The women Dickens loved

01:58, Apr 22 2012
Miriam Margolyes performs her one-woman show.
Miriam Margolyes performs her one-woman show.

I suspect," Miriam Margolyes says conspiratorially, "that he liked his women to be fully rounded in mind and body."

"While his own marriage could only be described as a disaster, he always had very fixed views of his ideal woman."

Welcome to the dysfunctional domestic life of Charles Dickens. The Victorians may have a reputation for moral rectitude, but Dickens' own life was apparently filled with much door slamming, a whiff of marital discord, hints of extra-marital affairs and harsh words culminating with the great author ordering the connecting door between his bedroom and his wife's to be blocked by a large bookshelf. There's a certain Freudian quality to his instructions. His books still tend to block out the man from the author, who is regarded as one of the world's great writers and literary figures. What dark depths lay beneath the adulation and acclaim?

The potency of Dickens can never be underestimated, especially in a year when we celebrate the 200th anniversary of the great man's birth. The Dickens' industry is in full cry. Everything from coffee mugs to learned academic symposiums is being offered. But if you thought that you knew everything about Charles Dickens, think again.

For a man who not merely liked but had an obsessive love affair with the public stage, it's appropriate the bicentennial has also generated a number of theatrical adaptations and productions. Miriam Margolyes, a Bafta winner acclaimed for her stage and film character roles, is bringing her solo production Dickens' Women to New Zealand in early May - including a short season in Christchurch.

"Christchurch was one place that I insisted we visit," Margolyes says during a break in the production's Australian season.

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Dickens' Women was originally developed by Margolyes and Sonia Fraser for the 1989 Edinburgh Festival. It has since travelled internationally, including tours of Australia and New Zealand in 2007. In 1992 the production was nominated for the prestigious Olivier Award. But in the best Dickensian tradition, it was not an easy birth.

"The show was originally intended to be a play with a cast. But the draft was so bad that it was then adapted into a play for two actors. My fellow actor then decided that he had to get married. It became a solo production. I had to choose my female characters from approximately 2000 so it was a question of cutting, cutting and cutting. I've still got a collection of my 'women in boxes', the characters I didn't include and probably never will. The text is the text and this script will never be changed."

In Dickens' Women Margolyes presents 23 characters, selected not only because they are some of the author's most colourful and entertaining, but because "they were based on real people in Dickens' life; people he fought with and cared for, loved and hated.

"Much as you think you know him, Charles Dickens is still a surprising man. Much crueller than people expect. So I hope the show will shock the audience and remove them from the comfort zone."

Margolyes first encountered Dickens at the age of 11 when she read Oliver Twist. Since then she has continued to read him "massively". The huge cast of characters he created - or as many that can be fitted into the production - are on stage during Dickens' Women. The characters are hilarious, touching and frightening. It must be admitted that others are simply vapid. Kate Nickleby (Martin Chuzzlewit,) Ada Clare (Bleak House) and that paragon of Victorian innocence Little Dorrit, share youth, beauty and saintliness. But they are definitely not to Margolyes' personal taste - "I find them all rather icky, actually" - but these simpering poppets do provide some clues to Dicken's personality and his attitudes towards women.

Many were based on Dickens' sister- in-law, Mary Hogarth, who came to live with him and his wife and died suddenly after the three of them came home from the theatre. She was just 17 - and Dickens never recovered from the shock. It made him bitter and resentful, and he was particularly cruel towards his wife, Catherine, with whom he had 10 children in 16 years. Though he tried to dress it up as irreconcilable differences, he in effect abandoned her for his mistress, Ellen Ternan - 17 when they met.

Perhaps the woman who hurt him most was his mother, who sent him to work in a blacking factory when he was just a young boy. "But he still loved robust, eccentric female characters like Mrs Gamp," Margolyes says.

Did Dickens re-invent his own life?

"We all tend to self-present ourselves but I don't think that Dickens ever actually lied about his life. Nevertheless, Freud would have been interested in his behaviour and personality. He was definitely not an easy man.

"He was complex and difficult to live with. He had an especially tortuous relationship with his wife and nine children. Apart from one of his sons, all the boys had disastrous lives," she says. On the other hand, he adored his daughters, but even Kate Dickens described her father after his death as "wicked".

* Miriam Margolyes presents Dickens' Women at the Aurora Centre, Christchurch, on Saturday, May 12. Book at Ticketek.

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