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an actor's life
on 18 December 2013
It was Simon Callow who first interested me in Dickens, with his funny performance as Micawber in the 1980s BBC David Copperfield. Since then, it would seem, his life has shadowed the author's more and more closely.
This shortish biography has hit on an interesting thesis: that the increasingly frantic public tours which he undertook in his last years, and which possibly killed him, were the result of his unhappy marriage. Callow hints pretty broadly that Dickens became a sexual tourist, and that the frustration of his physical needs and wish for a less unequal partnership with a woman could only be 'worked off' by the adrenaline of public performance. It sounds plausible but is bad biography, in the sense that it is entirely unsupported by evidence. It would also be better coming from someone else; as an actor with an irregular sex life Callow would say this, wouldn't he?
(Someone here says Callow is not unkind enough about Dickens' treatment of his wife - but, whoever's fault it was, there can be no question that both suffered from the marriage.)
I'm sure Dickens was no great actor (in spite of the stress Callow lays on his 'theatricals'), and Callow is no great writer; still, he's good enough for the job. He says so little about the books that you wonder how many of them he has actually read through. Describing Bleak House as Dickens' 'supreme masterpiece' not only calls his literary judgement into question, it recalls Chesterton's comment that those who prefer Dickens' later books - sensible though they may be - do not really like him as an author. They don't enjoy his powers and prefer to see them tamed. Even then I've never known anyone, writer or reader, to mention Bleak House even among his four or five best - although its popularity certainly had a fillip from the BBC TV series. Personally I think it's tedious.
You feel it is as a character, the character he has been playing for many years now, that the subject appeals to this biographer. Yet that's the problem with Dickens biographies: in the hands of these lesser mortals, he is always so much less vivid than his own characters. Maybe his own books are actually the best biography.