Why read Charles Dickens’ books? Because of the detailed characters, the cliff-hanging plot twists, the gorgeous descriptions (stay with me) and the use of language really is beautiful and clever. Dickens was a social commentator of his time, delivering his comments and thoughts through captivating stories. People were learning about important social issues whilst being entertained. Genius!
I am the President of the NSW Dickens Society and I’m often asked which of Charles Dickens’ books you should start with. It’s important to keep it fun and light-hearted; that’s what Mr Dickens would have wanted. You’ll soon be enchanted by his cliff-hanging chapter endings (he wrote the books in weekly instalments, leaving people waiting for more).
Here are my suggestions of the best Charles Dickens books to start with……
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (Penguin) This was my first Dickens, read aloud by my fabulous high school English teacher, Mrs Mitchell. I can still hear her blood-curdling rendition of Magwitch’s voice and see her change of posture when reading Miss Havisham’s words. Originally published as a serial, I don’t know how the readers waited for the next instalment! The suspense must have been dreadful.
This was Dickens’ thirteenth novel, so he knew what he was doing; Great Expectations will get you in by it’s opening chapter set in a graveyard with the strange twists and turns of the plot. The characters are created so believably that I didn’t even suspect the ending. Pure brilliance, Mr Dickens!
I have read the book a few times and loved it each time anew. With a wealth of sad, poverty-stricken stories to draw on from his own childhood, Dickens weaves his stories with examples of inequality, child labour (cue the Dickensian images), the effects of the industrial revolution and a range of other topical subjects of his day (which are sadly still relevant today). His characters are so well defined that I can hardly remember life before them. The end of the book is unpredictable, astonishing and clever. Once again that talented Coralie Bickford-Smith has designed the most glorious cover in royal blue with the aged yellow chandeliers of Miss Havisham’s mansion. Love it.
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens (Penguin) Was it David Copperfield by Charles Dickens or Charles Dickens by David Copperfield? This was a question often discussed between friends when I was at school; the reversal of initials DC and CD is confusing. Apparently when asked about the reversal of initials Dickens was surprised and said he hadn’t realised it. This is probably Dickens’ most autobiographical novel and he refers to it as his favourite. Who knew? As Dickens’ first book to be written in the first person, it’s about an unhappy and impoverished childhood – still thinking about it being semi-autobiographical? Me too – where Copperfield is orphaned with a cruel stepfather.
I love this book because is does has such a great storyline and David is so well drawn. As David Copperfield makes his way in the world and becomes a writer, he encounters a range of people who change his fortunes in very different ways. Some of Dickens’ memorable characters including Copperfield’s childhood nurse Peggotty, his eccentric aunt Betsey Trotwood, the creepy Uriah Heep and the comic Mr Micawber (who was based on Dickens’ father) are highlights in this book. Intriguing, I tell you. Don’t think that I didn’t love this book. Because I did!
The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens (Vintage; Random House) Dickens’ forth novel, was produced in instalments with all the power of his range of charming and villainous characters. Having read that Dickens said that his characters all remained alive to him after he finished writing each book is quite alarming!
This book is an easy, ambling read. You’ll get through it quite quickly and the descriptions of the railway being built through England and its impact are fascinating.
Nell lives with her grandfather (whose name is never revealed) and together they work towards a better and more stable life. A story about great love, deception, money and stability; Dickens says he suffered and was actually exhausted by writing parts of this book. When these instalments of this book were first published written; it’s reported that people waited on the docks of New York and Melbourne for the last instalments of The Old Curiosity Shop to hear about the plight of Nell.
I was interested to read that this book is the second-highest seller of all Dickens’ books, surpassed only by The Pickwick Papers. Love this Vintage Red Spines edition of this book. Makes me happy just looking at it!
The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens (Vintage; Random House) This was Dickens’ first novel and it’s publication really brought his name to the notice of the public. The chapters were sold individually so they were affordable, they were read out loud by the literate to other eager ears (can’t you just see them gathered around the fireplace after dinner?) and readers and listeners alike were left on tenterhooks waiting for the next chapter. Genius, I tell you. This book made Dickens’ name a household word and put him on the road to becoming very wealthy and the most famous man in England at the time.
As soon as I started to read it, The Pickwick Papers immediately brought to mind Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, with a group of well-described characters and their antics during their travels. You gallop along on the adventures.
The humour comes from the characters’ misadventures and their extraordinary personalities as they travel around England and get into all sorts of crazy scrapes. The cockney Sam Weller is employed as the Mr Pickwick’s personal servant and one immediately thinks of the Jeeves kind of personality. It remains Dickens’ highest-selling book. This book became the first real publishing phenomenon with pirated copies, theatre performances, Sam Weller joke books and related merchandise. Dickens sure knew that he was onto a good thing.
Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens (Vintage; Random House) When I first started reading this book, I could never remember whether it was Dombey and Son or Dombey and Sons (plural). I now remember very clearly that it is ‘Son’ singular as this is very integral to the story – if there had been more than one son, it would have been a very different story indeed. Because it is a Dickens, there are of course some very memorable characters and descriptions. I love the second paragraph of the book which sets the scene, ‘Dombey was about eight-and-forty years of age. Son about eight-and-forty minutes. Dombey was rather bald, rather red, ……… Son was very bald, and very red’. Gorgeous. Dickens combines his trademark wit with great description keeping us turning the pages.
I loved this story of English primogeniture and it’s far-reaching impact. Such an intriguing part of English history.
As Dickens’ seventh novel, it is one of his only books to have a heroine, ‘What was a girl to Dombey and Son!’ the book proclaims; but don’t panic, Florence is made courageous by the death of her mother and by the neglect of her proud, wealthy father. The story has so many twists and turns that I could not guess the ending, because that, my friends, is the magic of Dickens. I enjoyed this book. A lot. Can you tell?
Interested I the NSW Dickens Society? We are an enthusiastic group of amateurs who meet eight times a year to celebrate the work, time and era of Charles Dickens and we publish seven publications per year. In 2018 we will be hosting the International Dickens Fellowship Conference in Sydney. We’d love you to join us at any time: https://dickenssydney.com/