Charles Dickens's Performance Notes
"It was not Dickens, but the creation of his genius, that seemed to live and talk before the spectators."
Last week, I discussed Octavia Butler’s tips for writing bestselling fiction. This week, I turn to another bestselling author: Charles Dickens (1812-1870). Not only did he write bestselling novels, he gave wildly popular, sold-out readings of his work.
In December 1867, New York City’s hottest ticket was to see Charles Dickens’s readings. A queue began to form the night before tickets went on sale. By the time the box office opened, the line was 3/4 of a mile long by some accounts.
As a young man, Dickens wanted to be an actor. He brought this interest to his novels as he created a cast of unique, lively characters. And these characters seemed to demand a performance. In 1853, Dickens finally took to the stage and gave his first public reading to raise money for charity. Performing A Christmas Carol, Dickens transformed himself into Scrooge and Marley’s ghost. The audience loved it. From there, Dickens’s repertoire quickly expanded as he re-worked several short stories and longer novels into performance pieces. By 1858, performing had become a lucrative endeavor for Dickens.
As an international celebrity, Dickens spent the last 12 years of his life performing two-hour readings for an enthralled public.
Unfortunately for us, Dickens died seven years before the phonograph’s invention, and well before motion pictures. While we have many photographs of the great author, we don’t have any voice recordings or film. Instead, we have the notes he brought on stage as he read from his works.
When performing on stage, Charles Dickens had water and a paper bag of raisins (to keep energized) beside him.He also carried a large paperknife (pictured in his hand below), which he used to turn pages that had stuck together. Sometimes, he'd use the knife and water flask as props while acting out scenes.
He also brought along a printed edition of his work, specially made for his performances. In what follows, I look at three “prompt copies” for three of Dickens’s most loved performances: A Christmas Carol, David Copperfield, and Oliver Twist.
A Christmas Carol & Dickens’s Characters
Short plot overview of A Christmas Carol: Ebenezer Scrooge, a miserly old man is visited by the ghost of Marley, a former employee, as well as the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and yet to come.
A Christmas Carol was the first text Dickens performed in public, and he continued to perform it up until his “farewell tour,” just before his death. To prepare for early readings of A Christmas Carol, Dickens cut out pages of the novella’s 1849 edition and had them inlaid on larger sheets of paper and bound together.
Dickens used the large margins to edit the text and inscribe performance notes, such as “Tone to mystery” on the left-hand margin.
Dickens transformed his body and voice into those of his characters, so he had no need for speech markers in the text. Notice what he crosses out here,
” cried the Ghost. “My time is nearly gone.”
,” said Scrooge…
Dickens was used to acting out his characters. In fact, that is how he created them in the first place. His daughter, Mamie, recalls watching her father as he jumped from his chair to try out facial expressions in front of a mirror or to speak in a character's voice. She recalls how Dickens would be at his desk
…when he suddenly jumped from his chair and rushed to a mirror which hung near, and in which I could see the reflection of some extraordinary facial contortions which he was making… He returned rapidly to his desk, wrote furiously for a few moments, and then went again to the mirror. The facial pantomime was resumed, and then turning toward, but evidently not seeing, me, he began talking rapidly in a low voice.
Given Dickens’s writing process, it is no wonder that he performed his characters brilliantly for a paying audience. His contemporaries described how Dickens transformed into his characters.
It was not Dickens, but the creation of his genius, that seemed to live and talk before the spectators.
Another audience member reported:
Scrooge was himself, and not Scrooge filtered through Dickens.
Being a short novella, A Christmas Carol made it to the stage with the full plot intact. Dickens’s larger novels, like David Copperfield, needed significantly more pruning.
David Copperfield & Cutting Text
Short Plot Overview of David Copperfield: the novel follows David Copperfield as he makes his way in the world and finds himself a grown man and a writer.
Of all his novels, David Copperfield was Dickens’s favorite—it was also the most autobiographical. So, he labored to condense its original 64 chapters into only five. He did this by picking the most dramatic scenes from the novel to highlight. This time around, Dickens had a performance copy privately printed. Again, he made many notes.
In this image, Dickens has underlined text to signal that it should be emphasized. He has cut the paragraph on the right-hand side and added text at the bottom (half of which, he subsequently deleted, by boxing it and striking it through).
Dickens often signals a deletion with a dele mark in the margins. The Oxford English Dictionary claims it is an abbreviation of the Latin words delere (to delete) or deleatur (let it be deleted).I’ve also read that the symbol might have come from a stylized letter “D.”
And when Dickens decides he’s made a deletion in error and would prefer to keep the section, he writes “stet.” This term —an abbreviation of the German word stehen, to stand—means to “let stand.”
Dickens was onto something when he drew vertical lines to cross out a section rather than horizontal lines; the text was still visible if he changed his mind as he often did.
When he would cross out an entire page, Dickens often added a manicule (☞)to remind himself to skip to the next page.
By the way, if you are in New York, stop by the main branch of the NYPL, where you can see this David Copperfield prompt copy as well as Dickens’s desk on display at the Treasures exhibition.
“Sikes and Nancy”: Acting Out a Murder from Oliver Twist
Short Plot Overview of Oliver Twist: Oliver Twist is an orphan who falls in with a criminal gang. Oliver meets many unsavory characters including the gang member Nancy, and her abusive lover, the robber Sikes. Needless to say, Nancy and Sikes’s relationship ends badly.
While preparing for his “farewell tour,” Dickens decided he needed a new attraction, so he added murder to the rotation. This was a risky move and threatened to upset his Victorian audience. He told a friend:
I have been trying, alone by myself, the Oliver Twist murder…but have got something so horrible out of it that I am afraid to try it in public.
Some of his friends advised against performing Nancy’s brutal murder. To settle the matter, Dickens put on a trial performance in front of an audience of 100 invited guests; 90 of them felt Dickens should keep “Sikes and Nancy” in his repetoire.It was spectacular theater, after all, and Dickens played the scene exquisitely.
We get a sense for the scene’s intense emotion with Dickens’s notes to himself. Annotating this section, he reminds himself to convey a tone of “Mystery.” As the confrontation between Sikes and Nancy escalates, Dickens evokes “Terror to the end.” Double-underlined words were to be spoken with heightened emotion.
The printed text prepared for the reading ends with Nancy’s death. But Dickens’s friends advised him that this would leave the audience unsettled. Viewers would want to see justice served with Sike’s death.
As a result, Dickens added three more pages of hand-written narrative to usher Sikes to his (accidental) death.
Dickens’s Performance Diary
Dickens habitually destroyed his diaries at the close of the year. But, luckily for us, he lost his 1867 diary, so it escaped destruction. In it, he records his American tour—and the punishing schedule that left him “cold, ill, & miserable” on Christmas. For each day, he lists his location (either Boston or New York) and the sequence of his reading (first, second, third, etc., and the location). We can tell that the ticket pictured at the top of this post was from a NYC show because his diary tells us he was performing his 6th New York show on that date.
Dickens’s 1867 diary is important for another reason: it includes evidence of his affair with the young actress, Nelly Ternan—whom he refers to as “N” throughout. In April, he records a strange parenthetical at the bottom of the page: “N ill later half of the month.”The scholar Claire Tomalin suggests that Nelly might have been pregnant and miscarried.
The diary also reveals Dickens’s punishing schedule. He put everything he had into these performances. Acting out Nancy’s murder proved especially draining and the author’s health continued to decline. Dickens confessed that this scene “[tore him] to pieces.” And yet, he continued. As a friend later disclosed:
...he [Dickens] confessed to me at this time that it was madness ever to have given the "Murder" Reading, under the conditions of a travelling life, and worse than madness to have given it with such frequency.
And yet, Dickens continued to perform the murder scene. He was seemingly obsessed with it, and performed “Sikes and Nancy” more than any other item in 1870, the final year of his life.
Notes on Dickens’s Notes
Use Symbols: between the manicule, dele, and “stet,” Dickens’s notes reminded me how many wonderful symbols we have at our disposal, perfected over centuries of use.
Play with your books: Dickens cut into his books with scissors, crossed out sections of text and added notes in the margins. I love books that look used. But I can also respect readers who try to keep their pages clean.
On that note, I’m dreaming up a future post about marginalia (or, notes written in the margins of books). If you have feelings about this, I’d love to know.
Also, if you’d like to share images of your marginalia with me, I’d love to see them! (Of course, I won’t post them without your permission.) You can send them to email@example.com.
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Till next week,
If you’d like to catch a Dickens performance, you’re in luck. The author’s great-great grandson, Gerald Dickens, is on tour!
Andrews, Malcolm. Charles Dickens and His Performing Selves: Dickens and the Public Readings. Oxford University Press, 2007, p. 128.
Andrews, Charles Dickens and His Performing Selves, p. 137.
Dickens, Mamie. My Father as I Recall Him. Dutton, 1897, p. 49.
Quoted in “When Charles Dickens Fell out with America.” BBC News, 14 Feb. 2012. www.bbc.com, https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-17017791.
Cited in Andrews, Charles Dickens and His Performing Selves, p. 202.
“Dele, n.” OED Online, Oxford University Press. Oxford English Dictionary, https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/49293.
Kotzer, Avi. “Dele.” Silly Little Dictionary!, 16 July 2021, https://medium.com/silly-little-dictionary/dele-2bda6d5a6263.
Manicules are delightful typographic marks. The term comes from the Latin manicula (little hand). Learn more about Manicules here.
Jerrold, Walter. “Biographical Note” in Oliver Twist, Or The Parish Boy’s Progress. J.M. Dent & Company, 1899, p. xvii.
Collins, Philip. The Public Readings. Clarendon Press, 1975.
See Tomalin, Claire. The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2012, p.173.
Dolby, George. Charles Dickens as I Knew Him: The Story of the Reading Tours in Great Britain and America (1866-1870). T.F. Unwin, 1885, p. 442.
Collins, Philip. The Public Readings, p.471.
The was my first read of “noted” after learning of your in the academic thread last week and I am SO excited! I did archival research in grad school, and my favorite item from the collection I worked with was the diary. So fascinating to triangulate data from dates, purchase, letters, etc. I look forward to reading many more of your pieces here!
I had no ideas that Dickens was such a performer! I still have fond memories of reading Tale of Two Cities in high school and being captivated by the story (once I got over the first two or three chapters, which were a bit too dense for Teenage Me).
I'm also very much for writing in my books -- it's always interesting to go back and see how my past self reacted to what I read. The only downside is that it makes me a little more self-conscious when I loan a book to a friend (what strange things will they read in the margins?!).