored for ever. There is a pretty good fit between this larger than life, generously natured actor, and the larger than life, generously natured, and adored, writer, social campaigner and performer of Victorian England. I knew a little about Dickens the man (mainly, the details of his early life and the difficulties later in his marriage and his hidden liaison with Ellen Ternan), but the prodigious nature of his energy, and the extraordinarily wide scale of his talent - not just as novelist, but as editor, journalist, fosterer of younger writers, actor, monologuist/performer, director, producer, republican, radical, social campaigner and philanthropist in his life, not only his art, - has been revelatory. Dickens was adored by his public, transcending class, and was clearly a man who lived many lives in one, burning away with prodigious energy which must have been exhausting to keep up with. Emotionally highly volatile, he had close and loyal friendships with both men and women, although as someone with a keen business sense he also had some rather violent breakings of loyal friendships with his various publishers.

I was particularly interested in something slightly throwaway which Callow suggested, fairly early on, wondering, if Dickens had lived today, whether the particularly febrile quality of his energy, drive, imagination and passion, which lurked alongside deep despair, might not have led to the suspicion of mild bipolar disorder.

This is an excellently researched and written book, but it is Callow's warmth, appreciation and passion for Dickens which takes it out of the academic and ensures Dickens get placed not just in Callow's heart, but this reader's. And the life of the man, in Callow's book, definitely illuminates that man's art.
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There have been countless biographies written about Charles Dickens since his death, and many of these make interesting reading. This one which I have been meaning to read since I first heard that Simon Callow had produced one is another that is worth reading. Being a thespian Simon Callow has come to Dickens and his life in a slightly different way than is usual.

Although we do have a biography here it is where Callow goes with it and what he tells us with a lot of passion that makes this particular book stand out from others. Dickens always had a flair for the theatrical and was a great and avid lover of the theatre. Indeed it is not too difficult to see that if fortune went another way he would have become like Henry Irving, one of the great actor managers. Through letters and anecdotes Callow gives us here a different insight into Dickens the man, who was quite a complicated character. We are taken through his love of acting and taking part in the whole process of production, even when it was only for something small at home. Although perhaps small isn’t really the right word, as something that you would really expect to be just for friends and family became something on a larger scale.

Going onto his public readings we see how successful these became, on both sides of the Atlantic, and how originally these were to raise money for benefits and charities but in the end became a way for Dickens himself to make money.

It is hard to read this and not be caught up by Callow’s infectious admiration of Dickens, a genius yes, but also flawed, like all of us. In some ways a control freak, Dickens always surprises as he makes changes and alterations to stories to not offend someone or gives a new writer a much needed boost, publishing their stories and giving them advice. Despite his many flaws Dickens was in some ways ahead of his time, supporting different groups and institutions. On top of this he was putting on performances, writing, and editing a magazine, whilst taking his long walks as well. In life Dickens was frenetic, with his finger in many pies and always wanting to do something active, and Callow really captures this about the man.

One particular thing you do notice about Dickens was although by some of the upper echelons he wasn’t considered a proper gentleman, and dressed quite flash, when it came to reviews about his books he never really paid much attention. With the growth of people writing for the kindle platform and then abusing someone because they give a bad review of their book, perhaps it is something for any new writer to consider. People will like your book or not there is no getting away from that, what Dickens was worried about was sales, if the serialisation of one of his stories started to drop, he would take advice and try to improve, flexibility being part of the game. This is a really interesting read and brings you closer to the man himself in different ways than to what you may usually be used to.
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