Charles Dickens described himself as ‘an actor and a speaker from a baby’. The theatre was one of his great passions throughout his life, and he delighted in arranging amateur theatricals, directing them and acting in them.
He was a master impersonator, and he was known to practice impersonations as a part of the composition of his novels. This gift, combined with his devotion to his reading public (‘to commune with you, in any form, is to me a labour of love’, he declared to his readership ), motivated him to begin a new career in the late 1850s, as a professional public reader of his own works.
He toured Britain and America during the last twelve years of his life, giving some 470 performances, each lasting about two hours, to huge audiences. The public readings in total earned him about £45,000. They also very probably shortened his life, exacting a terrible toll on Dickens’s prodigious energy.
Charles Dickens in London 1870... and his reading desk (in the Dickens Museum)