Monday, 16 July 2012

Charles Dickens: Where to start?

In the first of our articles responding to reader requests, we’ve put together an introduction to classic Victorian author Charles Dickens.  Always wanted to read him, but never known where to start?  Not sure if its your thing at all?  Finished all his books, and want to check if you agree with us?  Read on to find out!

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The basics

Dickens’ novels tends to be enormous – not just in terms of pages but also in terms of characters and storylines.  Once you get over his slightly outdated style (it was over 150 years ago) then he’s a very easy read – his characters might be cartoonish, but they’re often still recognisable today, as (sadly) are some of the societal problems which he regularly attacked.

Where to start

It depends if you’re worried about length.  If you are there are a few shorter options – A Christmas Carol is world-famous and a must-read, while A Tale of Two Cities is a shade longer, but is far more satisfying, with one of Dickens’ most emotionally engaging characters in Sydney Carton.  If you’re happy to start with a big book, then begin at Dickens’ beginning with Pickwick Papers – it’s possibly Dickens’ funniest work, and (via witty servant Sam Weller) spawned spin-off merchandise worthy of Harry Potter.

The must-read(s)

Bleak House is often regarded as Dickens’ masterpiece, and it fully earns the title.  The novel revolves around a ludicrously lengthy inheritance case (based, incredibly, on a true story), and it criss-crosses Victorian society from the aristocracy to the slumdwellers, while finding time for a slow-burning love story and one of the first ever murder-mysteries.

Elsewhere, David Copperfield also comes highly recommended – it’s loosely autobiographical, and thus provides one of Dickens’ more straightforward plotlines, managing to create laughs and tears in equal measure.  Great Expectations also has a similarly impressive reputation, but to me it lacked Dickens’ normal humour, and the characters aren’t quite up to scratch either - excepting, of course, the macabre Miss Havisham.

What to skip

Unless you’re looking to read absolutely everything, you can avoid Barnaby Rudge and Martin Chuzzlewit – they are comfortably Dickens’ least-read works.  Hard Times is also one to miss; it’s a satire on Utilitarianism and the Victorian School system, but it’s a rare occasion when Dickens’ comedic touch doesn’t keep up with his social conscience, making it something of a grind.

An illustration of Seven Dials - one of
London's poorest districts
Extra credit

Dickens’ began his career as a journalist, and he moved into novel-writing via a series of ‘sketches’, which blur the line between observational reporting and fiction.  Many of these are collected into Sketches by Boz, which makes great reading, especially if you’re interested in London society at the start of the Victorian era

Random trivia

Dickens wrote almost all of his novel is monthly three-chapter editions.  This meant he was able to change his mind or respond to criticism with his novels half-finished.  This is clear in The Old Curiosity Shop, which changes from first-person to third-person narration after a few chapters, and in David Copperfield, when the initially ridiculous Miss Mowcher was given more dignity after the woman she was based on complained to Dickens personally.

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  1. Sydney Carlton?

  2. Also, as I discovered today, the new Batman movie uses A Tale of Two Cities as its source!

  3. Wow what a great idea! It's so accessible and readable, not to mention very useful, you should do one of these 'where to start with' articles every week! :)

  4. Agree with the above! Great idea and well written :)