As anyone who enjoys reading Dickens knows, he had a very active interest in theatre to the point of staging amateur theatricals in his own home and taking part in them as an actor (that is how he met Ellen Ternan). His passion for drama is more than obvious in the dialogue of his novels, which is not at all like ordinary conversation; no wonder he electrified the crowds of Britain and the United States with his public readings.
Clearly, his novels are designed to be read aloud by a playful reader willing to perform the text, not simply read it. And it seems this is the way his novels were often consumed, whether in urban British Victorian households with the pater familias reading to wife, children and servants, or in the prairie camps of the ante-bellum America moving fast westwards, with the hardy pioneers taking turns to read to their companions. Many in the 19th century, it seems, never read Dickens but heard him, or, rather, listened to his written words.
Today, audio books are a growing business in the English-speaking world (not so much in Spain, who knows why), which suggests that the oral dimension of the novel has not been completely lost. We may have lost the ability to listen, however, since audio books are most often used as the background soundtrack to exercising, driving or cleaning the house, among other boring occupations. Making the most of the combination of working and listening (not just hearing), the Cuban tobacco factories still employ ‘lectores’ whose job consists of reading aloud a variety of texts for the benefit of the workers. In this way, even those who happen to be illiterate can claim they’re very well read.
It’s hard to imagine, in any case, someone listening attentively while doing nothing else, much more so a single individual, for this attitude can only assumed within a group: the audience in a book presentation, a book club, or a classroom. As a student joked last week as we read in class passages from Great Expectations, the problem is that if he read Dickens aloud on the train he’d be taken straight to the loony bin! And he’s right –the classroom is possibly the only space left where reading aloud feels natural. And where listening with full attention happens. More or less…
Dickens calls for quite a bold performer and students of English don’t like reading aloud in class, as they don’t want their mispronunciations mocked by their peers. The consequence? We teachers bear the burden of reading aloud, as well as we can… and end up perhaps amusing more than teaching our students. My guess is that all teachers of Victorian fiction have an embarrassing memory of voicing little Pip as he’s scared by the ogre –the escaped convict– at the beginning of Great Expectations. I got lucky this time since half the attention was diverted towards the girl student who read so beautifully the convict’s part (she has a training in acting). I am sure that her peers were a little awed by her performance. That was just what I needed to convince them that Dickens invites readers all the time to use, if not their actual voices, at least their mental theatres and, well, play.