Dickens the Speaker

This page will look at Dickens's skills as a speaker, and how his audiences responded to him.

Public Speaking Skills

There are many elements to public speaking which Dickens had to be skilful in. One important feature, for example, was voice projection and clear pronounciation of words. This is something Dickens worked hard at for his whole speaking career. We can see his process of intonation through the advice he gives to his son, Henry, before he gave a speech at Cambridge University: 

Open your mouth roundly and well. Speak to the last person visible; and take your time.1 

Chicago Illustrated News. 1868. Dickens Giving a Speech at a Banquet.

Vocal tone was something for which Dickens recieved mixed reviews. Some described him as having "a clear ringing sonorous voice"2 , whereas others attributed it as being "naturally monotonous."3 

He spoke without notes and would use a unique method to create the speeches and remember them off by heart. James J. Fields describes how Dickens would: 

take a walk into the country, and the thing was done. When he returned he was all ready for the task.4                  

To memorise the speeches, he would imagine the speech were a wheel, with each spoke representing its different subjects. Once each subject had been addressed, he would 'destroy' its spoke.

George Dolby describes his exact process:

he would in his "mind's eye," liken the whole subject to the tire of a cart wheel — he being the hub. From the hub to the tire he would run as many spokes as there were subjects to be treated, and during the progress of the speech he would deal with each spoke separately, elaborating them as he went round the wheel; and when all the spokes dropped out one by one, and nothing but the tire and space remained, he would know that he had accomplished his task, and that his speech was at an end.5 

This imaginary wheel did not, however, distract Dickens from being present when public speaking. Sir Arthur Helps describes how Dickens would fully immerse himself in whatever he was saying: 

Indeed, when he read, or when he spoke, the whole man read, or spoke.6  

Dickens would also make sure to connect with his audience through eye contact. One audience member from one of his public readings describes Dickens's stage presence before he began to speak:

If ever a look spoke it was just in that movement of the eyes: it felt as if he were making friends with us all. His eyes seem to have the power of meeting those of every separate person in the audience, and all the while a slight smile plays on his lips.7 

When an audience member failed to look at him, he would speak looking directly at them until they did. His American publisher James T. Fields recalls:

Talking of his audience one day Dickens said there was always one woman in every audience who could never be induced to look at him while he was reading and at whom he always looked steadily, endeavoring to compel the eyes to move but without success.8 

Dickens clearly had good public speaking skills to be able to make a career from public readings, and to be invited to make over one hundred speeches for various institutions and occasions (he was invited to make a lot more, but turned many offers down!). The reception of these speeches, however, could be quite varied. 

Speech Reception

Many were very impressed by the quality of of Dickens's speeches, both in content and performance. For example, Anthony Trollope (a contemporary) writes: 

He [Dickens] spoke so well that a public dinner became a blessing instead of a curse, if he was in the chair.9

John H. Crowther describes Dickens's speaking skills as having: "power, fluency, elegance, correctness, intelligence and well-chosen words".10 

In addition, it had been cited in the Times in 1858 that Dickens was the best after dinner speaker of his era. 

However, not all were so happy with the way Dickens delivered his speeches. For example, a reporter describing a speech Dickens made at a public dinner ahead of novelist William Thackeray going to America in 1855 writes: 

Mr Dickens made a neat speech- a very neat speech, in his polished actor-like manner, which has but this defect, that the countenance never swerves with the words- that his superbly brilliant eye stares at you all the time with the fixed clearness of an Argand Lamp.

Here the reporter gives a contrasting account of Dickens's public speaking ability. His eye contact was off-putting, and his mannerisms were stiff and unlifelike.

Mark Twain, after attending one of Dickens's public readings in America in 1868, also had some strong words to say about his speaking ability:

I was a good deal disappointed in Mr Dickens' reading -- I will go further and say, a great deal disappointed. The Herald and Tribune critics must have been carried away by their imaginations when they wrote their extravagant praises of it. Mr Dickens' reading is rather monotonous, as a general thing; his voice is husky; his pathos is only the beautiful pathos of his language -- there is no heart, no feeling in it -- it is glittering frostwork; his rich humor cannot fail to tickle an audience into ecstasies save when he reads to himself. And what a bright, intelligent audience he had! He ought to have made them laugh, or cry, or shout, at his own good will or pleasure -- but he did not. They were very much tamer than they should have been.

He pronounced Steerforth "St'yaw-futh." This will suggest to you that he is a little Englishy in his speech.11 

However, Dickens was renowned as a public speaker and was always being invited to speak at dinners and events. In a recent interview, Professor Michael Slater, a noted Dickens scholar, discussed the true impact Dickens had from his speeches: 

He didn't accept all invitations; I'm sure he was bombarded with them, and so, he would only accept invitations for causes he had very much to heart, like the Children's Hospital [...] He was obviously a very good speaker, partly because he was a very good actor, I suppose, and by all accounts his speeches were very funny, very moving, very eloquent, very effective.

Fairytale Imagery

Throughout Dickens's work, fable and fairytale techniques appear, often to relay a moral tale. This is common technique- think for example of Aesop's Fables, such as The Tortoise and The Hare.

Michael Slater draws attention to the fairytale-like characters in A Christmas Carol, who each bring their own moral tale. He focuses on Scrooge and explains he: 

is almost like a mythical character, an archetypal miser, and yet he has a cold, we know what he eats for supper, we know he eats gruel. There's this realistic detail of a fairytale figure, which Dickens does all the time. This combination of the fantastic fairytale and this extremely down-to-earth realism.

A common place this appears in Dickens's work is his speeches for the Commercial Travellers' Schools. These schools were established in 1845 and were for orphaned children of commercial travellers. For more on the history of these schools, visit The Royal Pinner Educational Trust.

In his speech for this organisation in 1859, he likens the schools to a giant's castle: 

I resolved, like the heroes in the fairy tales, to go out to seek my fortune; and I resorted to a friendly giant – a commercial giant – and we sallied out together only yesterday. We travelled on and on, very like the people in the fairy tales, until we came to a great castle of a bright red colour, looking perfectly glorious in the cold sunlight of a winter afternoon. We were received, not by one of those conventional monsters with a great eye in his forehead as large as six, but by a man with an extremely humorous expression of countenance and two bright eyes, under whose guidance we inspected the livestock and eatables of the establishment, which suggested to us nothing but an abundance of milk and pork.

Here he portrays the everyday as fantasy and paints those in charge of the organisation as kind and generous; a reason to donate to this cause. 

In his 1854 speech for these schools, he says: 

it is clear that the visitors who come as a sort of celestial representatives ought to bring that aid in their pockets which the precept teaches us to expect from them.

Dickens is conjuring images of old fairytales, probably to relate to the schools for orphaned children he is spekaing for. He also invites his audience to remember their own childhoods and invoke a sense of nostalgia, which likely would have been beneficial in getting his listeners to donate. 

The quote from 1854 is discussed further on our Religion and The Supernatural page.

Fairytale imagery also is used in Dickens's speech for the Hospital for Sick Children (1858). He paints a picture of  the reality of how small and frail its patients are so his audience feel pity and reach for their wallets: 

In the airy wards into which the old state drawing-rooms and family bedchambers of that house are now converted are such little patients that the attendant nurses look like reclaimed giantesses, and the kind medical practitioner like an amiable Christian ogre.

Another technique he often uses, that appears in old fairytales, is allegory.12 This appears in his characterisation of 'Ignorance and Want' in A Christmas Carol (as featured in our page showcasing his General Theatrical Fund speeches). A similar characterisation also features in his speech for the Birmingham Polytechnic Institute (1844)

Now, there is a spirits of great power, the Spirit of Ignorance, long shut up in a vessel of Obstinate Neglect, with a great deal of lead in its composition, and sealed with the seal of many, many Solomons, and which is exactly in the same position. Release it in time, and it will bless, restore, and reanimates society; but let it lie under the rolling waves of years, and its blind revenge at last will be destruction.

This again highlights the importance Dickens placed on education. He often uses these fantastical elements to leave a lasting impression on his audience, and this was often done for educational instituitons. For more on Dickens and education, visit our pages on Educational Institutions, and Education and Morality.

  1. Dickens. C. cited in: Andrews, M. 2006. Charles Dickens and His Performing Selves: Dickens and the Public Readings. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  2. Crowther, J. H. 1927. Dickens as a Public Speaker.

  3. Field, K. cited in: Andrews, M. 2006.

  4. James J. Fields cited in: Fielding, K.J. 1960. The Speeches of Charles Dickens. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

  5. Dolby, G. 1912. Charles Dickens as I Knew Him. Charles Scribner's Sons: New York.

  6. Sir A. Helps cited in: Andrews, M. 2006.

  7. R. Shelton Mackenzie cited in: Andrews, M. 2006.

  8. Fields, J.T. Notes on Dickens. James Thomas Fields papers and addenda, 1767-1914. Available from: Huntingdon Library.

  9. Sir A. Trollope cited in: Fielding, K.J. 1960.

  10. Crowther, J.H. 1927.

  11. Twain, M. 1868. Available from: The Charles Dickens Page.

  12. Carter, A. 1990. Angela Carter's Book of Fairytales. London: Virago Press.