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What’s your favourite Charles Dickens novel?

September 25, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens, in contemplative pose. Which is your favourite Dickens? Photograph: Hulton Archive

We’re on the hunt for our readers’ favourite Dickens novel. We’ve asked a line-up of distinguished Dickens enthusiasts for their opinons. See which ones William BoydSimon CallowKathryn HughesJohn Mullan,Michel FaberDJ TaylorRobert Douglas-Fairhurst and Philip Hensherlike best. Or listen to our books podcast to hear from Colin Thubron, Andrew O’Hagan and Malorie Blackman, among others. Now it’s over to you – vote in our poll and have your say in the comments.

 7.4% A Christmas Carol
 8.2% A Tale of Two Cities
 0.8% Barnaby Rudge
 18.6% Bleak House
 10% David Copperfield
 1.7% Dombey and Son
 25.2% Great Expectations
 2.9% Hard Times
 3.3% Little Dorrit
 7.6% Our Mutual Friend
 4.6% Oliver Twist
 1.3% Martin Chuzzlewit
 1.8% Nicholas Nickleby
 0.9% The Mystery of Edwin Drood
 1.3% The Old Curiosity Shop
 4.4% The Pickwick Papers

Great Expectations

Robert Douglas-Fairhurst

  • Jean Simmons, Martita Hunt and Anthony Wager in David Lean's 1946 Great Expectations

Jean Simmons, Martita Hunt and Anthony Wager in David Lean’s 1946 Great Expectations. Photograph: Allstar

Great Expectations (weekly serial, December 1860-August 1861)

According to George Orwell, the biggest problem with Dickens is that he simply doesn’t know when to stop. Every sentence seems to be on the point of curling into a joke; characters are forever spawning a host of eccentric offspring. “His imagination overwhelms everything,” Orwell sniffed, “like a kind of weed.”

That’s hardly an accusation that could be levelled against Great Expectations. If some of Dickens’s novels sprawl luxuriously across the page, this one is as trim as a whippet. Touch any part of it and the whole structure quivers into life. In Chapter 1, for example, Pip recalls watching Magwitch pick his way through the graveyard brambles, “as if he were eluding the hands of the dead people, stretching up cautiously out of their graves, to get a twist upon his ankle and pull him in”. Not until the final chapters do we realise why Pip is so haunted by the convict’s apparent reluctance to stay above ground, but already the novel’s key narrative method has been established. To open Great Expectations is to enter a world in which events are often caught only out of the corner of the narrator’s eye. It is a world of hints and glimpses, of bodies disappearing behind corners and leaving only their shadows behind. Whichever of Dickens’s two endings is chosen, it’s hard to finish the last page without thinking of how much remains to be said. Of course, none of this occurred to me when I first read Great Expectations as a child. In the 1980s this story of class mobility and get-rich-quick ambition resonated with all the force of a modern parable. The revelation that there was another story behind the one I was enjoying was as much a shock to me as it is to Pip, but that only increased my admiration for a novelist who treats his plot rather as Jaggers treats Miss Havisham in her wheelchair, using one hand to push her ahead while putting “the other in his trousers-pocket as if the pocket were full of secrets”.

I suspect that’s one reason why Great Expectations is such a popular novel. Readers grow up with it. It’s probably also why so many of them sympathise with Pip, whose narrative voice involves the perspective of a wide-eyed child coming up against that of his wiser, sadder adult self. Anyone who first reads the story as a child and returns to it in later years is likely to feel a similar mixture of nostalgia and relief. But it isn’t only individual readers who have grown up with Great Expectations. Our culture has too. Dickens once claimed that David Copperfield was his “favourite child” and that Great Expectations was a close second. It’s no coincidence that both novels are about how easily children can be warped or damaged, but of the two it is the shorter, sharper Great Expectations that has aged better.

Few works of fiction have enjoyed such a lively creative aftermath. Peter Carey has rewritten it in Jack Maggs. Television shows from The Twilight Zone to South Park have echoed it in ways that range from loving homage to finger-poking parody. Even the title has settled in the public consciousness, with shops such as “Grape Expectations” (wine) and “Baked Expectations” (cakes). It’s hard not to be fond of a novel that so perfectly reflects its author’s restless, rummaging imagination.


 Sketches by Boz

by DJ Taylor

Caricature of Charles Dickens, 1868

Caricature of Charles Dickens, 1868. Photograph: Leonard De Selva/CORBIS

Sketches by Boz (1833-1836)

Originally written as newspaper journalism, collected in two volumes published by John Macrone in February and November 1836, with illustrations by George Cruikshank, and nearly titled “Bubbles from the Brain of Boz and the Graver of Cruikshank”, Sketches by Boz is the public record of Dickens’s apprenticeship. The early pieces, as he later pointed out, “comprise my first attempts at authorship”. By the time of “Vauxhall Gardens by Day”, written in October 1836, The Pickwick Papers had reached its eighth number and a meteoric career had taken flight.

Read in the order they were written, the Sketches consequently give off the terrific air of a newly minted talent discovering what it can do. While the opening tranche of “tales” derive from the work of forgotten contemporary humorists, the pieces of London reportage that he began to contribute to the Morning Chronicle in autumn 1834 (“Gin Shops”, “Shabby-Genteel People”, “The Pawnbroker’s Shop”) are like nothing else in pre-Victorian journalism: bantering and hard-headed by turns, hectic and profuse, falling over themselves to convey every last detail of the metropolitan front-line from which Dickens sent back his dispatches.

As he itemises the contents of the pawnbroker’s shop (“a few old China cups; some modern vases, adorned with paltry paintings of three Spanish cavaliers playing three Spanish guitars; or a party of boors carousing: each boor with one leg painfully elevated in the air by way of expressing his perfect freedom and gaiety …”) you sense that Dickens barely knows how to stop. It is the same with Miss Amelia Martin in “The Milliner’s Mishap”, eyeing up her friend’s wedding breakfast (“pewter-pots at the corners; pepper, mustard and vinegar in the centre; vegetables on the floor”) – a world so vivid and variegated to the person writing about it that there is almost too much to set down.

By the time of the final sketches (“Our Next Door Neighbours”, “The Tuggses at Ramsgate”) Dickens had begun to stake out the lower-middle-class interiors that critics were already marking down as his special subject. Meanwhile an admiring gang of early Victorian novelists stood ready to take their cue. Reading “Shabby-Genteel People”, for example, one can almost see Thackeray (who shortly afterwards was to write his own shabby genteel story) making notes in the background.


Our Mutual Friend

by Philip Hensher

Steven Mackintosh in BBC TV's Our Mutual Friend.

Steven Mackintosh in BBC TV’s Our Mutual Friend

Our Mutual Friend (monthly serial, May 1864-November 1865)

Dickens’s last completed novel is a marvel of play-acting and posturing, of taking on roles through delusion, calculation and ambition. I’ve come to think of it as a sort of late-period masque, where the roles and disguises that John Harmon and Boffin consciously assume exaggerate the more ordinary play-acting and pretence that we all engage in. The Veneerings’ awful dinner parties, or the love affairs where both participants wonder whether they are quite up to the mark, or the Lammles’ getting married in the misguided belief that the other has money – these are all wonderful, extreme examples of what the sociologist Erving Goffman was later to call “the presentation of self in everyday life”.

It’s a novel commonly described as flawed, but I guess it’s the Dickens novel I love best, and come back to most frequently. It’s said to be highly artificial – Henry James remarked, on its first publication, that he had never read a novel “so intensely written, so little seen, known, or felt”. The details of the plot, it’s true, are elaborately implausible. But the individual characters are shockingly recognisable – the scenes between Mrs Wilfer striking postures and her debunking daughters, for instance. There are a hundred Podsnaps who will explain climate change over London dinner tables tonight, with a sweeping gesture of the arm. Dickens’s genius for human observation at its quickest reaches a kind of pinnacle with the young man who tries to exercise his French and says “Esker” at a Veneering dinner, says nothing more and never reappears. But he will live forever, and we all know someone just like him.

It’s so full of the river, and the sense of the city, and a huge stretch of London society, and so grand in its vision that perhaps we forget how gloriously funny it is – the Boffins deciding to go in for history, and buying a big book (“His name is Decline-And-Fall-Off-The-Rooshan-Empire”) or the captivating Lady Tippins (“You wretch!”), or Mrs Wilfer, after placing Bella in the magnificent coach of the Boffins, continuing to “air herself … in a kind of splendidly serene trance on the top step” for the benefit of the neighbours.

I love the bold sentiment, the pathos and the drama; I even love the kid who dies whispering “A kiss for the boofer lady”, because you might as well swallow this magnificent novel whole. And best of all is the exuberant, light-hearted moral conviction of the last page, as Twemlow at the very end shows his steel. Wagner said that the whole spirit of the English people was contained in the first rocketing eight notes of “Rule Britannia”. But then he probably hadn’t read Our Mutual Friend.


 Bleak House

By Kathryn Hughes


‘Dickens never wrote better’ … Gillian Anderson (left) as Lady Dedlock and Anna Maxwell Martin as Esther in the BBC serial of Bleak House, 2005. Photograph: BBC/Mike Hogan

Monthly serial, March 1852-September 1853
Dickens wrote his ninth novel at that perfect hinge in his career when he was finally able to channel his creative exuberance into a sustained and sophisticated piece of narrative art. All the usual fun is here, but it’s in the service of a sustained moral inquiry into the evil that manmade systems do to the people they’re supposed to help. I think it’s Dickens’s best book and, given that it’s all about Chancery, I’d like to call expert witnesses. So here they are, the very unalike GK Chesterton and Vladimir Nabokov, both of whom agree that Dickens never wrote better.

There’s that extraordinary opening, describing a murky November day in London where there is “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 so wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill”. It’s an extraordinary image, stretching and collapsing time in the outrageous notion of a prehistoric monster let loose in legal London. Anyone who thinks that the high Victorian novel is a synonym for plodding realism really ought to read this top-hatted version of Jurassic Park.

They should read Bleak House too if they’re convinced that omniscient narrators are the only kind you find in novels of the 1850s. To be sure, Dickens has one of these, an all-seeing, weighty cove who can hover over roofs and barge through walls and show us all the characters from Jo the crossing sweeper, to Miss Flite in her birdcage lodgings, to Mr Bucket, the inscrutable detective. But there’s another narrator too: Esther Summerson, as slippery and blind as any postmodern trickster. The two narratives wind round each other like a double helix, generating new kinds of mysteries between them.

Anyone too who likes to trot out that old line about Dickens not being able to do psychology, or women, or both, should try Bleak House. In Esther Summerson, the little busybody with the jangling keys and the plain face, he created an uncannily accurate portrait of how sanctimoniously awful someone with low self-esteem can be. Once you realise it’s OK to want to slap Esther around a bit, she becomes a wonder of psychological observation. Brilliant too is Caddy Jellyby, the neglected daughter of the “telescopic philanthropist” Mrs Jellyby, who is more interested in helping the African tribe of Borrioboola-Gha than attending to her adolescent daughter. Caddy’s fierce sulkiness, her miserable habit of hating the ones she loves the most, and her sweet redemption through love to an equally scarred child, Prince Turveydrop, strike me as absolutely real.

Of course there’s nothing new about Dickens being able to create wonderful characters. The difference here is that, while Harold Skimpole, Mr Tulkinghorn, Krook et al fizz with bright particularity, their job is to service the story – in Dickens’s earlier novels the endless cameos tend to derail the narrative. Bleak House represents the author at a perfectly poised late-middle moment in his extraordinary art.


Hard Times

by Michel Faber

Timothy West and Patrick Allen in ITV's Hard Times

Timothy West and Patrick Allen in ITV’s Hard Times. Photograph: ITV / Rex Features

Hard Times (weekly serial, April 1854-August 1854)

Facts and figures. In 1978, when I was 17 and in my first year at university, I read approximately 3,500 pages of Dickens. I’ve not revisited any of his novels in the 34 years since, except A Christmas Carol and Hard TimesA Christmas Carol because I wrote a foreword for it, and Hard Times because there was something unDickensian about it that intrigued me. Set in a northern mill-town rather than Dickens’s usual London, Hard Times tackles politics in an uncharacteristically rigorous fashion, bringing it closer to Disraeli’s Sybilthan Pickwick Papers. Dickens seizes on utilitarianism – a philosophy most of us recognise as benign and socially progressive – and vilifies it as a great evil that poisons the human spirit. He expresses his loathing for trade unions, too. It’s all rather problematic, but Dickens just about pulls it off through sheer force of will, creating those unforgettable (and weirdly Kafkaesque) schoolroom scenes in which zombie-like pupils spout verbiage like “Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive.”

My affinity, as a novelist, with Dickens has been overstated. I relish the way everything in his prose pulsates with life force, and I’m in debt to him every time I invest inanimate objects with uncanny animism. But his female characters annoy me. Not the grotesque ones – Miss Havisham, Mrs Micawber and other delicious monsters. It’s the nubile, noble heroines I find irksome. Their vapidity and sexlessness is often attributed, by pundits whose acquaintance with Victorian literature is scant, to the moral climate of the era. Yet other Victorian authors managed to sneak eroticism into their work, and if Dickens had put his titanic talents to the challenge of sublimated sex prose, he could easily have out-porned Bram Stoker. He just didn’t want to.

Which brings me to another reason for recommending Hard Times: it contains the closest thing to a real, complex woman in Dickens’ s fiction. Louisa Gradgrind may be as neutered as the rest of his heroines, but she’s aware of her passionlessness, and blames it on the repressed upbringing she’s been subjected to. In Great Expectations, Dickens created a femme fatale, but Estella is icily secure in her fataleness. Louisa remains achingly vulnerable, a cold fish who longs to be a warm mammal.


The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit

By William Boyd

Drawing of Charles Dickens, with wife and sister-in-law

‘I think that Chuzzlewit is in a hundred points immeasurably the best of my stories’ … a drawing of Dickens with his wife and sister-in-law by D Maclise, 1843. Photograph: Lebrecht Authors/Lebrecht Music & Arts/Corbis

Monthly serial, January 1843–July 1844
Martin Chuzzlewit was Dickens’s sixth novel, serially published in 1843-44, and, compared to its great predecessors was something of a flop, much to Dickens’s surprise and chagrin. He was mightily pleased with the book – “I think that Chuzzlewit is in a hundred points immeasurably the best of my stories” – and couldn’t understand its comparative failure (at its height it sold 20,000 copies a month whereas The Pickwick Papers and Nicholas Nickleby sold 40-50,000, for example).

In fact the novel is somewhat strange and uneven. Martin himself, the eponymous hero, only appears in about a fifth of the book, there’s a whole section that takes place in America that is the most heavy-handed satire, the lapses into romantic sentimentality are toe-curlingly coy and was there ever such a bland pair of lovers as Martin and Mary?

However, Chuzzlewit is, I believe the most sheerly funny of all Dickens’s novels and the comic characters and scenes are written with a vigour and brio which is the equal of anything else in his oeuvre. I would go so far as to claim that, in Chuzzlewit, you find the most sustained passage of comic writing in English literature, namely chapters eight and nine when the Pecksniff family go to London. These 40 pages are written with a textured brilliance of detail and are also replete with the richest comedy – a coming together of style and humour that is unmatched in all his other novels. You will laugh out loud at Martin Chuzzlewit – the comedy travels effortlessly across the 170 years since it was written – and for that reason alone it deserves to be ranked among the greats.


The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby

By Simon Callow

Jamie Bell in the film of NICHOLAS NICKLEBY 2002

‘Nicholas is very close to a portrait of the artist as a young man’ … Jamie Bell in the 2002 film, Nicholas Nickleby. Photograph: Sportsphoto Ltd/Allstar/Cloud Nine

Monthly serial, April 1838-October 1839
Dickens started writing Nicholas Nickleby only a year after Pickwick, as part of that astonishing trio of novels (of which the middle one was Oliver Twist) that he knocked off in a breathless 18 months, and it partakes of the same ebullient energy and free-wheeling inventiveness as the earlier book. I was initially attracted to the book for obvious reasons: I was an actor, and the glorious celebration of the theatre, not just in the episodes concerning Vincent Crummles and his troupe of down-at-heel showpeople but in the whole form and structure of the book, exhilarated me, and it still does. Despite the bleak and terrible realities Dickens describes – the savagery of the regime at Dotheboys Hall, the depravities of Sir Mulberry Hawk and the implacable destructiveness of Ralph Nickleby – it has the sweep and gusto of a great melodrama. The stage management of events is pretty shameless, but it’s as enjoyable as a 1930s Hollywood movie. Dickens’s irresistible compulsion to create whole parades of unforgettable grotesques and his magnificent crusading rage against injustice all keep the pages turning.

The central character has often been criticised as being merely functional, but it seems to me that Nicholas is very close to a portrait of the artist as a young man: his passion, impulsiveness, somewhat exaggerated notions of gallantry, occasional priggishness and big embracing spirit are so much shared with his author (who at this stage of his life frequently had to take to horseback in order to work off his undischarged surplus of élan vital) that reading the book puts us in very close proximity to the young Dickens. And in Mrs Nickleby, he has created a savage and wildly funny portrait of his own mother. Dickens’s feelings about her were dark and complex: she tried to overrule John Dickens when he withdrew his son from the blacking warehouse in which the 11-year-old Charles languished, and he never forgave her for that.

The young women, in the book, alas, are both inspid and lachrymose. There is in fact a pressing and permanent tension between Nicholas Nickleby‘s carnival spirit and its morbid sentimentality, a tension highly characteristic of the nascent Victorian era in which it was written, and one that was central to Dickens himself; he never quite resolved it to the end. But for the most part the book is a kind of corybantic frieze of all-too-human mankind, its characters parading unforgettably past us, insinuating themselves permanently into our imaginations, populating our mental landscapes. Its spirit seems to hark back, past Shakespeare, to Chaucer, enabling Dickens to embody something quintessentially and irrepressibly English.

Simon Callow’s Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World will be published by Harper Press in February 2012.

Dombey and Son

By John Mullan

Charles Dickens giving a reading

He is in among his characters, cajoling and admonishing … Dickens giving a reading. Photograph: Alamy

Monthly serial, October 1846-April 1848
“What was a girl to Dombey and Son!” Despite its intransigently masculine title, Dombey and Son is the one Dickens novel apart fromBleak House with a heroine, Florence Dombey. And Florence, made courageous by the death of her mother and the neglect of her proud, rich father, is an altogether sprightlier protagonist than dutiful, grateful Esther Summerson.

Mr Dombey, her father, is one of Dickens’s emotionally cauterised men of wealth and power, rich in worldly appurtenances and poor in any concession to humanity. He thinks that he sits on top of society, but in fact he understands little about the commercial forces that have made him and will destroy him. The great power in Dombey and Son is that of the railways. An early chapter gives an unforgettable description of the building of the railway – a kind of “earthquake” that has hit Camden Town. Later chapters reveal a nation transformed by and utterly enamoured of this new power. “There were railway hotels, office-houses, lodging-houses, boarding-houses; railway plans, maps, views … There was even railway time observed in clocks, as if the sun itself had given in.” Trains are crucial to the elaborate plot.

Like all great Dickens novels it has really satisfying baddies. Major “Joe” Bagstock, one of those who predates on the loftily oblivious Mr Dombey, is a sinister, blue-faced old soldier with the disconcerting habit of talking of himself in the third person to an invisible confidante. “He’s hard-hearted, Sir, is Joe – he’s tough, Sir, tough, and de-vilish sly!” Devilishly, he arranges the marriage of Dombey to his rival in hard-grained pride, Edith Granger. It is a marriage made in hell, and the description of the wedding, like the decription of Paul Dombey’s christening earlier, is one of those unforgettably terrible and comic Dickensian set-pieces.

The novel’s big villain is Dombey’s “manager” (and rarely has so much nastiness been coaxed from that word), the “dainty” Mr Carker. Carker, Dombey’s “Grand Vizier”, has wonderfully white teeth and a smile that never extends beyond his mouth. He is the loyal apparatchik who would love to destroy and replace his master. “His manner towards Mr Dombey was deeply conceived and perfectly expressed. He was familiar with him, in the very extremity of his sense of the distance between them.” Those on the lookout for sentimentality will be able to find it, but in fact the novel is remarkable for its attention to failures of feeling. “What do we live for but sympathy!” exclaims the monstrous Mrs Skewton, who pimps her daughter to rich men looking for a trophy wife. Dombey is half-glimpsed in grief after his son’s death in childhood, but must dignify his feelings by hating those of others. Anyone else displaying grief becomes “a bidder against him”.

Dombey treads proudly towards his doom with the author’s unheard warnings ringing in his ears. Dickens is in among his characters, cajoling and admonishing. As ever, he energetically escapes the confines of literary decorum. Dombey and Son has all the satirical indignation of his early fiction – but new shades of darkness and a new narrative complexity. Halfway through his career, it was his first great novel. David Copperfield came next.


guardian.co.uk, Friday 23 September 2011 

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