Actor’s twist on Dickens
Ask a child to name their favourite author, and Charles Dickens is unlikely to top the list. But Simon Callow, the English actor, believes that is because they are reading the author’s words, but not hearing them. It is not a surprise that children find the author’s novels off-putting, Callow said, when asked by teachers to read the text in silence.
Instead, children should be encouraged to read the words aloud or – better still – to listen to them being read.
“I think it is very much to do with the way it looks on the page. It’s a bit scary. There’s a lot of it in rather complicated sentences, and a lot of dialect.
“But just read it aloud to yourself, which is exactly the way most people heard it when it was first published,” Callow said.
“When Dickens wrote these stories, he did so in serial form. The head of the family would buy the instalment, go home and read it to the family around the fire. Once you have got Dickens’s voice, it becomes infinitely more accessible.”
Callow released an album last month featuring his reading of A Christmas Carol, interspersed with music from The Brighouse and Rastrick Band. The adaptation is a cut-down version of the story but “gets to the essence of what Dickens was writing about”.
His suggestion that children would benefit from reading Dickens aloud were supported by academics. Who would not enjoy Oliver Twist when read in Callow’s mellifluous voice?
Prof Kathryn Hughes, professor of life writing at the University of East Anglia and author of Victorians Undone, said: “I remember doing Bleak House for A-level, and being told we had to start it in April of our O-level year because it was so long. We all sulkily flopped around in the garden reading it over the summer.
“For teenagers, Dickens also has a slightly camp quality with all the silly names. Having somebody called Chuzzlewit is toe-curling — it seems like kiddie stuff, at a time when you don’t want to be seen as a kid.
“These things are off-putting. And Dickens was absolutely written to be proclaimed, to be read aloud with people clustering around.
“So it is a nice idea to think of the books being read aloud now, although I think it would help if the father in the family is Simon Callow, and not an embarrassing dad who thinks he is a lot better at voices than he actually is.”
Dr Christopher Pittard, senior lecturer in Victorian literature at Portsmouth University, agreed that Dickens “can look intimidating” on the page.
“Many of the novels are huge, but the single-volume publication we see as the norm is actually a modern imposition — the novels were published serially over an extended period, a year-and-a-half in some cases,” he said.
“Reading aloud was one of the main ways in which literature was disseminated among families. Although this was not necessarily Dickens’s own innovation, there is a verbal quality to his work. Regarding the best way of introducing children to Dickens, reading aloud is a good strategy and in keeping with Victorian modes of reading.”
Callow has also produced a reading of A Tale of Two Cities, available on Audible, and appears in The Man Who Invented Christmas, the biographical Dickens film. He has also performed a one-man show about the author. – The Daily Telegraph