Monday, December 17, 2012

Charles Dickens

To put you solidly in the Christmas spirit, we will be reviewing a book titled The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits by Les Standiford.

Charles Dickens is widely considered the best novelist of the Victorian period. In order to avoid encroaching on the content sure to be waiting for us on Friday, we will only discuss basics today.

Dickens lived from February 7, 1812 to June 9, 1870, in England. He looked like this:

Charles Dickens

Dickens grew up in a poor family (pretty common for every writer ever) and had to work jobs like bottling boot black to make enough money to release his parents and siblings from debtor's prison. This was not something that was widely known during his life (or, indeed, until John Forster published a Dickens biography six years after his death). With the benefit of hindsight, we can see how obvious this is, given that the most common theme in all his works was poverty and the trials of working class life.  Also, by the length of his books.  Dickens was paid by the word.

He went on to be a journalist, and a good one, but found that brief written observations about who and what he saw on his travels were popular reading, so he published them as a series of short stories titled Sketches by Boz (1836). Boz was an old family nickname he used often as a pseudonym.

Many of his novels and collections were originally published as serials, meaning he wrote them a piece at a time, and they were published in a newspaper or journal. This was a popular tactic at the time for many reasons. First, an author could assess public opinion about a certain character or plot point, and adjust their writing accordingly, to keep the story popular. Also, it cut down on costs all around. Publishers didn't want to pay up front to publish a large run of an entire novel without knowing how well it would sell. The audience didn't want to spend money for an entire novel without knowing how good it would be. They would rather pay for their reading a shilling at a time, and if you didn't like that chapter, you've only wasted a shilling. Later, when novels and large books became more popular (thanks  in large part to improvements in printing press technology) the serials were published in single volumes like the ones we read for English classes today.

If you're anything like me, you haven't read the vast majority of Dickens' works.  I know I haven't. In fact, you probably can't even name more than three or four off the top of your head. Below the cut, we'll outline a few of the more important/popular titles in his catalog (in chronological order).

Sketches by Boz (1836)
As mentioned above, these were short stories accumulated on his adventures as a journalist, and his first published work other than journalism.

An illustration of Mr. Pickwick addressing his club
The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (April 1836 - November 1837)
Now known simply as The Pickwick Papers, this serial novel was an enormous hit. Once chapter ten was published, it became the first real literary phenomenon, with pirated copies, bootleg theater performances, and related merchandise that Dickens had nothing to do with (and loathed the existence of). The content is a series of loosely-related stories centered around a group of men called the Pickwick Club. (If you've ever seen the Winona Ryder version of Little Women, you'll notice that when they're in the attic, they have their own imitation of the Pickwick Club, complete witha Pickwick Paper.)

Illustration of Oliver meeting Fagin
The Adventures of Oliver Twist (February 1837 - April 1839)
Also known as simply Oliver Twist or The Parish Boy's Progress, this novel has undoubtedly had the most film versions spring from it out of all Dickens' works. We are all familiar with the "more?" line, and it is as emotional today as it was when it was first written. The main themes are child labor, the Poor Law, and the lives of street children. An enormous amount of content in Oliver's story was drawn directly from Dickens' childhood experiences at work. This was also the first Victorian novel to star a child protagonist.

The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (April 1838 - October 1839)
Now known as just Nicholas Nickleby, this novel was considerably more light-hearted than Oliver Twist, and was the first romance Dickens wrote. Having never read it myself, I am at the mercy of online plot summaries, but it seems to take place in an abusive boarding school (if it helps your imagination, the Trunchbull from Roald Dahl's Matilda was inspired by the headmaster in Nicholas Nickleby)... and then a bunch of other stuff happens.

The Old Curiosity Shop (April 1840 - February 1841)
Little Nell, the child protagonist of The Old Curiosity Shop, was so immensely popular among readers that the story goes: when ships carrying copies of the newest installments arrived in American ports, readers would gather on the docks to yell out to the sailors, "Is little Nell still alive?" Orphaned Nell lives with her grandfather who gambles and borrows heavily in an attempt to leave Nell with a sizable inheritance and save her from the horrors of poverty.

Map of America from 1830 (source)
American Notes for General Circulation (1842) In 1841, Dickens and his wife took a trip to America. (Remember, this was in the early years of transatlantic passenger ships, so this was a big deal.) He was disappointed and taken aback by many characteristics of the young country, and he didn't hesitate to criticize his experiences in this collection of observations published upon his return to England. It did not sell well in England, because the English apparently already knew things about Americans that Dickens didn't before his voyage, like the different customs and codes of etiquette and accents. On the other hand, the book sold fairly well in America, presumably because Americans found it entertaining to hear what the English thought of them.

A Christmas Carol: in a nutshell.
A Christmas Carol (1843)
Without giving away everything in the book we're reviewing this week... This novella was published at a time when Victorian England was nostalgic for their old Christmas traditions and learning new ones, like the Christmas tree and sending Christmas cards. This month we'll have the 169th Christmas since its publication, and it has never been out of print. Every year, there seems to be a new theater, television, or film adaptation, and they all follow the same familiar story of miserly Ebenezer Scrooge learning his lesson about being such a stingy jerk, thanks to the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future. I have a personal fondness for this story because it popularized a secular celebration of Christmas that was hitherto generally unrecognized. This novel kicked off his five-year series of Christmas books: The Chimes in 1844, The Cricket on the Hearth in 1845, The Battle of Life in 1846, and The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain in 1847.

The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit (January 1843 - July 1844)
Dickens still hadn't gotten over his impressions of a boorish and unkempt America by the time he started working on Martin Chuzzlewit, because he drops a lot of personal experience (with some exaggerations) into this one, making America look pretty bad at times. The English public had a similar reaction to this as they did to American Notes, giving this work poor sales in the early months (and it never reached the heights of his earlier works). But hey, The Simpons and Doctor Who both referenced it, so maybe it isn't that awful.

Dombey and Son (October 1846 - April 1848)
I admit it: I had never heard of this one until I started reading this week's book. It has to do with a shipping company owned by a father who wants his son (born at the beginning of the book) to take over. The major theme is industrialization (particularly in railways) and how it eats away at everything involved in it.

Next up, David Copperfield... but not this one.
David Copperfield (May 1849 - November 1850) Its extremely long original title is The Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery (Which He Never Meant to Publish on Any Account). There are many autobiographical elements to this story (as with many of Dickens' stories). Essentially, the story follows David Copperfield around on his travels and discusses his interactions with various family members and other characters.

Bleak House (March 1852 - September 1853)
This is a difficult story to summarize, because it has a lot of characters who are all well drawn out and complex (it is considered one of his finest works because of this point), and the plot centers around law and current (at the time) legal issues that I neither understand nor care to investigate further. But that should be sufficient to know whether you're interested in it.

Hard Times (April - August 1854)
This is Dickens' shortest work by a long shot, but that is not all that makes it unusual. It is also the only novel he ever wrote to have no scenes set in London, and it is also lacking a preface and illustrations. It mostly deals with social and economic issues, targeting groups like Utilitarians (who believed that promoting social welfare should be the goal of society and individuals).

Little Dorrit (December 1855 - June 1857)
A satire of government and society, Little Dorrit focuses on debtor's prisons (drawing, as he often did, from childhood experiences).

An illustration from the original publication of A Tale of Two Cities
A Tale of Two Cities (April - November 1859) The two cities in question are London and Paris, set just before the French Revolution and dealing with the differences between the disparate peasantry and nobility. This is one of the best-selling and most popular books in history, and brought us such oft-quoted lines as "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times" (which, incidentally, is only the first phrase of the extremely long first sentence of the book, containing at least a dozen more dichotomies) and "'Tis a far, far better thing that I do now than I have ever done" (which is also part of a much longer sentence).

It was hard to find an image for Great Expectations that wasn't
a blued-out screencap of the 2011 miniseries
or a mostly-naked Gwenyth Paltrow. So you get to look at this.
Great Expectations (December 1860 - August 1861)
This bildungsroman (or coming-of-age story) discusses the life of orphaned Pip, covering topics of crime and social issues (as so many of Dickens' novels did). This was his last particularly famous novel (followed only by Our Mutual Friend (May 1864 - November 1865) and The Mystery of Edwin Drood (April - September 1870) of which six of the planned twelve parts were completed, cut short by Dickens' death).


  1. I had to read Great Expectations for school and absolutely hated it. I want to say I also had to read A Tale of Two Cities and Oliver Twist, but I can't remember if I did or not. I've seen several film versions of Oliver Twist, which has always been of interest to me on a social level due to the (typical of the time) negative portrayal of Jews. (Fagan is supposedly Jewish, or at least the adaptions do their best to make him appear that way, as stereotypical as possible. I can't recall if that's true in the book or not).

    1. TBH, Great Expectations was the only one that I ever had to read, and I never really was a big fan of it either. But I know a lot of people that were, which I think is interesting. I tried A Christmas Carol when I was younger, but I was really too young for it. It's probably the only good one because he wasn't get paid for his word count, so it's significantly shorter. Also, he wrote it with time constraints and all in one volume, as opposed to all of his other books that he wrote in weekly/monthly installments.