Monday, 18 November 2013

No More Guilt Over Dickens

Like many other bibliophiles, I own a full set of Dickens novels. You know the ones: green leather, gold lettering, pale yellow ribbon bookmark, thin paper and tiny print [although the last one might be more to do with age than the publisher].

I bought the set many years ago, one volume per month, in an imitation of the manner in which Dickens fed his words to an appreciative world. I can’t remember how much I paid for them, and that’s probably just as well.
At the time, I opened one or two of them, even tried to read a chapter or two, but that was it. And they have sat on the bookshelf ever since, staring accusingly at me. I read the abridged versions we were given at school. I’ve watched every TV adaptation for the past fifty years. I can quote famous lines from one or two of the novels. I’ve even seen Oliver! at the London Palladium. But, I have to admit it: I have never read Charles Dickens as an adult reader. And it's always been a source of guilt for me.

 Until now.

A couple of months back, our local book group was choosing our future reading matter. Someone suggested we go for one of the classics. I admitted my Dickens-less state; and that was it: Little Dorrit became our October book of the month.

I was somewhat dismayed on taking it from the shelf to find I was holding Volume I and that the whole work was just short of 1000 pages long. Dickens published it in monthly parts between December 1855 and June 1857. Maybe trying to read it in four weeks was a mistake.

I tried; I really tried to enjoy it. After the first couple of chapters, I gave in to age and downloaded the electronic version on my Kindle, which made the reading easier on my eyes, but it didn’t make it any easier on my brain.  I kept going to the very last page, although that took more than six weeks and I hadn’t got to the most dramatic chapters by the time our book club met. I loved some parts: the Circumlocution Office rang so many bells, even today, and I would recommend chapter 10 to anyone who thinks the bureaucracy of today’s government is anything new. The characterisation was as wonderful as I knew it would be: I loved Mr Pancks and Flora; hated Mr Dorrit more than the obvious villains; and wanted to give Little Dorrit a good shake on more than one occasion. But I struggled with the detailed descriptions and with the archaic language; with the fact that nothing happened sometimes for whole chapters at a time. As someone said during our book group discussion: the ending was a real page-turner, but it took a long time to get there.

I do not for one moment dispute that Charles Dickens is one of the greatest writers this country, or indeed this world, has ever seen. But I have decided he’s not for me; not in the written form anyway. I will continue to watch or listen to adaptations and marvel at his story-telling abilities. There are another thirty-four volumes on my bookshelf; and I will probably not read any of them. There are just so many other good books out there which I want to read, both classics and modern publications. The book group’s going to tackle War and Peace next summer, but in the meantime, I’ve moving forward a century or so.
Does anyone want to buy a set of Charles Dickens novels, barely used?


  1. Have you read Great Expectations? I had to read it for my OU degree and was dreading it, having never read (as an adult) any Charlie either. How wrong I was... It was a page turner from the beginning. The writing was almost modern (maybe the 'I' voice helped). I LOVED it - I quite literally couldn't put it down. Anyway I would suggest trying it before you give up on Dickens totally! Love Kate x

  2. I have also read Great Expectations (I probably did the same OU course as Kate) and would agree with her assessment. I also had to read Dombey & Son, which could have done with a serious edit. Recently tackled Oliver Twist, as I'd only ever read an abridged version, and the book mark hasn't moved for months. I must admit, I prefer the abridged versions!

  3. I'm not the only one! I have tried so many times to read Dickens, but I just don't get along with him. I had to read Great Expectations for one of my degree modules, so I managed to finish it, but it took a lot of effort. I could appreciate the brilliance of the plot and characterisation, I even enjoyed some of the humour, but it left me cold.

    It disappoints me that I can't enjoy such a great writer. It makes no sense; I love other 19th century novelists, like Hardy, Austen and the Brontes. Maybe one day I will pick up my copy of A Tale of Two Cities, which I have attempted several times, and find myself finishing it with ease and pleasure - but I wouldn't bet on it!

  4. The first Dickens I ever read was a copy my grandmother had as a young girl. I was hooked. I love his writing style and his story telling prowess. I haven;t read anywhere near enough of his work but I do have the complete set, also bought one book at a time as part of a subscription. I dream of sitting back and reading them in my retirement.

  5. I read great expectations fairly recently and enjoyed it.

  6. howesue.wordpress.com18 November 2013 at 10:42

    I recommend Martin Chuzzlewit. I was laughing so hard reading it on a beach in Sicily that other people asked me to read bits out!

  7. I did Great Expectations for A Level and loved it, too. It's the only one of his I've read, though, and I applaud you for admitting not liking Dickens very much, and perhaps liking to read something that was written at least in the last century - so many people claim a great love of this and that 'classic' but I bet half of them haven't read all they claim to!

  8. Apologies for the delay in responding to all these comments. Not sure where last week went to, although I did manage to hit 35K on my NaNoWriMo target.

    I must have read Great Expectations at some point as I know the story and am aware of the illustrations, but I think it was an abridged version. If I try any others, I will certainly give Martin Chuzzlewit a try, but so far I'm still convinced there are other books I should be reading instead.