editions: Penguin Clothbound Hardcover
A Tale of Two Cities – 3.5 out of 5, 1/12-1/22
Hard Times – 4 out of 5, 4/9-4/13
Great Expectations – 4 out of 5, 7/13-7/22
Oliver Twist – 3.5 out of 5, 9/17-9/25
Bleak House – 4.5 out of 5, 11/22-12/8
A Christmas Carol and Other Christmas Writings – 4 out of 5, 12/23-12/25
How I made it to the year 2012 without reading a single complete work of Charles Dickens is sort of a mystery to me. I mean, I took an English degree at a prestigious college and had excellent English teachers in high school. But the strangest thing is, I don’t even recall reading even an abridged book as a kid. I remember my aunt buying me one of those Penguin Abridged copies of Great Expectations – the cover had this ridiculous painting of Pip – in Boston as a kid… but I’m almost positive that I never actually read it. I think my only real encounters with the stories from front to back might’ve come from Wishbone – that and an aborted attempt to read Our Mutual Friend during a class in college (to my credit, I did make it about halfway through before falling behind and tossing it aside due to theater, girls, pleasure reading, and being generally a college senior).
And I realized that this was actually kind of embarrassing.
But when I saw the brilliant Coralie Bickford-Smith box set from Penguin – the Major Works of Charles Dickens – I realized that I had the perfect opportunity to close this gap in my literary knowledge. Plus, it was Dickens’ 200th Birthday this past year and so what better time than the present to come to some kind of terms with the man some call the greatest novelist of all time.
The books that make up this box were all (but one) familiar to me in one way or another. Indeed, Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol are stories that I felt as though I had already read – that’s how well known the plots and characters were. A Tale of Two Cities has one of the most instantly recognizable opening (and closing, for that matter) lines in all of literature, Bleak House has been recommended to me as Dickens’ best work, I knew Great Expectations‘ Miss Havisham from the Thursday Next novels… It was only Hard Times that I’d never heard of – I wondered why David Copperfield or even Edwin Drood hadn’t made the cut, but I liked the option of having a bit of depth in my quest.
I opted to start with A Tale of Two Cities because it seemed, in a sort of logical way and from what I knew about the story, to be the one I’d like best. After all, political derring-do during the Terror? London, Paris, spies, death-defying escapes – with also quite a bit of social commentary? Sounds brilliant. But I found that I had a hard time – Dickens’ writing, while certainly full of wit and life, was also difficult to get used to. It’s like the first couple times you read Shakespeare: you have to acclimate. As a result, though, I was already a little worried. Would I really be able to make it through this project? How could I be taken seriously as a reader or as a cultured human being if I said I didn’t like Dickens? (ed. note – not that I’m saying you’re a bad person if you dislike him, but don’t you get that sense that people are like “whaaaat?” if you say you don’t like Dickens?)
Luckily, and somewhat surprisingly, Hard Times came along and assuaged my fears. I found myself laughing aloud – heartily – and tearing through the book. I did a little research and discovered that Dickens was at his angriest here and it showed: his writing was lazer-sharp in focus and the social commentary was crystal-clear. But mostly, I was shocked to find out how funny he was as a writer. Sure, there were humorous moments in Two Cities and I never expected him to be dry, but the humor brought a certain amount of lightness that I’d missed earlier.
The ensuing two books (Great Expectations and Oliver Twist) felt in some ways much the same: I was comfortable reading Dickens because I’d found my way in (via the humor and anger in Hard Times). It was a delight to finally meet Miss Havisham and see where our dear Thursday’s mentor got her start and actually reading Oliver Twist set me to thinking how certain stories transcend their origins to become engrained in our culture – but how they change during that process, shifting to fit the times (in this case, way less anti-Semitism…). I didn’t love Twist but I think that had more to do with the overly caricature-y characters, especially in light of the fact that I knew, by that point, that Dickens could do better. And the story was a little meh, since I suppose (culture touchstone and all) that I already knew it.
Then came the big one: Bleak House. I was nervous going in, delayed picking it up for a while even (although there were some personal/societal reasons behind that too: October Country and all). And when I did, I was gripped by it, I have to say! But I was also frustrated by it. Such a massive, sprawling text is daunting to any reader and I found myself wishing (not for the first time) that I could’ve had the time (or, indeed, mental stamina) to read it serially as it had first been published. It’s the sort of book that I think would maybe almost be better served by a lengthy immersion – so that the story unfolds at the stately pace Dickens intended.
That said, I also read the last… 150? ish? pages in a beautiful bedroom in Boston one early gray morning in November and absolutely just trucked through it. So having the time, I suppose, might’ve been all that I needed. Either way, I was bowled over by the book: it’s funny, sad, smart, angry, triumphant, not to mention absolutely insane. A guy spontaneously combusts! I know I made a big deal out of that in the review proper, but… A GUY SPONTANEOUSLY COMBUSTS. Insanity!
So, frankly, A Christmas Carol and Other Christmas Writings was a bit of a letdown after that. I read it on Christmas and realized that I’d much rather be watching A Muppet Christmas Carol. It was that moment – the writing was still great and Dickens clearly loved the season – that brought me back to that realization that some texts have so firmly entered our collective consciousness that the books… well, they’ll never live up not to the film but to the synthesized human experience of the story. Doesn’t matter how amazing the writing is (and, come on: “Marley was dead, to begin with.” is an amazing opening salvo) – the story has become bigger than the book that birthed it. Same thing with Twist, too.
Conclusion: The thing is, Dickens truly is as great as everyone says. His ability to create characters and place them into the world is I daresay unparalleled. And he’s funny! My god, I never ever expected him to be so funny and yet I laughed, out loud, at just about every single book several times. Can he be a little tough to handle at times? Yes. He writes… let’s call it patiently. But if you have the time to commit to it, you can immerse yourself in some truly exceptional storytelling. Then again, some of those stories have become so much a part of humanity that you already know the stories – and, in the modern age, you might be better off with those versions than the originals. This is not to say anything remotely like they “haven’t aged well” or anything like that – but, as I said earlier, they’ve simply become something more. But it is a testament to Dickens’ enduring power as a storyteller that they managed to become so – for if they hadn’t struck such rich chords inside readers, they never would’ve transcended their humble novelistic beginnings.