As the nights draw in and the Christmas trees start getting lit up all over town, there is one English writer who seems to truly own the season. I have heard it said that Charles Dickens really invented the jolly traditional Christmas, much as Coca-Cola invented the red and white-clad Santa Claus. It is true that the Christmas party in Jane Austen’s ‘Emma‘ (published in 1815) bears very little resemblance to the ritual-laden splendour of the idyllic parties described in ‘A Christmas Carol’ (pub. 1843). It is also true that post-1840s British fiction tends to depict festivities which are significantly closer to the Dickens’ version than the ‘just another party’ feeling you get with Austen.
The reason this is at the forefront of my mind so early in December is that I visited The Charles Dickens museum in London yesterday and spent a lovely afternoon walking through holly-decked rooms. It seems there’s an annual Christmas exhibition at the museum because, well, it’s Dickens. This means the dining room is complete with a massive roast turkey on the table (turkey replaced goose as the most popular centrepiece of the Christmas lunch during the Victorian era), and another room has a beautiful fir tree (popularised in the UK by the royal family in the 1840s). As it happens, I’m not even Christian, but I am a fan of English literature and the visit inspired me to write a long overdue post about my favourite Dickens novels. They may not be the traditional best, but these are the books I return to time and time again, normally, as I said earlier, as the nights get longer and I start to see Christmas trees appear.
‘Oliver Twist’ is probably the Dickens book I have re-read in its entirety the most times. To be honest, the other books in this list owe their place to the fact that they contain specific chapters, scenes or set-pieces that I love. When it comes to Oliver Twist though, I’m in it for the long haul and every re-reading reveals new moments to love. For one thing, the plot contains so many turns and twists (quite literally) that I nearly always discover something new about characters and motivations. From the indictment of the poor laws and workhouse system to the big-hearted Mr Grimwig, from the connivances of the fiendish Fagin to the melodrama of Bill Sykes and Nancy … I think Oliver Twist is a genuine must-read and a wonderful introduction to everything Dickens does so well.
‘Nicholas Nickleby’ is another enduring favourite of mine. It is probably most famous for the hideous ‘Dotheboys Hall’ (headteacher: Wackford Squeers) which shows Dickens was just as enraged by the inhumanity of the private Yorkshire schools system as by pubic workhouses. The satire is as funny as it is biting though; I personally love every chapter that features a member of the hideous Squeers family. In ‘Nicholas Nickleby’ we follow the fortunes of the genteel Nickleby family, complete with wicked Scrooge-like uncle, as they learn the ways of the world. Other top characters include Lord Frederick Verisopht, Madame Mantalini and, of course, the Infant Phenomenon. ‘Nicholas Nickleby’, as an early Dickens novel, also includes a genuinely interesting heroine in the put-upon but not infuriatingly meek Kate.
I first encountered ‘Martin Chuzzlewit’ through the 1994 BBC mini-series, and remember reading frantically to try and keep ahead of the plot. I was especially taken with Julia Sawalha’s flighty Merry Chuzzlewit and the malevolence of Keith Allen’s Jonas. In the book, things are, if anything, more powerful and I continually return to the scenes featuring Merry and Jonas … and Mrs Todgers and Mr Pecksniff and young Bailey and Tigg Montague and Montague Tigg and Mrs. Gamp and Mark Tapley and the wonderful wonderful Pinches …
The novel is about the grotesque connivances of the Chuzzlewit family. The hero, young Martin, is on a journey of maturity, and there is the general question of whether good will triumph over evil, but it’s mostly just a whole lot of fun.
Last but not least, I have a huge soft spot for ‘Our Mutual Friend.’ Dickens’s last complete novel, it features a plot so convoluted that it’s hard to imagine any new, unestablished writer ever trying to get the mass of chapters and story-lines published. There are mysteries that are solved far earlier than you’d expect and vendettas that go on for simply ages. On the other hand, it is within ‘Our Mutual Friend’ that I’ve found some of my own personal favourite Dickens characters. Any book that contains the social-climbing Veneerings and the couple they sponsor (consisting of a mature young lady and a mature young gentleman) has to be a winner. And for romantics out there, I think the desperately-in-love Bradley Headstone beats Heathcliff any day.
That’s my list of my top Dickens reads. I know it misses out many traditional favourites, but it’s been so hard to write about just these four without stopping mid-way to ignore the computer in favour of the books I’m describing. Which novels would you include? And, of the Dickens I haven’t yet read (‘Barnaby Rudge’, ‘Erwin Drood’ and ‘Sketches by Boz’), which should I look forward to starting first?