It’s Complicated: My Relationship with Dickens

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Happy birthday you old fool! In the past decade I’ve read half a dozen of Dickens’ books and I’ve had a mixed reaction to most of his work. I liked the first two I read, A Christmas Carol and A Tale of Two Cities. Then I read Oliver Twist and was not a fan at all.

The next time I read Dickens I was a little nervous. What if I hated it and it put me off of his work entirely? So I read Great Expectations in 2010 with some high expectations of my own and I officially fell in love. The book was just wonderful! With unforgettable characters like Miss Havisham and a wonderfully twisty plot I was in heaven. A book that lovely would be hard to top, but the very next one I read, David Copperfield, quickly became my favorite.

Now I haven’t loved everything Dickens wrote, but I’ve learned to appreciate his unique style and expect certain things. He will inevitably shove the book full of quirky characters. He’s got a serious problem with debtors’ prison because his own father ended up there. He will drone on unnecessarily about certain things and you just have to go with it. But despite or perhaps because of all that, his books are unlike any others.

It's incredible that some of his characters, stories and opening lines have become so ingrained in our culture that we don't even think of their origin anymore. Think of, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..." or Oliver Twist asking for more gruel or Scrooge's redemption! For an author to have one book that is that well known is a great feat; to have a dozen is truly something. 

So in the end I fall firmly in the fan section of Dickens’ work. Like most authors, some of his books are stronger than others, some resonate more with me personally, but overall his talent is undeniable. I will continue to pick a new Dickens novel every single year to curl up with. When I run out of new ones I’ll just have to go back and re-read my favorites.

In honor of Dickens' birthday this month I'm reading Dombey and Son. Fanda is hosting a Celebrating Dickens event and you can get the details here. If you have any Dickens books or movies you've been meaning to get to I hope you'll join in!

A few thoughts on his books...

Images from here and here


Amy said...

I haven't read Oliver Twist, but what was it you didn't like about it? Do you think that you'd like it better now if you read it again, now that, as you said you "appreciate his unique style and expect certain things"? Happy Birthday, Dickens!

Caro said...

Hee. I love the opening to this letter. I'm so glad to meet more Dickens fans - especially if they love Great Expectations! It's such a wonderful book, I really need to reread it soon.

(Also: hi! I'm Caro. :) )

Nikki Steele said...

I'm always just so amazed that he managed to write all these novels, one, but also that he wrote most in serial form. Working on one now, I couldn't imagine not having a chance to rewrite or to hear feedback before it was finished (besides, of course, the crazy pace). Dickens is quite a treasure.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Amy - For me it just fell flat. Oliver was just too good and horrible things kept happening to him. It didn't have the same depth of some of his other novels with flawed characters. I did love Fagin as a character though. I do think I would appreciate it more if I re-read it, because I've grown to love Dickens, but I don't think it's a good place to start with his work.

Caro - I will always adore Great Expectations because it was the book that made me love Dickens. I can't wait to re-read it!

Nikki - I know! He was incredibly prolific. I think people forget he wrote in serial form and was paid by the word. If you think about that it's a lot easier to understand why his books were always so long!

Jeanne said...

Have you ever seen the musical Oliver? I wonder if you would like it better or hate it even worse, as it's more sentimental (a good trick).
At the Dickens Museum northwest of Chicago, they had an exhibit of how Dickens influenced Christmas celebrations, which is another thing we don't always think of coming from his books.

Sandy Nawrot said...

I have not read ONE THING by Dickens. I actually got Great Expectations on audio but it wasn't programmed right and I couldn't upload it. Blah.

Fanda Classiclit said...

I found too that Oliver Twist did not weigh as much as other Dickens' books. I can't find a strong quality in Oliver's personalities, other than being gentle, kind and pitiable. It feels like I'm reading tales from my childhood where everything is 'too good to be true'!

Ellie said...

I actually gave up on Oliver Twist halfway through. After reading Great Expectations and David Copperfield I was expecting great things but it really fell flat for me. I'll go back to it one day. For now, I'm cracking on with Edwin Drood. I hope you enjoy Dombey and Son.

Anonymous said...

I haven't read Dickens since high school, and I was no fan of his work back then. I wonder if I would have a different reaction now. Hmmm.

Selah said...

I love Dickens! I haven't read everything but my favorites, so far, are A Tale of Two Cities and David Copperfield. Have you seen the Masterpiece Classic of David Copperfield? It has a very young Daniel Radcliffe as young David and the superb Maggie Smith as Aunt Betsey Trotwood. She was, by far, my favorite character in both the book and the film.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Jeanne - I've seen the movie version of the musical. It was ok, but I didn't love it. I would love to check out that Chicago exhibit though!

Sandy - I think you'd enjoy an audio version of Great Expectations. It's more focused and shorter than some of his others.

Fanda - I had a similar reaction. Maybe I would have liked it if I'd read it when I was younger.

Ellie - Exactly! At least I read Oliver before G.E. and D.C., otherwise I probably wouldn't have made it through it.

misfortuneofknowing - I bet you might like him better now!

Selah - I have seen the Masterpiece David Copperfield! It was so well done, I loved it!

Joanna Hennon said...

I've always been a bit scared of Dickens but read A Christmas Carol in December and really liked it. Then I read that Joss Whedon, the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which I think is amazing, loves Dickens and that there are many similarities between their writing. Maybe february is the time to read something more then!

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Joanna - I hadn't heard that about Joss, but I can definitely see that! I'd suggest Great Expectations as a good starting point.

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