An Email About Dickens
I'm alive, well, and reading. How are you?)
I've been giving some thought to your Dickens request. (Calling it a "Dickens Request" may give it a sense of primacy that you never intended.) On one hand it would be nice if I recommended some Dickens, and you read them, and you liked them, and then I'd have someone to talk about Dickens with because, as it turns out, except for one drunk guy at the bar in Foong Lin (the Chinese restaurant in Bethesda near Zach's old apartment that we've eaten at a couple of times together), no one is reading Dickens -- and, actually, even that drunk guy at the bar probably doesn't read Dickens; he simply saw me with a copy of Nicholas Nickleby and made some comment about how no one reads Dickens any more and when I asked him what his favorite Dickens was he said, blearily, A Tale of Two Cities, which is fine enough for Dickens, sure, but it's also similar to hearing The Mona Lisa as the answer to the question, "What kind of art do you like?"
On the other hand, though, both you and Jamie are what's called a Tough Crowd. What has saved our relationship thus far is how much commonality we've brought to the relationship. I've had less luck introducing either of you to new things. (The sting of the mild rebuke of The Woman in White haunts me.) So, I recommend some Dickens, you read a bit of each, or a bit of one, because, really, if you don't like one why bother with the others, right? You read a bit, decide it's crap, and then there's this wide sea of Dickens we have between us.
Maybe some caveats that you already know. Dickens isn't Tolstoy or Eliot. Dickens has moments where he might rival either of those two; however, George and Lev both outshine Dickens probably more often than the vice or the versa. Dickens, read in context, will give you a better idea of what life was like at that time -- grudgery, day-to-day life -- and there are some funny moments and some frightening moments and some stirring moments. I won't lie to you: there are some, "Jesus fuck aren't we done with this yet?!?" moments, too. So my second caveat would be: it's not necessary to sit down and read the novels in a few sittings like a novel. They were serialized. There's a rhythm Dickens planned for in the installments that can give the impression of swells at sea. Sometimes swells at sea are exciting and captivating (I'm guessing; I'm terrified of the ocean). Other times they can be mildly nauseating. When I recommend the four novels I am going to recommend at the end of this email, and you pick one to read, and you make your way to the library, and you check it out -- assume you'll renew. Give yourself two months or so to read the novel. The nice thing about Dickens is that, because they're in installments, you aren't in danger of missing a key plot point. He's going to remind you of what you need to remember.
So. Here are four Dickens novels I'd recommend, in my own personal favorite order. You'll notice that A Tale of Two Cities isn't on this list.
- Bleak House -- It's Dickens at the height of cranky. He's skewering the Victorian legal system and women's charity societies that spend too much time solving problems in Africa and not enough time solving problems at home ("home" being either their own houses or London), as well as the plight of the poor in general, which is Dickens particular favorite soap-box to climb on. Esther Summerson is going to annoy the fuck out of you. She's thisclose to Little Nell qualities: too perfect, too loving, too kind. This won't spoil the novel for you, but you should know, because she starts annoying almost from the beginning, that she gets the smallpox. And it feels good to the reader -- or, at least, this reader -- when she does get the smallpox. Anyway, Bleak House is the best representative Dickens I can think of: densely plotted, marvelously charactered (except for Esther), bitingly funny.
Our Mutual Friend -- This is Dickens's last completed novel. His last novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, remains unfinished. It's better than Bleak House only in the sense that Esther Summerson isn't in it. It's a mystery novel and a love story -- but mostly, it's probably Dickens's best collection of characters. My personal favorite is the gentleman who hires another man to read to him from The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The gentleman, a "new" gentleman, risen in rank because of an inheritance, is treated kindly by Dickens, and allows Dickens, less wearily than Hardy, to talk about the true fluidity of class as it slams against the upper-classes' misguided adherence to the status quo. (Galsworthy's The Forsythe Saga, though, remains the best look at this new class of upper class.)
Dombey & Son -- DO NOT READ THE INTRODUCTION -- either whatever publisher's introduction is in your copy, or Dickens's own. It will spoil the novel for you. In some ways, it's closest in temperament to Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, and AK's examination of family and selfishness and cruelty. It doesn't get the same love as other Dickens novels (Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, et. al. -- the publicity machines for these novels are amazing, mostly because they just aren't very good novels), but it's one of my favorites.
Barnaby Rudge -- I'm listing it, and listing it fourth, even though I haven't finished it yet. I'm about 60 pages in, and it's very exciting and engaging and modern feeling. I've been trying to read my way, in order, through Dickens. Towards that, I've read The Pickwick Papers (good, but very episodic -- which is what Dickens was going for, so he wins. It's also pretty hysterical in places, and for long stretches, up until Mr. Pickwick ends up in prison, and then the novel takes this pretty awful bleak turn. Dickens hadn't worked out, yet, how to balance the narrative. TPP is interesting less for the story and more for the seeds of what will come when you finally get to Bleak House, A Tale of Two Cities, and Our Mutual Friend), Oliver Twist (better than I thought it would be, given that fucking travesty of a musical with the awful song about hot jelly and mustard or some such nonsense, but it's because the secondary and evil characters are all so brutal and interesting), and Nicholas Nickleby (interesting, because you start to see that Dickens is working out how to be Dickens here. Nicholas is not a good hero, because he's too good and also too D'Artagnan-like in his eagerness to solve all wrongs against him with forced shows of bravado and pugilistic unnecessaries. However, some of the funniest scenes in all of Dickens can be found when Nicholas ends up with the Crummles's theatre troupe, including "The Infant Phenomenon" -- who is supposed to be 9 or 10, but who is actually 15 or 16). I bottomed out, though, when I tried to read The Old Curiosity Shop. It's unreadable. Skipping that, Barnaby Rudge was up next, and I have been all the better for it.