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52 Authors: Week 36 - Charles Dickens

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I am not an expert on Charles Dickens, but I do enjoy his writing immensely. I have gone through periods where I thought I liked other Victorian authors more: Anthony Trollope and George Eliot notably, but I always return to Dickens with vigor and realize that he is the best. Wasn’t there an old McDonalds ad which stated “30 Million Customers can’t be wrong”, or something like that? Maybe it’s not a good analogy, and perhaps being loved by the masses isn’t always best. I try to imagine what you read about that period of the 19th century and boats showing up at the port of New York that are carrying copies of the latest serial installment of a Dickens novel with near rioting on the docks. So many things in history are so hard to imagine that it is hard to even make an apt comparison.

Lately I have been going out of my comfort zone and reading mystery novels. To generalize them a little, they tend to be less than 400 pages, many less than 300. They are “quick” reads, and for me that not only means that you read through them quickly but also that I need to read them quickly, otherwise I will certainly forget important clues, plot devices, minor characters, settings … all of these things are so important in your average mystery read. I don’t think I have a terrible memory problem when it comes to reading, but I do think my memory is better with gradually delineated details rather than quick and minute ones. I am fine with a huge cast of characters as long as each character is very well explained to me by the author.

Your average 19th century tome spends a great deal of time with character development, plot development, making sure that the reader gets a very good impression of the setting, theme, mood … much of this may not be important to a 20th/21st century reader. With little else available for “self-entertainment” back in the pre-electronic age a reader might not necessarily want things to go quickly. I have so many of these classics on my Nook device (ironically) because I pick that up when I am lying in bed before sleep; these novels are warm, comfortable, cozy, and leave me feeling quite restful and pleased. I am like a hobbit in his warren and life could not be better. Quite a good way to be before falling asleep.

Charles Dickens only lived to be 58 years old, but he managed to complete fourteen novels, novellas, non-fiction, some “sketches”, and almost finish a murder mystery there at the end. He apparently was very much committed to reading his work in a public forum for his fans. Several sources seem to indicate that this hastened his ultimate demise; he became sick and was weaker and continued to read for his public. Without looking up the specifics, I believe he was married with several children, began an affair with a much younger woman and left his wife for her. Apparently celebrities are celebrities in any age. We seem to forgive celebrities their “sins” dependent upon their possible good nature, and perhaps with regard to the superiority of their product.

I mentioned in one of our recent posts how Dickens’ works can sort of be divided. If you look at a list of the novels and include The Mystery of Edwin Drood on that list, then David Copperfield takes the middle position, at number eight. The seven novels prior to DC are those of a younger novelist who is experimenting and learning his craft. The seven novels after DC are of a more experienced novelist, are seen as more realistic, have plots less likely to include fantastical coincidence, and can be a little more grim. As the reader completes Copperfield and dutifully moves to the next book he or she is faced with the grand opening chapter of Bleak House, which begins:

London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln's Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another's umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.

I believe that this chapter acts as an introduction to a new Dickens experience. There is nothing here remotely like what has come before. Yes, Oliver Twist certainly has its disturbing aspects, but by and large it is the story of an innocent young boy with little personality whose story will inevitably take us to a happy conclusion regardless of Fagin, the Artful Dodger, and the terrible Bill Sikes. Dickens’ main characters certainly become more interesting as the novels are written, and the latter half of his oeuvre holds those which are more complex.

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But where does that leave us with the beloved middle book, David Copperfield? I will resist any discussion of my personal favorite, Great Expectations, in lieu of what has already been discussed recently on this blog. But having just completed DC recently for a second time I can mention a few aspects of it which come to mind before ending this post.

With a shout-out to William Blake, if the first half of the Dickens canon is innocence (The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, The Old Curiosity Shop, Barnaby Rudge, Martin Chuzzlewit, Dombey and Son), and the second half is experience (Bleak House, Hard Times, Little Dorrit, A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, Our Mutual Friend, The Mystery of Edwin Drood), then DC is a tale of a young man moving from innocence to experience. The first half of the novel shows the protagonist relaying the years of his life in which he is a very young man being bullied about by the forces of his fate as an orphan – the Murdstones, James Steerforth, and Uriah Heep most notably. Then at some point in the novel young Davey grows up and starts to fight back to some degree, and thus enables his own fate to be made. He in particular takes action against Uriah Heep which made this reader even feel a little sorry for that despicable character. I think I could write a rather long research paper on this innocence/experience idea.

This sets David Copperfield (the character) apart from characterizations in earlier books, most notably Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby (again, the characters). Oliver takes no real action, and as I mentioned before has little personality. Nicholas is simply the perfect protagonist, which also makes his character lacking to some degree. Nickleby and his sister are so wonderful and perfect for the entire book that they sort of make you sick. What saves the stories of both of these eponymous heroes are the supporting characters who surround them, and the travails they must go through to reach the end of the novel and encounter their happy ending. Destiny is more in the hands of the character of David Copperfield. This may be why Dickens is said to most prefer his middle novel, and of course it is the one modeled after himself. G.K. Chesterton is a tad more critical of David Copperfield, writing that the first half of the novel is perfect and harkens the reader back to the earlier novels, while the second half not so much. Chesterton is more of a fan of the “fun” Dickens novels. In David Copperfield, Chesterton says, Dickens is “making a romantic attempt to be realistic”.

I feel that I am not doing Charles Dickens justice in this post, and I have only given one quote which most of you have most likely already read. Even in my discussion of DC I do not give it its due – no mention of Wilkins Micawber, or Betsey Trotwood – two wonderful characters (Micawber is pictured above). Then there are the wonderful illustrations in many of his novels. I believe these were commissioned due to his immense popularity, first by George Cruikshank, then by Phiz. These illustrations are wonderful and fun to look forward to when reading, and even come through nicely on my Nook! No one needs a recommendation from me. The books are there. There are the very popular, the less popular, and then Barnaby Rudge and Martin Chuzzlewit (who has read these besides Chesterton?).

Many many years ago Eric Clapton was coming to Miami for a concert and friends had to convince me that it would be a worthwhile experience. I went, it was amazing, and I thought, “Well, I guess that’s why he’s Eric Clapton!” Perhaps that analogy is better than McDonalds.

—El Gaucho is a pseudonym for Stuart Moore, who used to work for a small Jesuit, Liberal Arts college in the South and now works for a small Baptist, Liberal Arts university in the South. He is either confused, seeking, or simply working for the greater glory of God with whomever he may.

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After the second, or maybe the third time I read David Copperfield I realized that there is one uniting theme in the book and that is marriage. The book is filled with every sort of marriage good and bad, plus the regrettable, sad story of Emily. Think about it for a minute. Almost every character in the book has been shaped by his or her marriage and every marriage is different. David's mother's marriage to Murdstone is the story of the weak woman who marries a bullying man because she is afraid to be alone. Aunt Betsy marries a dishonest man who makes her life a misery. The Micawbers' marriage illustrates the folly of marrying an improvident man for love. The Doctor and his wife truly love one another, but we see how the difference in age can bring about certain misunderstanding. The Traddles have a good marriage. Mr. Wickfield had a good marriage, but his grief leads him to abandon the main responsibility that falls to him after the death of his wife--the safety of his daughter. Heep schemes for a marriage that will be profitable to him to the detriment of his wife and her father. David first commits the folly of an intelligent man marrying a silly, pretty woman, and then makes the best marriage with Agnes.

AMDG

"Recalled to life" - first mentioned in the second chapter of A Tale of Two Cities - my family's best experience of Dickens.

Appreciate the post. Appreciate the blog.

The only Dickens I've read are A Christmas Carol, A Tale of Two Cities, and Great Expectations. They are probably the best novels (and short story) I've ever read. I hesitate to read any others by him because I'm afraid they won't be as good.

I did Bleak House for A level.


Robert I am attending Holy Innocents

Bleak House is one I really want to re-read (in addition to reading for the first time the 60% or so of the novels that I haven't read at all). I read it in my 20s and thought it was great. I have a feeling I'd like it even more now.

Interesting observation about the marriages in DC, Janet.

I read it after I watched the BBC version. I liked the film, but I loved the book.

AMDG

Oh, and I forgot "Barkis is willing." He knew a good thing when he saw, and I think it would have been okay, except for his terrible avarice. Of course, I guess it was avarice that made him marry for a free housemaid.

AMDG

Robert, You ought to try Our Mutual Friend or Little Dorrit.

I've read 11 of them and I saw a BBC production of Dombey and Son. I ought to read the other four.

AMDG

"Barkis is willing." Heh. I'd forgotten about him.

Excellent observation Janet, as always, concerning marriage and DC, and one that I had not thought of but is now so obvious. Right now I am almost through The Pickwick Papers which is very fun and enjoyable but has less real plot and is more a series of bizarre scenes. Dombey and Son is on my short list.

Thanks, EG. As I said, I haven't read D & Son, only watched the BBC video, but it, and Hard Times are, as I remember, dreadfully grim throughout.

AMDG

And Mac, though I did enjoy Bleak House and will revisit it some day, I thought it suffered from not having any really memorable characters except Lord Dedlock. Esther Summerson was not that interesting to me. But it is a fabulously well constructed book, and I loved the 3rd and 1st person narration, as well as the spontaneous combustion episode! The BBC series was quite good.

This makes me wonder. There were several characters that I though were quite memorable, but I wonder if it was because I saw it on TV first.

AMDG

An additional usage of the statement (additional to the masked proposal): "'Barkis is willin'!' And, it being low water, he went out with the tide."
I find this statement and similar statements in Dickens to be meaningful. A recent biographer simply mentioned that she did not know why Dickens would occasionally be so sentimental - she thought it was simply to appeal to his sentimental audience and stay afloat as a writer [my own perhaps faulty perception of the biographer's meaning].

I believe Dickens was authentically Christian, his understanding and expression of that faith perhaps flawed, like that of so many of us.

Hooray! A Dickens post, and a very good one, at that!

As a longtime lurker on this blog, I feel moved to state: I've read Martin Chuzzlewit, and recommend it most heartily. Everyone should have the pleasure of Mark Tapley's company at least once in their lives. I would quibble slightly with putting the novel exclusively in the "innocence" category, though. While a good deal of the resolution was brought about by people besides young Martin, his experiences in America made him a much less passive character than he had been at the beginning of the book.

It seems as good a time as any to say that I have been keenly enjoying this series, and everyone's takes on authors known and unknown. I look forward to more!
-Molly

Molly, that picture at the top of your blog is wonderful--and that song for Remembrance Day. What a lovely voice.

I thought about adding Martin Chuzzlewit when I was suggesting Little Dorrit and OMF to Robert. I love that one.

AMDG

Certainly a very big part of Dickens's work is social awareness of the situations of especially children in poverty. It is probably that aspect of his work for which he is best known, and that sets him apart from his peers. Catholic themes of Social Justice and preferential option for the poor come to mind without even the introduction of religious characters in his stories.

I have the impression, and I'm not sure where I got it, that Dickens was not Christian in any doctrinal sense. It probably wouldn't be very hard to find out for sure. But whether or not that's the case, I doubt his work could have come out of a non-Christian culture. Specifically a Protestant culture, maybe.

Regarding memorable characters in Bleak House--after something close to 30 years, I remember that lawyer pretty vividly, and also the lady who neglected her family in favor of worrying about Africans.

Welcome, Molly, and thank you. And thank you, Mary, a day late.

He wrote a Life of Our Lord for his children. It was never supposed to be published, but of course, it was. I seem to remember it would pretty much support what you say, Maclin. I have it somewhere, but I don't think I've ever opened it.

AMDG

There a PDF here if anyone is interested. The introduction is rather enlightening on the question of his Christianity.

AMDG

I've always thought Dickens was at his best when he was torturing children (Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Great Expectations).

Those are the three Dickens books that made the biggest impression on me. Hard Times comes next. I read that in college ("The 19th Century English Novel - great class - I later tool "Science Fiction Literature" with the same professor (my father was indulgent)). I think Gradgrind is perhaps Dickens's best character name. Josiah Bounderby was also wonderful.

Yes, it is. Thanks. Here's a bit more at Wikipedia. The picture is a bit fuzzy but I think we can say he was more explicitly Christian than I suggested earlier, though pretty far from orthodox.

Don: ha! you have a good case for that. (My preceding comment was in reply to Janet.)

Thank you, Janet.

Okay Janet, I'll read Martin Chuzzlewit!

Great post!

I'm up to 'Dombey & Son' in the novels, reading them mostly in order, although I've read 'Great Expectations' (twice) and 'Martin Chuzzlewit' out of sequence.

Haven't run across any I haven't enjoyed so far. My least favorite has probably been 'Barnaby Rudge,' but even that was well worth reading.

On 'Pickwick,' I've told people to read it not like a Dickens novel (it was, after all, his first, and doesn't really resemble the later ones) but like you'd read a Wodehouse novel -- not for the plot, but for the set pieces and the banter. From that approach it works beautifully.

For years I've read either 'A Christmas Carol,' 'Cricket on the Hearth,' or 'The Chimes' every Christmas. I think I've read each of them either three or four times at this point.

Oh, and Peter Ackroyd's biography of Dickens is definitely worth a go. It's huge, but excellent. I think there was actually a mini-series made out of it.

I'm amazed how many of you are big Dickens fans! Out in the real world they seem very few and far between, and having worked at several colleges his works will hardly appear on syllabuses any more, unless it is a highly specialized Victorian or Dickens course. But the bookstores keep stocked with the popular titles, so someone must be reading Dickens! I have the Claire Tomalin biography at home, along with another recent book titled Becoming Dickens. I've only read parts of these because I tend to drift back to the novels instead ... I have a tough time doing more than perusing non-fiction.

I was horrified when the syllabus for my B.Lit II class included no Dickens--or Austen.

My granddaughter read all the Dickens in the library--which was probably all of it--by the time she was 14.

AMDG

I have not read as many as some of you seem to have: Great Expectations (3x), David Copperfield (2x), Bleak House, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, A Tale of Two Cities, and I am within shouting distance of the end of The Pickwick Papers. Obviously the first two are favorites and sometimes I find it easier to go back to one I love rather than forge ahead to new ground. Rob G is correct about Pickwick - it is quite fun, and its episodic nature does really seem to take the pressure off attempting to remember every single character that comes around ... there are a lot of them!

No memorable characters in Bleak House? The main characters are not so memorable, but the Turveydrops, Jo the crossing sweeper, Mr George the combat instructor, Tulkinghorn, Guppy, Vholes? I think Skimpole made the biggest impression on me the first time I read it.

The trick to getting the most out of the sentimental passages in Dickens is to read them after a couple of glasses of port.

Mark Tapley in Martin Chuzzlewit reminded me very much of Sam Gamgee. The only other character I remember is the nurse, Mrs Gamp, who is a very minor character but quite unforgettably grotesque.

I'm another who has read only portions of Dickens' massive output. My favourite is "David Copperfield", followed by "Bleak House". I am also fond of the early books, especially "Nicholas Nickleby" and "Pickwick Papers" (which is the only one I've read twice). I'm about to begin "Dombey and Son".

Rob G mentioned Peter Ackroyd's biography. A few years ago I wrote about that book (and Chesterton's wonderful book on Dickens) at my blog: here. It's a rather long blog post -- but not as long as a Dickens novel!

I really want to read Chesterton on Dickens, but I feel like I can't do it until I've read all of Dickens. Which means it's going to be a while.

I'm always shocked when I'm reminded that Dickens was only 58 when he died. From what I hear it's a real shame that he didn't finish The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Thank you kindly for the welcome, Mac. Always a very heartening place to spend time, here! (I was also going to say a very educational place, but the phrase makes it sound more like utility and less like the delight that it is.)

Janet--I am touched that you liked that photo. If you find yourself wanting too much information, it's somewhere along the east side of California Highway 223 on a winter day. I grew up a bit on the other side of Bear Mountain, whose feet are barely showing there. And as for "Home, Lads," I'm delighted you had a listen. I still think it's one of the most striking things I ever heard myself--that voice does the overall effect no harm, to be sure!

Thanks for posting the link to Dickens' "Life of Our Lord." I don't know if I will ever bring myself to read it, but I did appreciate the introduction in regard to his thoughts on religion.

Rob G--It was just in the last year or so that I, too, formed an ambition to read Dickens in chronological order. I got a bit sidetracked from "Sketches by Boz," and so am over-late in reaching "Pickwick," but your advice on reading it a la Wodehouse will be most helpful when I get there at last!

Paul--A hearty, "Yes, exactly," to pretty much everything you just said (port included, and hooray for Mr. George). I am a bit nonplussed by never having made (or at least don't remember making) any connection between Mark Tapley and Sam Gamgee, but when you put it that way, I suddenly understand my fondness for the former a good deal better than before! (Probably like most of my generation, I read "LotR" long, long before "Martin Chuzzlewit.")

Craig--Thanks for the link to your blog post. About one quote in, and you'd convinced me that Chesterton's book on Dickens (which has been sitting on my shelf a decade and more) can't be opened fast enough. But even that aside, that was a most intoxicating overview of Dickens' career and legacy. The quotes may have come from Chesterton, but the way you distilled them was quite a good read. I particularly appreciated your presentation of Chesterton's insight about people who do not like Dickens because they're used to an exaggeration of the darker side of things.

From Craig's piece: " (in Ackroyd’s words) “the richest gallery of fictional characters ever to have issued from the imagination of one man.”

Strong words, and I hesitate to agree because there's an awful lot of fiction I haven't read, but it certainly holds true to the extent of my knowledge.

Yes, that is a very nice picture, Molly. Also a pretty impressive "Kansas City Hornpipe."

I'll still read his books, but I am sadly turned off Dickens now that I know something about his marriage situation. :(

"The trick to getting the most out of the sentimental passages in Dickens is to read them after a couple of glasses of port."

That's the way to do it!

I have read DC, NN, GE, ToTC, Hard Times, and OT. I think that's it. Really, I loved them all except GE.

I've seen Bleak House and Little Dorrit on TV. Really liked them.

"I was also going to say a very educational place, but the phrase makes it sound more like utility and less like the delight that it is."

Well said, Molly. I think most of us love it here. :)

El Gaucho, if I'm not mistaken we've read the same ones!

It's funny, Molly, that field in CA looks just like the area in Mississippi where I live.

AMDG

About Dickens' marital problems: it is true that he was estranged from his wife, Catherine, after twenty years of marriage -- and ten children!. They were (legally) separated.

Dickens then developed an enigmatic relationship with Ellen Ternan, a much younger woman. Many have assumed that this was an "affair" in the standard sense, but in fact we know relatively little about it. In his biography Peter Ackroyd argues that it was probably -- or at least plausibly, given Dickens' moral views -- never a sexual relationship. I myself don't know what to think.

Many thanks for your kind words, Molly.

By the way, Craig, I'm somewhere between 100 and 150 pages into Doctor Faustus and *really* liking it.

I'm really glad to hear that, Mac. When someone takes up a book on my recommendation it is always a somewhat solemn moment for me, because I realize what a significant time investment it is. May your enjoyment only increase!

I guess my question at some point would be, "Is there a lesser?"

AMDG

Darn. Wrong place again.

AMDG

There is a movie starring Ralph Fiennes as Dickens about when he meets the younger woman. It was quite good - Fiennes may even have directed it. The Other Woman it might be called? Geez, I sound like Yoda.

The Invisible Woman - and Fiennes did direct it.

Based on a book by Claire Tomalin, who also penned a biography of Dickens.

Thank you all for responding to my post; it has helped to make my week so fun! As always, I look forward to reading the next post.

It's been very enjoyable. As for the next post...um....

Is there not one lined up for Sunday?

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