I have endeavored in this ghastly little blog, to raise a ghastly idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season or with me. For the past 18 months I have been reading the works of Charles Dickens in chronological order. It is as much for my own reference that I am keeping a note of each book. I feel it to be necessary as each Dickens novel tends to be quite lengthy and contains a multitude of characters. Many of the reviews are nearly identical to those I posted to Goodreads.com
The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (The Pickwick Papers)
Charles Dickens’ first work was serialized over 18 months and as such does not read like one continuous piece of work. Also bear in mind that Dickens was paid by the word, something he took full advantage of as can be experienced through his propensity for verbosity.
Dickens’ first novel is full of the ‘joie de vivre’ one would expect from a young novelist. Dickens had been publishing his work prior to this under the name Boz. There is a fun, carefree, at times irreverent feel to The Pickwick Papers, whilst at the same time it introduces readers to Dickens’ style for detailed character development. The Pickwick Papers provides us with many glimpses of the characters and situations that would go on to form the basis for a number of Dickens’ future novels, in particular the formation of the idea which would later become A Christmas Carol. Indeed you really get the chance to appreciate what an accomplished writer of Gothic, Dark Romanticism he could be when he turned his hand to it.
The reader will at times see obvious similarities between Cervantes Don Quixote and his servant Sancho Panza and Dickens’ quixotic Pickwick and his ever faithful servant Weller.
It is a beautiful book, free from the stresses and depravity of Dickens’ later novels, it was the ideal novel from which Charles Dickens would start his literary career in earnest. It is difficult to imagine that he would have been able to capture the public’s imagination so successfully if Hard Times or The Old Curiosity Shop were his first novel.
The Pickwick Papers is quite an epic but it is an excellent place from which to start reading Dickens’ work. It contains all of Dickens’ stylistic nuances at their least developed stage. It also imbues the reader with Dickens’ sense of humour, which although difficult, can be found in most of his subsequent stories.
Oliver Twist – The Parish Boy’s Progress
One of Dickens’ most famous novels, Oliver Twist was published in 24 monthly installments between February 1837 and April 1839.
Oliver Twist has none of the feel good factor or irreverence of his previous work The Pickwick Papers. In Oliver Twist Dickens introduces us to the two themes that would continue to be his muses for much of his subsequent work, poverty, and cruelty to children. These two themes are never going to be uplifting, but it is Dickens’ ability to make you feel the dirt, to choke on the smell of the smog filled skies of Victorian England, that makes this story oppressive and miserable. Forget your musical adaptation where hunger can’t get in the way of a right good cockney knees up. Dickens has no place for this, instead he takes you into the soft belly of the Victorian London underworld and it’s not a pretty place and it’s a particularly dangerous time. Dickens applies a particularly unromantic portrayal of the criminals and their sordid lives. The appropriately named Bill Sykes will linger long in the readers memory, and of course Fagin, one of Dickens’ most famous characters.
The scale of Dickens’ genius can be experienced in chapter 52 in which he creates an atmosphere of such heavy, claustrophobic fear that you struggle for breath through each sentence.
Oliver Twist followed on from the commercial success of The Pickwick Papers and established Dickens’ and his now burgeoning popularity.
The Old Curiosity Shop
Is an odd and curious tale.
As with most of Dickens’ work this was serialized weekly from April 1840 up to February 1841. Not unlike the main characters, the story also ambles about leaving you feeling lost and with little sense of direction. Please don’t misunderstand me this is still a sublime piece of literature, just it doesn’t compare favourably against his other works (to date I have read The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, Hard Times and A Christmas Carol).
As was Dickens’ forte The Old Curiosity Shop contains some of literature’s richest, most well developed characters as well as some sublime narrative. One memorable line being:
“the shop sold goods only poverty could buy”
I love this line, it is so simple yet infers so much meaning and it is unusual for Dickens to be so economical with his words.
Interesting background to the writing of this work is that the younger sister of Dickens’ wife died just before he started. Apparently she lived with Dickens and his wife and he was left devastated by her death (make of that what you will) and this could have had a considerable influence in his writing this story.
If your looking to get into Dickens do not start here.
A leviathan of a novel published monthly from April 1838 until October 1839. Again focusing on the vulnerability and exploitation of children. Nicholas becomes vulnerable upon the death of his father when his care passes into the hands of his paternal uncle. In true Dicken’s fashion the man is a self serving brute.
Despite Dickens’ opinion it is often said that Nicholas Nickleby is a ‘Newgate’ novel. This genre of novel was keen to the sentimental romanticizing of its villains. This was a theme common through the works of a number of his contemporaries.
Whilst largely criticized there is one part of the book that consistently receive high praise, and that is when the story enters the setting of the theatre. Dickens was very familiar with the theatre and used all his experience and knowledge to dispense his rich narrative. Dickens gets full use out of the characters he introduces in the theatre, highlighting their absurdities, their vanities and their egotism.
The criticism that is consistently leveled at this novel is that the characters are underdeveloped by Dickens’ standards, which given the length of the book does not seem possible.
It might not be Dickens’ best work but still remains an entertaining read.
Barnaby Rudge is Charles Dickens’ fifth novel and was his first historical work (A Tale of Two Cities to come later). It maybe the least known and least successful of his books, but it offers a refreshing change to his previous works.
Dickens originally had the idea for the story in 1836, began work on it in 1838, and then published it as a weekly serial in Master Humphrey’s Clock during 1841. The idea was that this story would reinvigorate flagging sales of the periodical, however it did the opposite, from its first publication in April 1841, to its conclusion in November sales of Dickens’ weekly periodical fell 50% during the course of the publication of Barnaby Rudge. It is fair to say that the novel never captured the imagination of the public in Dickens’ time and has failed to do so from thereon.
One reason for which Barnaby Rudge is often criticized is that it takes an inexplicable five year break in the middle of the story. Edgar Allan Poe offered this criticism:
‘The train of events is, so far, uninterrupted — nor is there any apparent need of interruption — yet all the characters are now thrown forward for a period of five years. And why? We ask in vain. It is not to bestow upon the lovers a more decorous maturity of age — for this is the only possible idea which suggests itself.”
An interesting aside is that it was quite likely this book was an inspiration to Poe’s writing of the poem The Raven.
While it is without reason that there is a five year hiatus in the story, I cannot believe that this is the sole reason for its lack of success. For me the first half meanders without purpose, I had little idea as to who the story was about, for even our eponymous hero features rarely in the first three hundred pages. The first half wanders aimlessly furnishing us with the bitterness that exists between certain characters. After jumping five years into the future the story becomes a lot more focused set against the back drop of the Gordon Riots of 1780. I had never heard of them either and I’m British. In a nutshell these were anti-catholic riots in reaction to Catholics being allowed to own land through the Papists Act 1778. Until this book I knew nothing of this, and these riots were huge only ended with the deployment of the army onto the streets and shooting large numbers of people.
After the disappointment of the first half, Dickens in my opinion offers us some of his greatest writing. His ability to describe the nature of the riots, the violence of the mob and the destruction caused is terrifying, he then lets us go inside Aldgate prison and await the death sentence with some of the prisoners. Dickens is quite critical of the use of capital punishment. And this seems to be an extension of the Chapter in Oliver Twist where Fagin awaits the same fate.
It is an odd book but the second half is an outstanding piece of literature and is worth the awkward first half. The fact that it is set against such an interesting time in English history gives it an extra dimension from which it can be appreciated.
Martin Chuzzlewit was Charles Dickens’ sixth novel and was published monthly from January 1843 until July 1844. Martin Chuzzlewit follows on from Barnaby Rudge, Dickens’ least commercially successful work, and the much criticized Nicholas Nickleby. Perhaps following the lack of great success of his previous two books, Martin Chuzzlewit was also not particularly well received and remains one of his lesser known stories.
Dickens wrote Martin Chuzzlewit on his return from the Americas which provided him with much inspiration. At one stage the story is set on both sides of the Atlantic, giving Dickens the opportunity to air some of his opinions concerning the early United States of America.
Described by Dickens himself as being his best work and from what I have read I would have to agree. Martin Chuzzlewit gets Dickens back to doing what Dickens does best. With over twenty finely developed characters and three main settings Dickens is empowered to use his best narrative. Whether describing fabulous landscapes on beautiful days or describing the depths of darkness in a murderer’s conscience, Martin Chuzzlewit is filled with awe inspiring passages of text.
Out of all the novels he had written thus far this provides us with our greatest appreciation of Dickens’ insight into the human condition. For this story is essentially about the human character and why people are who they are, and why they end up doing what they do. Throughout the story we see characters fall into acts of immorality for greed, we see characters maintain high moral standards while all the odds are stacked against them, and some characters reflect upon their former self and make an effort to make amends. Dickens made a conscious effort to focus on selfishness and in particular the effects selfishness can have within a family. In any of Dickens’ books those with the high morals are seldom those with the money, for the end of the romantic period this was still bold as nearly all prior literature focused on the lives of the wealthy.
Perhaps more than in any other of Dickens’ previous work you feel the pattern of how it was the serialized. Chapters start with two to three pages of narrative before characters start to speak or interact with one another. This can be a little frustrating but then that narrative is so good you probably won’t care.
And what of love? Dickens covers the emotional spectrum with his narratives on the virtues of love which are simply sublime.
Martin Chuzzlewit is a fantastic roller coaster of a novel and perhaps the finest example of the literary skills of Charles Dickens.