Charles Dickens

If your only experience with Charles Dickens's books is reading A Tale of Two Cities for your high school literature class, you aren't doing him justice. I am sorry to say that after that truly excellent opening line, everything in A Tale of Two Cities goes downhill. Your teacher just chose it because he or she thought that nobody would actually finish Great Expectations, and reading A Christmas Carol raises too many of those nasty church and state issues.

Charles Dickens's books are huge, intricate, and messy. Frequently a single Dickens book will feature one storyline that's a work of genius and another that's complete crap. He had some Serious Issues about the women in his life, and he wasn't shy about working out those Serious Issues on the page, which led to an awful lot of cartoonish female characters. As a writer of serialized fiction, he was so busy churning out installments that he wrote himself into more than one corner, and some of his early books feature some pretty slapdash plotting. He wasn't afraid of melodrama, anvil-style foreshadowing, or ridiculous plot contrivances, and apparently he'd cry like a baby when he killed off characters that he cared about.

Nevertheless, reading Dickens is probably the fastest and most entertaining way to get a grip on the Victorian mindset... and if you're wondering why you might need a grip on the Victorian mindset, remember that Victorian London was arguably the first truly modern city. Dickens's books give us a glimpse of what made these early urbanites laugh, what made them weep, and (thanks to Pickwick) what made them hungry.

Note: Dickens had a perfectly massive mid-life crisis, which you can and totally should read about in Phyllis Rose's excellent book Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages. After a few decades of marriage and TEN KIDS, Mr. Dickens left his wife Catherine for an 18-year-old actress. While there are plenty of juicy anecdotes about the fallout from the ending of their marriage, my favorite is this:
Catherine Dickens was apparently an extremely placid, gentle woman. When the Dickens marriage crashed and burned, Catherine's younger sister Georgina, who had moved in with her sister and brother-in-law when she was fifteen, chose to stay with Charles(!!!) and continue running his household for him. Despite this truly staggering lack of sisterly loyalty, when Charles died Catherine and Georgina simply resumed their sisterly relationship as though nothing had happened... until Catherine's death, when the only thing she left to little Georgina in her will was a ring in the shape of a snake.



Everywhere. And you can usually buy 'em used.

(Availability Note: While we here at Wordcandy always encourage you to buy books (in fact, buy them through us! We're a very worthy cause!) we understand that sometimes, alas, one is flat broke. If that's the case, you can read copies of some or all of this author's books at this fine site for FREE.)

Other Recommendations:
Wives and Daughters, by Elizabeth Gaskell

The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins
Posted by: Julia


18 Nov, 2004 02:00 AM @ version 0

They're long, and painful, and perfectly wonderfull. Don't be scared to give my favourite author a try!! The best way to fall in love with Dickens is to commit. Sure the first 75% of the book might be excruciating torture, but our pal Charles is all about the big payoff at the end where your effort is more than rewarded. So just keep going out to the lawn to recover the book after you've thrown it out the window in frustration and I promise you'll end up naming your pets things like Rokesmith, Cherryble, and Smike. I'd recomend starting with "Our Mutual Friend" or "Nicholas Nickleby". They're a little less daunting so suck it up and give them a try!

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