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Heard and Not Seen


It is not a surprise that children find the author's novels off-putting, said actor and Dickens expert Simon Callow, 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' voice, it becomes infinitely more accessible."

His suggestion that children would benefit from reading Dickens aloud were supported by academics.

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 do rather 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 Victoria 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' 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."

Read the full article by Anita Singh
Ask a child to name their favourite author, and Charles Dickens is unlikely to top the list. But Simon Callow, the actor and Dickens expert, believes that is because Dickens' words are meant to be heard and not read.