True to His Calling

In class, we discussed Dickens’s performances of his own works, specifically his performance of Nancy’s murder scene in Oliver Twist. An article from the British Library website entitled “Dickens the Performer” gave me more insight into Dickens as a theatrical persona. Dickens’s daughter claims that when he was writing his novels, “he would often speak the characters’ words out loud, and run to the mirror to check the expressions on his face” (Callow). This kind of expressiveness and connection with his characters can be seen in Dickens’s works in the often script-like dialogue and scene direction that can easily be envisioned by the reader. His writing was clear enough to allow him to perform scenes, which he often did. The scene of Nancy’s death was terribly taxing on Dickens’s health, and most likely led to his death. Callow writes that Dickens acted the scene “with such brutal realism that people fainted; he seemed possessed by the characters and the story, now thuggish as Bill Sikes, now helplessly vulnerable as Nancy, pleading with God for forgiveness.” He was often unable to speak after these performances.

This kind of commitment to delivering the scene as realistically as possible adds a new layer to Dickens as novelist and businessman. Dickens wasn’t just out to make money; he was a true artist, and committed himself to his art fully to the point of death. In his final performance, Dickens told the audience “I have always tried to be true to my calling” (Callow). Afterward, “Backstage, he wept bitterly, knowing that he would never again know the joy of losing himself in a role, or of connecting so intimately with his readers” (Callow). We’ve spoken so much about Dickens’s success at generating income from his novels and the role that advertising played in his career that it was refreshing to re-envision him as a true artist totally committed to his calling.


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