I love Dickens!

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.

imgres-1‘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.

imgres-2‘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.

imgres-3I 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.

imgres-4Last 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?


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19 Responses to I love Dickens!

  1. rjev says:

    I’m with you completely when it comes to Nicholas Nickleby, simply marvellous. I also adore David Copperfield, Oliver Twist and Great Expectations too – in fact any Dickens that involves loss of childhood innocence and the later possibility of redemption. Favourite of all is A Tale of Two Cities which captivated me as a child, particularly Sydney Carton, a truly underrated anti-hero if ever there was one.

    As for your two possible reads – they both lead in to murder-mystery territory, a genre that leaves me cold even with Dickens’ dramatic narrative skills. However, Barnaby Rudge at a push – some interesting characters and, after all, it’s finished! 

    • A convincing argument – I think it will have to be Rudge, it will also teach me more about the 1780. As for a ‘Tale of Two Cities’, it very nearly made the list on the strength of the first sentence alone!

  2. Naomi says:

    My favourite (so far) is Bleak House. But now I’m tempted to read Nicholas Nickleby next…

  3. Elle says:

    My absolute fave is Bleak House, but I do love Our Mutual Friend, and David Copperfield surprised me with how good it was—I was expecting it to be much duller, for some reason! I try and read a Dickens every winter; this year it’s A Tale of Two Cities, which I somehow missed out on reading at school…

    • You’re the second person this weeks whose told me they plan on reading one Dickens book a year – I think it sounds like such a wonderful long term project (especially in Winter). ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ is great; really looking forward to your review 🙂

      • Elle says:

        It’s a project that just makes sense, isn’t it! Like grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup, Dickens and winter go together.

  4. I love Dickens too, and I’ll join with others in recommending Bleak House – absolutely wonderful!

  5. Izzy says:

    As a matter of fact, I am currently reading OMF, and absolutely loving it ! When I saw the title of your review my heart literally jumped ! I’ve completed seven of his novels so far and my favourites are GE and BH. I thought that MC was much better than it is usually made out to be (it was even run down by David Tennant, alias Dr Who, in the episode in which he meets Dickens!). I guess his satiric armory against American hypocrisy doesn’t appeal to everybody ? I, too, found fascinating the exploration of the relationship between Cherry and Jonas, with its racy undertones. Little Dorrit, Hard Times, I love them all. All his books fill me with joy. There isn’t another author who does that to me. He is The Absolute Writer. I want to read everything by him, I love him, warts and all. 😀
    So envious that you could visit that museum !

    • The first time I read it I got utterly bogged down in the America bits – not Dickens’ most effective satire. The rest of it is so glorious though that it still easily makes my top reads lists. I’ll be interested in hearing how you find OMF (also uneven, but with so many patches of pure brilliance).
      The museum was a lot of fun, and then I continued my Dickens themed week by watching the Muppet Christmas Carol tonight. Happy times!

  6. Sarah says:

    I love ‘Great Expectations’ and don’t think I’ll ever tire of rereading it, but I’ve been stuck on David Copperfield for ages, picking it up for a chapter or two, before abandoning it it favour of something else. However, I think you may be onto something about Dickens and Christmas. If literature was food, Dickens novels would most certainly be Christmas puddings and there’s only one time of year for them. I shall pick it up again this week and see if the festive vibes don’t just see me through to the end this time!

  7. FictionFan says:

    I would have Bleak House at the top of my list, and I’d have to include David Copperfield too. On the other hand, sorry, but I’d omit Oliver Twist – never been able to love that one as much as the others. I’ll be reading Our Mutual Friend over Christmas – for some reason I’ve never read that one before, so a real treat in store!

    • That’s fair enough; I love that Dickens wrote so much, everyone can find personal favourites (I’ve always struggled with David Copperfield, while Twist has brought me great joy)
      Looking forward to your views on Our Mutual Friend. After writing this post I just want to re-read everything again – and all at the same time!

  8. Pingback: What the Dickens? I’ve finished David Copperfield! | Hard Book Habit

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