I recently read Donna Tartt’s most recent novel, The Goldfinch, which I absolutely loved.  Reviews had referred to The Goldfinch as “Dickensian,” and I enjoyed it so much that it led me to read my first Dickens novel.  My father has urged me to read Dickens for years; one of his favorite authors, he just has never been able to believe that I didn’t have any interest in the author.  Now that I’ve finally crossed that bridge and read my first Dickens novel, I have to admit that my dad was right, and Charles Dickens is right up my alley.  I just finished Great Expectations, and thought I’d share a few of my thoughts:

  1. I had an idea that reading Dickens would be time-consuming, and I just don’t have a lot of time.  That turned out to not be the case at all.  Because Great Expectations was originally written as a serial, it was incredibly easy to read a chapter at a time here and there, and I wound up finishing it pretty quickly after all.
  2. Despite the fact that I wouldn’t exactly call this a humorous book, there were some really funny passages.  One of my favorites describes the owner of a seed shop and his colleague: “I discovered a singular affinity between seeds and corduroys.  Mr. Pumblechook wore corduroys, and so did his shopman; and somehow, there was a general air and flavor about the corduroys, so much in the nature of seeds, and a general air and flavor about the seeds, so much in the nature of corduroys, that I hardly knew which was which.”
  3. Humorous bits aside, wow- talk about melodrama!  Between Miss Havisham’s hysterics and Pip’s constant anxiety over absolutely everything (except for his mounting debts, for some reason), Dickens barely needed to come up with drama in the plot: his characters provided enough on their own!  And of course, there is plenty of drama in the plot.  Each time things start to become a bit too neatly wrapped up, somebody is arrested, or falls ill, or is in a fire, or a fight, or getting married.  There’s no shortage of Big Events in this novel.
  4. I once read that people who read a lot are inclined to have a big vocabulary, but don’t always know the proper pronunciation of words because some words are used so infrequently that they’ve only read them in books.  This book was full of those kind of vocabulary gems, if you like that kind of thing: farinaceous, peppercorny, farthingale, slime-washed, and purblind were among the words that jumped out at me (just don’t ask me to pronounce them).
I got a little discouraged when, after pages and pages of description I reached this note.  The action kicked in just pages later.

I got a little discouraged when, after pages and pages of description I reached this note. The action kicked in just pages later.

Have you ever read a book that turned out to be entirely different than you expected (in a good way)?



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10 responses to “Dickensian

  1. Don

    Loved this, Irene. I happen to be reading Nicholas Nickleby right now (a little Dickens this time of year chases winter blues away) and ran across this amazing passage about looking out the back window of a typical London set of rowhouses/offices. It so captures a certain aspect of urban life, even today in cities like Pittsburgh:

    “Mr Nickleby closed an account-book which lay on his desk, and, throwing
    himself back in his chair, gazed with an air of abstraction through the
    dirty window. Some London houses have a melancholy little plot of ground
    behind them, usually fenced in by four high whitewashed walls, and
    frowned upon by stacks of chimneys: in which there withers on, from
    year to year, a crippled tree, that makes a show of putting forth a few
    leaves late in autumn when other trees shed theirs, and, drooping in
    the effort, lingers on, all crackled and smoke-dried, till the following
    season, when it repeats the same process, and perhaps, if the weather
    be particularly genial, even tempts some rheumatic sparrow to chirrup
    in its branches. People sometimes call these dark yards ‘gardens’; it
    is not supposed that they were ever planted, but rather that they are
    pieces of unreclaimed land, with the withered vegetation of the original
    brick-field. No man thinks of walking in this desolate place, or of
    turning it to any account. A few hampers, half-a-dozen broken bottles,
    and such-like rubbish, may be thrown there, when the tenant first moves
    in, but nothing more; and there they remain until he goes away again:
    the damp straw taking just as long to moulder as it thinks proper:
    and mingling with the scanty box, and stunted everbrowns, and broken
    flower-pots, that are scattered mournfully about–”

    Love Dickens … perhaps now it’s time for me to move on to Donna Tartt.


  2. Years ago I lived in a house where I had 100 rose bushes. I worked in my yard constantly. One day, while working in that yard, an old woman walked by and complimented me on my rose bushes. She wanted to know how I was so successful at growing them. We struck up a friendship as I coached her in gardening. I found out that she had been a literature professor before retiring and was obsessed with Dickens and Jane Austen. I had never read either.

    For my birthday she gave me a vintage edition of Pride and Prejudice. I was hesitant to read it, thinking it was going to be like sawdust, but I was wrong. I instantly “got” Jane Austen and her humor. I then proceeded to gobble up Sense and Sensibility, Emma, Persuasion, etc. I fell madly in love with Jane Austen’s work, and would think about it while working in my rose bed.

    That old woman is gone now, but she gave me a great gift, for which I will always be grateful.

  3. Esme

    Hard to improve on Dickens (I’ve read most of him) but I just started The Goldfinch today.

  4. Great post! I sent to my Dickens-loving friend!

  5. Yes. I had to read Wuthering Heights during one of my university units and I was dreading it. I wasn’t a fan of older books at the time so I really had to will myself to concentrate on the story in the first few pages. Surprisingly, I loved it and couldn’t put it down; I’ve even read it a couple of times since. I really like Charles Dickens too; he is a great writer, but yes, a little on the heavy side when it comes to describing things.

  6. Loved this post. I’m not sure how well known it is that Dickens was an amazing marketer. He didn’t wait for publishers to put his stuff out there, he did it himself – much like the self publishers of today. I wrote a blog post last month about how I think Dickens would have loved the tools available to writers today for marketing as well as publishing. Here’s the post if you’re interested:

  7. Jen

    My writing teacher told me of a web site soon to be launching that is bringing back the serial. Such a great idea and perfect timing! People want to read in small bites. Even lit.

  8. I sometimes think that people don’t get around to reading Dickens until they are ready for him. Imagine what a shame it would have been if you had read Dickens when your dad first urged you and hated him? You’d have a really hard time going back to him, or trying another one of his works.

    Great Expectations is excellent but A Tale of Two Cities is his best.

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