What the Dickens? A new take on author

By Dionne Christian

British actor Miriam Margolyes in Dickens Women; credit Prudence Upton Supplied for arts
British actor Miriam Margolyes in Dickens Women; credit Prudence Upton Supplied for arts

English actor Miriam Margolyes was just 11 years old when it dawned on her that we have to accept that great people are often more complex and flawed than hagiographic biographies make them out to be.

If Margolyes hadn't resigned herself to this, chances are she would have flung down in disgust Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist and never grown up to create a one-woman show which, in between her many film, television and stage appearances, has toured the world since 1989.

Borne out of her own lifelong passion for Dickens' writing, Dickens' Women captures the great English novelist at his most contradictory - and possibly unlikeable - by examining his treatment of women in real life and in literature.

Margolyes, who has starred in numerous adaptations of Dickens' novels, brings to life 23 characters, including Mrs Micawber from David Copperfield; Miss Havisham in Great Expectations; and Mrs Gramp in Martin Chuzzlewit.

By telling their stories, she reveals much about Dickens' perturbing and, at times, outright cruel treatment of the women in his life. His long-suffering wife Catherine bore him 12 children but he publicly likened her to a "donkey" and abandoned her to take up with a teenager.

But Margolyes is smart enough to balance it with insights into the man himself, which go some way to explaining why he treated women so callously.

"He was a victim of his own childhood as well as a product of his time. After all, we are all imprisoned by the era we are born in. On the one hand, he was a man deeply concerned about the lot of people who were poor, disadvantaged and living on the edge of life in every aspect but then he was so ghastly to women.

"You just have to accept it; this was who he was. We've been left with his legacy which is an extraordinary body of work, so while we might criticise the man, we can still praise the work."

Margolyes, whose family is Jewish, recognised the contradiction between Dickens' writing and his less appealing personal beliefs as she read Oliver Twist. She found it difficult to accept his racist depiction of Jews, like the villain Fagin.

"I had a conflict reaction and from this developed my fascination with Dickens."

She says being a woman, an actor and a Dickens fan meant it was almost inevitable that she would, with friend Sonia Fraser, eventually develop a show based on some aspect of his life and work. She was naturally drawn to the female characters she had so often played.

Despite the production's unflattering portrayal of Dickens, it obviously appeals to audiences who remain enthralled by him. Margolyes herself likens Dickens to Shakespeare in terms of his talent and influence.

She says most people, even the most ardent Dickens fans, can separate the man from his work. Besides, she's performing a dramatic and, at times, humorous play - not giving a lecture.

Since its Edinburgh Festival debut 23 years ago, Dickens' Women has been performed in Britain, the United States, Israel, Australia and India. It returns here for a second, and more extensive, tour that coincides with the 200th anniversary of Dickens' birth.

This time, it comes with a book. Margolyes and Fraser have published a volume that includes an expanded version of the script plus additional material describing his inspiration for the women in his stories.

Performance
What: Dickens' Women
Where and when: Bruce Mason Centre, May 4-6; TSB Showplace, New Plymouth, May 26

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