A lot of my posts for this blog are about things like punctuation or resources for writers, but my real passion is investigating what aspiring writers today can learn from past writers. (And I’m also trying to become better-read.) For simplicity’s sake, “past writers” are “dead writers” and almost certainly writers from other centuries.
I always wanted to study American Naturalists and American Modernists. The stars never lined up for me in college. Sometimes the class featuring those authors was too advanced for my standing. Sometimes it was an intro level offered after I outgrew intro level discussions. Maybe the level wasn’t the problem, but the notoriously-boring prof at the helm was. (Or the syllabus included Henry James, which is a deal-breaker for me.) I managed to do a semester-long paper on As I Lay Dying and wrote my undergraduate thesis on Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West, but I crossed paths with very few Americans in four years.
I took mostly classes on British literature, and the bulk of what I read came from the nineteenth century. I had some twentieth century and even a healthy dose of the eighteenth. It would have been cool to have a strong background in the Americans, but holy crap did I love my British literature classes. At this point, someone who admits to me they don’t know the difference between Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë gets two automatic strikes.
I did not read Charles Dickens until college. My first dose of Dickens was Great Expectations. I had read Pride and Prejudice in the eleventh grade and many of my classmates didn’t like it. (I loved our teacher, but she also referred to it as a “Victorian novel,” which is just so wrong.) We read Frankenstein as well, plus The Red Badge of Courage and Huckleberry Finn the year before. Four nineteenth-century novels in two years, if memory serves. In my mind, I interpreted this lack to mean: “The nineteenth century is hard, you guys.”
One of the biggest revelations that I had came from reading Great Expectations in my sophomore year, standing-appropriate intro class: the nineteenth century is not impenetrable. Sometimes it’s not even difficult. I should have known that from Pride and Prejudice and then Persuasion, or at least from the continual adaptations of Austen’s work. Of course, there is a huge amount of stuff you can excavate from nineteenth century novels, but they also make excellent leisure reading.
Maybe I’m a little bit biased, but I don’t think the nineteenth century gets a fair shake. I took an informal Facebook poll about Dickens and found the response rather disappointing:
This was such a bummer for me. I haven’t read Tale of Two Cities, which seems to be the Dickens people read most often—and seems to be partially responsible for turning people off. The professor who taught both classes where I read Dickens told us that it’s really not a good example of Dickens’ finest work. For one thing, Tale of Two Cities is a historical novel, when Dickens thrives in the genre of the bildungsroman with a heaping helping of social criticism about Victorian London.
Of course, I don’t believe Dickens is the greatest author who ever put pen to paper. But as we know, reading everything is important—even and especially those authors we may not want to emulate. He was also immensely popular in his day, and he influenced many other famous authors, including Kafka and T.S. Eliot—who certainly do not write in the same mode as Dickens does.
Dickens is a master plotter, especially at his (sometimes extraneous) length. His novels aren’t quite as fast-paced as today’s thrillers, but he moves pretty fast. In that class where we read Great Expectations, many of us found ourselves unable to put the book down. Dickens introduces a huge number of mysteries and plot twists into his novels and it feels great to read as they each get resolved. In fact, one of the plot threads in Bleak House includes one of the first detectives in English literature, Inspector Bucket.
Some of the thrill of Dickens comes from the Victorian serial format. You know how something suspenseful happens at the end of every third chapter like clockwork? Well, originally three chapters were published in each installment, so the goal was to retain the readership.
Dickens’ novels also contain a lot of social critiques. His novels give a great window into some of the hardships of industrial England, a society with no social safety net to speak of. His novels also have a great sense of purpose the reader can pick up on—sometimes it’s good, but sometimes it can get preachy. Right now, for instance, I’m in the middle of Nicholas Nickleby, one of Dickens’ novels that actually spurred an abiding controversy about the conditions of schools in Yorkshire. Here’s a description of the school (Penguin Classics edition):
But the pupils—the young noblemen! How the last faint traces of hope, the remotest glimmering of any good to be derived from his efforts in this den, faded from the mind of Nicholas as he looked in dismay around! Pale and haggard faces, lank and bony figures, children with the countenances of old men, deformities with irons upon their limbs, boys of stunted growth, and others whose long meagre legs would hardly bear their stooping bodies, all crowded on the view together; there were the bleared eye, the hare-lip, the crooked foot, and every ugliness or distortion that told of unnatural aversion conceived by parents for their offspring, or of young lives which, from the earliest dawn of infancy, had been one horrible endurance of cruelty and neglect. There were little faces which should have been handsome, darkened with the scowl of sullen dogged suffering; there was childhood with the light of tis eye quenched, its beauty gone, and its helplessness alone remaining; there were vicious-faced boys brooding, with leaden eyes, like malefactors in a jail; and there were young creatures on whom the sins of their frail parents had descended, weeping even for the mercenary nurses they had known, and lonesome even in their loneliness. With every kindly sympathy and affection blasted in its birth, with every young and healthy feeling flogged and starved down, with every revengeful passion that can fester in swollen hearts, eating its evil way to their core in silence, what an incipient Hell was breeding there! (97)
Is this melodramatic? Hell yes it is! But it’s also an incredibly rich description. In one paragraph, Dickens paints a portrait of this miserable scene at Dotheboys Hall, but he weaves that misery into the tragic biographies of its students. It makes me feel sorry for the boys described, but I can’t ignore the sense that a lot of children in Victorian England were completely expendable to the people who gave birth to them.
Another reason to read Dickens is for his casts of characters. I must emphasize that I mean the whole cast because the two books I’m most familiar with have protagonists who are sort of dull (sorry, Pip and Esther). The supporting characters are often these wonderful caricatures that make you laugh out loud or make your skin crawl. In fact, I remember it reminding me a bit of Roald Dahl. With that, I’m going to introduce you to Miss Havisham from Great Expectations (this extract comes from the Penguin Classics edition):
She was dressed in rich materials – satins, and lace, and silks – all of white. Her shoes were white. And she had a long white veil dependent from her hair, and she had bridal flowers in her hair, but her hair was white. Some bright jewels sparkled on her neck and on her hands, and some other jewels lay sparkling on the table. Dresses, less splendid than the dress she wore, and half-packed trunks, were scattered about. She had not quite finished dressing, for she had but one shoe on – the other was on the table near her hand—her veil was but half arranged, her watch and chain were not put on, and some lace for her bosom lay with those trinkets, and with her handkerchief, and gloves, and some flowers, and a prayer-book, all confusedly heaped about the looking-glass. (57)
See? That wasn’t so bad was it? I mean, obviously Miss Havisham has some issues. (I’m not going to reveal what they are in case you haven’t read the book.)
The length of Dickens can become tedious, as it does in Bleak House, which weighs in a whopping 900 pages and a lower back problem if you don’t take the time to construct a proper backpack configuration. Henry James came up with the term “loose baggy monsters” to describe nineteenth century novels. I say I would rather read nine hundred pages of plot than say, 246 pages where nothing happens. I will admit that I have not read much as much Dickens as I’d like, so feel free to add your two cents in the comments section. (Or is it “pence” when discussing Dickens?)
The important thing to take away from this article is that someone writing more than 150 years ago used language that is pretty darn close to the language contemporary authors still use. I think the size and age of Dickens’ novels can scare people off at first glance, especially if they’ve never encountered him before.
But you should never judge a book by its spine. If you’re curious to see how much of his work you can understand, or whether you can get through a 900-page novel, or even if you just want to learn what’s up with Miss Havisham, go to the library and give it a go!