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Charles Dickens

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My history with Charles Dickens is a checkered one. Forced to read Great Expectations in high school, I developed a decades-long aversion to his work. Don't get me wrong. It's a marvelous novel, but I wasn't ready for it at 15. Re-reading the novel a few years ago, though, I discovered the joys of Dickens' inimitible style and storytelling ability, and I've been slowly making my way through his work. It's been a great delight. I only have two novels to go -- The Old Curiosity Shop and Martin Chuzzlewit. I'm currently midway through The Old Curiosity Shop.

And I want to throw the book across the room. For the first time since my re-discovery of Dickens, I'm stymied. This is such a maudlin, melodramatic story that I can scarcely believe that it comes from Dickens' pen. And I'm curious to know if anyone else has experienced this reaction. Perhaps it will get better, but right now my take is that this is the worst of Dickens' novels. The point of view (and narrator) abruptly switches focus about a fifth of the way through the novel. And the story repeatedly resorts to cheap and manipulative plot twists to carry it forward. This is Dickens novel #13 for me, and 12 for 13 is surely a more than respectable success rate. But I'm very disappointed in The Old Curiosity Shop. Has anyone else experienced this reaction?

Edited by Andy Whitman

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Speaking of Dickens, I've got a new blog that's all about him. You all are welcome to come check it out. Comments and suggestions welcome! :)

As for Curiosity Shop, I'm ill-equipped to write about it at the moment. I haven't read it in a very long time. However, I think it's pretty generally accepted that Dickens was rarely at his best when he was being sentimental, and I doubt he ever got more sentimental than he did with Little Nell & co.

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For "classic" titles, my Book Club last night selected multiple works by and about Dickens. I'll be getting my fill of his writings in the coming months. I'll add the details in the "Fiction for Men" thread later, after I received the finalized list, and will cross-post here.

Edited by Christian

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Speaking of Dickens, I've got a new blog that's all about him. You all are welcome to come check it out. Comments and suggestions welcome! :)

Veering slightly off-topic to Dickens' Little Dorrit, and mostly for Gina:

Ann Kirschner's experiment with reading LD as book, audio, Kindle, and iPhone:

It was often maddening to keep finding and losing my place as I switched from format to format. But as an experiment, it taught me a great deal about my reading habits, and about how a text reveals itself differently as the reading context changes. Along the way, I also began to make some predictions about winners and losers in the evolution of books.

Maybe I should crosspost this to "technology" ;)

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For "classic" titles, my Book Club last night selected multiple works by and about Dickens. I'll be getting my fill of his writings in the coming months. I'll add the details in the "Fiction for Men" thread later, after I received the finalized list, and will cross-post here.

See if you can get some of your club members to drop by and post at my blog. I can always use more readers. :D

Beth, thanks for the article. I'll check that out!

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And I want to throw the book across the room. For the first time since my re-discovery of Dickens, I'm stymied. This is such a maudlin, melodramatic story that I can scarcely believe that it comes from Dickens' pen. And I'm curious to know if anyone else has experienced this reaction. Perhaps it will get better, but right now my take is that this is the worst of Dickens' novels. The point of view (and narrator) abruptly switches focus about a fifth of the way through the novel. And the story repeatedly resorts to cheap and manipulative plot twists to carry it forward. This is Dickens novel #13 for me, and 12 for 13 is surely a more than respectable success rate. But I'm very disappointed in The Old Curiosity Shop. Has anyone else experienced this reaction?

Thanks for posting this. The Old Curiosity Shop is the only Dickens I've ever read. Many years ago I received it as a gift, read it and wondered why anyone would ever go gaga over his writing! I've not read any Dickens since.

Although I do now have several of his other books on the shelf (for show). Of them -- David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, Great Expectations and Tale of Two Cities -- which would you recommend to revive my interest in Dickens?

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Either of the last two, I would say. GE is the first Dickens novel I read, and was powerful enough to spark my lifelong love of the author. TOTC is my all-time favorite.

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I dearly love Great Expectations. It's widely regarded as Dickens' greatest work, and it features one of the greatest plot twists ever written. And no, I won't give it away. The characters are memorable, the writing is sublime, and the story is unforgettable. That's the one I'd recommend to anyone who has struggled with Dickens in the past, which, I suspect, is most of us.

And e2c, I sympathize with your reaction to the serialization aspects of Dickens' novels. As great as he is, I sometimes wonder how great he could have been if he hadn't been paid by the word (or whatever the form of payment was that caused him to pad his novels, sometimes ridiculously so). That was my primary reaction when I recently watched the PBS 5-part dramatization of Little Dorritt. It's a great story. It's just a little too much story.

Edited by Andy Whitman

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As great as he is, I sometimes wonder how great he could have been if he hadn't been paid by the word (or whatever the form of payment was that caused him to pad his novels, sometimes ridiculously so).

You just repeated one of my LEAST favorite rumors in the whole world. Completely untrue!

If you know something about Dickens's personality, you know why he wrote the way he wrote. It wasn't padding or filler. It was his enormous energy and enthusiasm bubbling over and spilling onto the page, as people like G. K. Chesterton and J. Bottum have pointed out. The way Dickens acted and lived and talked was the way he wrote. He was so intense that he could wear people out -- or, sometimes, inspire them.

Love him or hate him, if you don't understand this, you've missed something crucial about Dickens. Mistakes, meanderings and all, he wrote from the heart (in the best sense of that overused phrase), not out of cold-blooded cynicism.

[/soapbox]

Edited by Gina

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As great as he is, I sometimes wonder how great he could have been if he hadn't been paid by the word (or whatever the form of payment was that caused him to pad his novels, sometimes ridiculously so).

You just repeated one of my LEAST favorite rumors in the whole world. Completely untrue!

If you know something about Dickens's personality, you know why he wrote the way he wrote. It wasn't padding or filler. It was his enormous energy and enthusiasm bubbling over and spilling onto the page, as people like G. K. Chesterton and J. Bottum have pointed out. The way Dickens acted and lived and talked was the way he wrote. He was so intense that he could wear people out -- or, sometimes, inspire them.

Love him or hate him, if you don't understand this, you've missed something crucial about Dickens. Mistakes, meanderings and all, he wrote from the heart (in the best sense of that overused phrase), not out of cold-blooded cynicism.

[/soapbox]

Okay, so he got paid by the 32-page monthly installment. If it's not putting too fine a point on it, he got paid by the words, not by the word.

And there's nothing wrong with that, except it induces pressure to come up with 32 pages every thirty days. And some of those 32-page installments might have been improved by some judicious editing. Certainly Dickens was passionate about social reform, and he had a real love for his characters. I have no doubt that he wrote from the heart. But deadlines are deadlines, and they're both a blessing and a curse. In this case, they allowed Dickens to focus his enormous energy and write prolifically. But they also sometimes resulted in carelessness and redundancy.

Don't get me wrong. The fact that Dickens was able to write so well for so long, and produce tens of thousands of pages in the process, is nothing short of remarkable. But I'll put it this way: my wife, who has never read Little Dorritt, watched the recent PBS series with me. Her comment: "Okay, I get it. The Father of the Marshalsea has a major issue with pride. How many times do I need to be hit over the head with this?" And I understand her reaction. We get it, Chuck. Move along. And sometimes he doesn't move along fast enough.

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Okay, so he got paid by the 32-page monthly installment. If it's not putting too fine a point on it, he got paid by the words, not by the word.

And there's nothing wrong with that, except it induces pressure to come up with 32 pages every thirty days. And some of those 32-page installments might have been improved by some judicious editing. Certainly Dickens was passionate about social reform, and he had a real love for his characters. I have no doubt that he wrote from the heart. But deadlines are deadlines, and they're both a blessing and a curse. In this case, they allowed Dickens to focus his enormous energy and write prolifically. But they also sometimes resulted in carelessness and redundancy.

Don't get me wrong. The fact that Dickens was able to write so well for so long, and produce tens of thousands of pages in the process, is nothing short of remarkable. But I'll put it this way: my wife, who has never read Little Dorritt, watched the recent PBS series with me. Her comment: "Okay, I get it. The Father of the Marshalsea has a major issue with pride. How many times do I need to be hit over the head with this?" And I understand her reaction. We get it, Chuck. Move along. And sometimes he doesn't move along fast enough.

I'm not saying he didn't make mistakes and messes. He did. (Though I don't consider the Father of the Marshalsea and his many follies one of them. There are many facets to his character, and it takes time to explore them all. If you just had a scene that basically declared, "Here's a proud man -- now we're moving along," you wouldn't get the secret shame, or the inner conflict, or the self-deception, or the paradox of love that expresses itself as selfishness. It's all part of the character development.)

I love how one of my blog commenters put it: ". . . I don't know if this disqualifies me as a fan of Dickens. I see his faults and flaws (in writing and life) and like to point them out because I don't feel they should have been prevented or eliminated. They are an integral part of who he was, and still is. If he were not this exuberant, messy, and crazy man, he would not have made so many mistakes, nor would he have given us such sprawling, massive, mind-blowing masterpieces. His flaws and imperfections are what made him who he was, as much as his genius and passions and vision and compassion."

I don't think that disqualifies one as a fan, I think it makes one an honest and perceptive fan!

But I'm not trying to argue that anyone should feel differently than they do about certain qualities of Dickens. These things are a matter of taste. I'm only trying to point out things about him and his work that often tend to get lost in the fog of cliche and stereotype.

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Okay so as a writer who seems to be destined to be published only in newspapers and magazines -- but perhaps I should not curse myself in that way -- I stood last night before the bookshelf holding Great Expectations and The Tale of Two Cities and chose the latter because of the claims to its succinctness. (I'd planned to begin A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius last night, but removed it from my nightstand and put it back on the bookshelf.) Don't know how I missed Tale in high school. I seem to remember other classmates reading it.

Regardless, the first chapter, has me intrigued. Why did this banker take the dangerous mail coach? What's with the dead guy speaking to the banker? Is the banker sort of nuts or is this a symbolic thing? Who is the teenaged girl? Why, if he brought her to England from France as a baby, has he not seen her these long years? What is forcing their meeting now?

Although I am capable, at times, at seeing irony and levels of meaning in my reading, at other times I feel exceedingly dull, as if I've read a whole wonderful book and missed its meaning entirely. I love the conversation going on here about Dickens, which will go a long way in informing my reading!

Edited by Annelise

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I love the conversation going on here about Dickens, which will go a long way in informing my reading!

Glad we can help! :) I hope you enjoy the reading!

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For "classic" titles, my Book Club last night selected multiple works by and about Dickens. I'll be getting my fill of his writings in the coming months. I'll add the details in the "Fiction for Men" thread later, after I received the finalized list, and will cross-post here.

To follow up, our club coordinator hasn't sent around a list of all the titles we selected for the coming months, but among them were Great Expectations for the fall and Little Dorrit for early next year, with The Man Who Invented Christmas as our December/Christmas chioce.

Edited by Christian

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I dearly love Great Expectations. It's widely regarded as Dickens' greatest work, and it features one of the greatest plot twists ever written. And no, I won't give it away. The characters are memorable, the writing is sublime, and the story is unforgettable. That's the one I'd recommend to anyone who has struggled with Dickens in the past, which, I suspect, is most of us.

Oh, yeah. I've read Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol, Bleak House, and Great Expectations and I think GE is my favourite. Agree with Andy 100%.

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I just finished The Tale of Two Cities, thanks to your all's recommendation. "It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known."

Wow.

If it was not for this thread I never would have pick up a Dickens book again!

I do plan to hit Great Expectations as my next Dickens, but think I'll do some lighter reading in the meantime. I have a new bookcase (!!!), and I've put on it all the books I've not yet read, along with some short fiction for sleepless nights.

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I know little about Dickens, so when my former editor used to rant about Dickens being a Universalist, citing the fact that there's no mention of God in the Christmas Carol, I sort of accepted what he said, though I was puzzled. After completing A Tale of Two Cities, I must disagree with my editor. Sydney Carton as a Christ figure is quite obvious, and Dickens quotes "I am the resurrection and the life .... " over and over at the end. So what faith was he? Did he explain it anywhere?

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Anneliese -- is this yours?

http://www.dnronline.com/skyline_details.p...sub=Rural%20Pen

If it is -- as I'm guessing it is -- awesome job! :)

First Things just had a very good article about Dickens's faith. And there's a book about his faith, based on an examination of his book The Life of Our Lord, coming out soon, of which I'm trying to get a review copy. But I don't have the link handy at the moment.

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Anneliese -- is this yours?

http://www.dnronline.com/skyline_details.p...sub=Rural%20Pen

If it is -- as I'm guessing it is -- awesome job! :)

First Things just had a very good article about Dickens's faith. And there's a book about his faith, based on an examination of his book The Life of Our Lord, coming out soon, of which I'm trying to get a review copy. But I don't have the link handy at the moment.

Yes it is mine. Thanks so much!

I'll keep my eyes open for Life of our Lord for more understanding of his faith.

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I've dropped "The Old Curiousity Shop" for this thread title. It's now just "Charles Dickens."

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I skimmed the First Things article very briefly and am wondering when, exactly, Dickens wrote the bit about "our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ"? Clearly, he was a professing Anglican for at least part of his life, but I bet this quote is fairly early.

It's from his will.

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No, it's a good question. But I don't know the answer.

My impression -- and this is based on his works plus a small amount of knowledge about his life, so take it with a grain of salt -- is that he believed in the basic tenets of Christianity, but tended to overemphasize certain aspects and underemphasize others (e.g., more emphasis on Christ's humanity than His divinity).

Also, although his Christianity inspired his philanthropy and general concern for the poor, as explained in the First Things article, he did fail in some significant ways to live up to his beliefs -- most notably in the failure of his marriage.

Interestingly, in his books, he often puts emphasis on the importance of a salvation experience. A Tale of Two Cities has been mentioned. Great Expectations is another good example. Might be an interesting idea for research. . . . :)

Edited by Gina

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I was amazed at the First Things info on Dickens, how persistently he followed his ideals, and how seemingly well-thought-out his ministry was. As for his marriage failing, most of us have areas in our lives that do not measure up to our ideals ("or what's a heaven for?"). I guess what fascinates me most is how he lived such an active life and still had time for all that writing! What energy. Many of (us) writers believe it's our job to point the way and let others do the work. So he challenges me!

Gina, is the salvation experience thread something you plan to pursue in research?

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I was amazed at the First Things info on Dickens, how persistently he followed his ideals, and how seemingly well-thought-out his ministry was. As for his marriage failing, most of us have areas in our lives that do not measure up to our ideals ("or what's a heaven for?"). I guess what fascinates me most is how he lived such an active life and still had time for all that writing! What energy. Many of (us) writers believe it's our job to point the way and let others do the work. So he challenges me!

Gina, is the salvation experience thread something you plan to pursue in research?

I'd really like to, someday when I get time -- if that blessed day ever comes! ;)

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I just learned that UNC-Chapel Hill's Playmakers Repertory is producing the David Edgar play (2 nights to see it all) of Nicholas Nickleby this fall. They're blogging the whole process "From Page to Stage." I just recently got hold of the A&E/BBC TV version of this play from the 80s with Roger Rees & David Threlfall. It is amazing. If you can't get to Chapel Hill this fall, get the DVDs.

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