Dickens 101

I am delighted that so many people have e-mailed me to say that they want to try reading some Dickens. Some of his books hold up better than others, but when he was at his best, I don't think the English language has ever produced a better novelist. His books today are not exactly like time-traveling back to the Victorian era, but to a weird version of it full of evil weirdos, cozy taverns, and rag-and-bone merchants who spontaneously combust.

But they're not always easy to read now. All of Dickens's longer books were first published either as weekly or monthly serials, and, when they were collected into single volumes, they were LONG. A whole book cost a fortune back then, and people expected a big chunk of book for their money. Most of us don't have the attention span to just sit down and read one in one or two sittings today - I sure as hell don't. Most Dickens books take me about six weeks to get through - but you can put one down for a few days and go read something else if you want. Dickens expected readers to go months between seeing certain characters, and used things like catch-phrases to remind you of who everyone is and what's going on.

Which one YOU should read first depends on your own taste, but here are some notes and tips:

1. The easiest place to start is A Christmas Carol. It's very short, and you probably already know the plot, so there's no chance of getting confused. Everyone knows the story from a million adaptations, but the book is really very good. It's funny as hell (the first couple of pages are snarky as all get out) and features some great prose.

2. If you want something longer, but not so long that it'll take you weeks, try Great Expectations, which, being a weekly serial instead of a monthly one, wasn't quite so long. One thing I hear from many people (including the guy who played Balki on Perfect Strangers) is that they whined through reading it in high school, then tried again as an adult and felt like they were being struck by lightning. One reviewer at the time said that Dickens had finally mastered a gift that had formerly mastered him.

3. Of the longer novels, the most accessible is probably David Copperfield. It's very funny, has a fairly coherent plot, and the characters are unforgettable. My favorite is Aunt Betsey.

4. Scholars tend to think that Bleak House is the best book overall. I'm inclined to agree - it's a mystery, a legal thriller, a comedy, and a post-modern farce all at once. Not as accessible as Copperfield, though.


5. Fuck Cliff's Notes. I've occasionally glanced at Cliff's Notes on Dickens books to see if they pointed out anything cool that I was missing, and wound up just getting pissed off. They always have this underlying theme of discouraging you from reading the book; the Copperfield notes say that Dickens rambles in the book because he got paid by the word (which isn't actually even true), and the Bleak House one has a whole discussion of why Esther, the narrator, is a bad character. Some people hate Esther's guts, but I think she's fascinating (she makes a lot more sense, and seems like less of a priss, if you assume that she's a lesbian).  


6. Some people want to start with the first book, The Pickwick Papers. I don't really recommend that - Pickwick made Dickens a star, and it remained his most popular book until well into the 20th century. For a good hundred years, it was widely considered the funniest book ever. But, while it's still funny today, much of the humor is funny now in an "well, I guess you had to be there" way. Reading Pickwick is like wading in the primordial ooze from which sitcom would one day be formed. Still great fun, but not the best introduction to Dickens for modern readers.

7. If you had to read Dickens in school, you most likely read either Hard Times or Tale of Two Cities. Neither of these are very good intros; they're just short enough to teach in school. Tale of Two Cities is under-rated among Dickens scholars, really, but it's so unlike other Dickens books that it's not a very good sample to start with. I somehow made it through school and college (as an English major, no less) without having to read a word of Dickens. This may have been for the best; nothing takes the fun out of books faster than having to write down vocabulary words as you go.

8. Say, here's something that you'll need to know:
a farthing was 1/4th of a penny
a shilling was 12 pence  (saying "I'll pay you seven and six" meant 7.5 shillings)
a crown was five shillings.
a pound / a sovereign was twenty shillings (240 pence).
a guinea was twenty-one shillings.

There's no real formula for how much a pound in 1850 would be in today's money, but you can generally figure on it being around two hundred bucks. This isn't foolproof, but you can generally have a good idea of how much money people are spending by assuming that spending a shilling then was like spending ten bucks today. A penny was a bit under a buck by this formula.


Some Frequently Asked Questions:

Didn't he get paid by the word?
No, not exactly. The length of each book was pre-determined by the contracts ahead of time, so each installment had to be a certain length, but he couldn't make extra money by squeezing in more words. There are times when he seems to be stretching to make an installment long enough, though.

I heard Dickens was an asshole.
Dickens probably did more to advance social causes and reforms than anyone else of his era. That said, though, yes. He could be a real asshole in private. This doesn't make him less of a good writer, though. Many of his social views were fairly progressive for their times, but seem awful now. That's just the way of things, though - it's unfair of us to expect people from other eras to live up to the standards of behavior we have today. One positive thing we can say about him is that he was known to learn the error of his ways; Fagin in Oliver Twist is a horrible anti-semitic stereotype, but it genuinely never occurred to Dickens that Jews would be offended. He didn't know any of them, so he just assumed the rampant stereotypes of the day were true. He later learned they weren't and toned down the book in later editions.

So...did he drink a LOT, or what?
Dickens had a cellar containing hundreds of bottles of good booze. But by the standards of the day, he was a pretty moderate drinker. He drank a lot, but doesn't seem to have drunk to excess very much.


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