Dickens!

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…
I have been reading Charles Dickens for quite a while. I started with A Tale of Two Cities at some point in the 20th century. My mum had an old copy published in the 1950s, I think.

It was kind of weird, since it was my first classic. It took a while to get into the language and the fact people took a page to ask for something simple. There were paragraphs that went on forever. Characters would say things like, “My G–!” and it would be written blanked out just like that. But there was enough there that I wanted to read more.

It wasn’t until 2011 or so when I joined Goodreads and started putting together a TBR list that I decided I was going to read all of Dickens, but I didn’t really make a conscious decision to do it until I found his complete works on Kindle and realised how many I’d already finished. Physical shelf space is an issue when you’re talking about someone who wrote fourteen beefy novels, after all.

So I can’t tell you exactly when I started; I can’t tell you when I decided to go through the whole works; But I can tell you I finished his novels with The Pickwick Papers on the 8th September 2019 at about 1:00PM.

And that’s just his novels – I still have his short stories to go through.

So who was this guy?

I know a bit about Dickens. I know his dad was thrown in prison for debt, and Chuck had to go work at a seriously menial job pasting labels on jars for a while at the age of twelve. Prisons, debt and the lives of the poor run through his stories and his strongest writing is there. He knows the dankness and the dregs of London intimately. He can’t write a female character to save his life.

I know he wasn’t above ditching a plot when it wasn’t working. He sold books in serial form to a specific word count every month, and if his sales dropped one month, he was on it instantly. There are times when plot follows plot until the public got something they liked.

At the bottom of it all is a man who feels like he was in it for the money. He never forgot the public was paying the bills, and wasn’t above toadying to them when they didn’t like what was going on. None of this “write for yourself” for Charlie.

And if his word count was down for the month, he had no hesitation slapping in filler. Oh, so, so much filler! I’ve read a chapter that was nothing more but the description of an inn. For a whole ten pages!

Was it worth it?

Of his fourteen novels, the ones that stand out are the ones most people have heard of: David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations. To that list I’d add Hard Times, which is one I think slips by most people and which surprised me. If you want to experience Dickens, you could read those and call it good.

Avoid Barnaby Rudge and Martin Chuzzlewit. Oliver Twist I can take or leave – there’s an awfully contrived coincidence which is really hard to swallow. The same with Nicholas Nickelby…there’s a lot of filler there.

Charlie was a Victorian, so don’t expect anything from his women but fainting spells and fits (Read Wilkie Collins if you want kick ass Victorian women). His villains are a melodramatic bunch, of course. And since he’s a Victorian, happy endings are a guarantee.

In the end though, I have cried and I have laughed with the characters he created.

I’d call that time well spent.

Have you ever worked your way through an entire authors works? Let me know!

Review: The Pickwick Papers

 

1/5

 

 

“Being an account of the Pickwick Club”, of Victorian London. (Actually, slightly before Victoria. This was written in 1836, and she didn’t reign until 1837).

I’m glad I didn’t start with this one.

Phew. This was the last Dickens novel I had to read before I finished his fourteen novels…and what a drag it was. I’m glad I didn’t start with this one or I would have lost interest much quicker.

For the first third of the book, Dickens isn’t doing much more than transcribing stories he’s heard or has written down from other people. The book goes like this: Mr Pickwick (or his friends) go somewhere by coach. They meet someone. Someone tells them a story. Repeat for the first dozen chapters.

Perhaps that’s the problem: A lot of this doesn’t feel like his story. There was little through line or plot development to interest me.

There are flashes here and there of what he could accomplish.

I’d seen reviews where it said the story does get better as it goes along, and to be fair it does. But not by much. Dickens stretches his literary muscles and writes for a few chapters about his favourite topic – the poor and the mired in debt. There are flashes here and there of what he could accomplish: brilliant descriptive passages of rainy and foggy London streets, rural coach rides through August fields. There’s some nice wordplay with names – a doctor called Nockemorff (knock-em-off. It took me a while!) and a man called Smorltork (Which sounds like something IKEA might sell to me).

But it’s butter spread too lightly on a thin toast. If you ever feel like working your way through Dickens, start with Oliver Twist and then come back to this one.

Next post: Dickens. Was it worth it?

Do you have a favourite Dickens or classic author? Let me know!

 

Review: Little Dorrit

3/5

 

 

Returning from a long trip in India, Arthur Clennam finds his pious mother as unfeeling and callous as when he left her. Seeking to balance her selfishness with acts of charity, he notices that his mother takes an out-of-character interest in a maid: Amy Dorrit. Arthur decides to get to know the Dorrits and their sad history better…

The story of the Dorrits didn’t seem enough to keep the thing going for eight hundred pages

About a third of the way through this, I was curious as to how Dickens was going to keep me interested. The story of the Dorrits didn’t seem enough to keep the thing going for eight hundred pages, and I was beginning to lose interest. He seemed to have felt the same thing, and introduces a whole raft of intertwining subplots. In fact, in some places, the subplots are the plot. For the first half of the book, the Dorrits rot in Marshalsea debtor’s prison while these subplots mostly run the show (A historical aside: Dicken’s father was put in Marshalsea when Charlie was twelve).

The second part of the story is where these plots start to come together. The Dorrits are released with much fanfare and a small fortune, and re-invent themselves by denying their past. Arthur is estranged from them and investigates a strange Frenchman hanging round his mother’s home, which brings about the final, amazingly convoluted twist to the story.

The whole theme of the novel is one of deception and lies and even self-deception. Arthur revisits his old girlfriend, and discovers she’s become fat (and therefore unattractive!) and fatuous. Deciding to throw in the towel in the love department, Arthur hardens his heart to falling in love again. Which he promptly does with his friend’s daughter, then spends a few chapters agonisingly denying it to himself when she falls for someone else.

Dorrit senior lies to himself and resists acknowledging that’s he’s come from a debtor’s prison when he’s released. And even when he was there, he relished being “Father of the prison” and people giving him money as though he were important.

Casby, supposedly a genial and friendly guy, is a money grubbing fraud, and his agent turns out to be a decent and honest man. Flora, Arthur’s old girlfriend (she cannot take a breath when she talks!), turns out to be compassionate and friendly. Merdle, a man whose investments cannot go wrong, is a financial fraudster.

The more obvious villains, such as they are, are intense and sociopathic. Miss Wade, who casts any act of kindness as manipulation and replies with malice. Rigaud kills a dog merely because it threatened to bite him and sneers and sings and clicks his fingers through the story. Added to this is Arthur’s mother, a wooden ruler of a woman, upright and rigid, unfeeling and unbending.

They’re a nasty bunch, but are they any worse than the Meagles, whose spoilt daughter abuses their maid? The Meagles who won’t call the maid by her name, and only tell her to count ten when she’s angry, rather than listen to her? Are they worse than Dorrit’s eldest daughter, who marries a man solely to annoy his mother?

Thank goodness our governments are so more efficient these days

Woven into the story is a long diatribe at British efficiency: The Circumlocution Office. Any progress in England must be passed through this engine of uselessness. To quote Douglas Adams, things are “signed in triplicate, sent in, sent back, queried, lost, found, subjected to public inquiry, lost again, and finally buried in soft peat for three months and recycled as firelighters.” Thank goodness our governments are so more efficient these days, or where would we be? Even here, the lie that this department is necessary is believed by all to be the truth.

At the back of all this drama and deceit there stands a small figure: Little Dorrit. Alone in the Dorrit household, she remains as untouched by the sudden wealth they acquire as she was untouched by their Marshelsea debts. Tireless and selfless, she works to bring her father food, to find a job for her spoilt sister and wastrel of a brother. She does not complain, she does not falter. She is one of the toughest characters ever to have graced the pages of a book.

And since this is a Victorian novel, her reward for this is to marry Arthur. For what else would a woman want or need?