Which are your favorite novels by Charles Dickens? For me, there are what I call the Big Four: Pickwick Papers, David Copperfield, Bleak House, and Our Mutual Friend. I am not trying to justify this list or claim that these are the best (although I would think any list ordering merit would put them high), simply to say that these are the novels that have given and continue to give me the most pleasure.
I suspect that if one were to be dropped from the list of the best, many people would opt for Pickwick Papers. It is a funny sort of novel, appearing in 1836, harking back more to the 18th century than forward into the Victorian Era. (The Queen came to the throne in 1837). It is rather shaggy at first, because it was intended merely to give a story to a series of pictures; but then with the appearance of Mr. Pickwick’s servant Sam Weller it takes off and never looks back. My absolute favorite bit is when Sam is in the witness box in the trial of Mr. Pickwick on a charge of breach of promise, and the trouble he causes for the other side. But Sam having supper with the posh servants of Bath is a pretty close second. Dodson and Fogg, the shifty lawyers, are pretty good too, as are the drunken medical students.
David Copperfield, is – well what does one say? It is certainly one of the most powerful depictions of childhood that has ever been written, and – writing now as one who lost a beloved mother when I was 13 and who thinks about her daily – I am simply in awe of the superhuman powers Dickens shows in writing about loss and grief by children who have lost parents. There is of course the wonderful Mr. Micawber and the great villain Uriah Heep – damp hands, rather curved spine, dank red hair. No prizes for guessing his besetting vice. All of that vital bodily fluid flowing out because of disgusting nocturnal habits. I am also staggered how Dickens gets away with describing the relationship between David and Steerforth. Although as adults they are unambiguously heterosexual, the earlier homosexual vibes between the two are described so openly.
Bleak House is perhaps the greatest. (OK, I am breaking my intent not to judge.) The novel was turned around for me when I read an analysis I think by Humphrey House. Like many (including the person who wrote the introduction to the book in my much-loved Oxford collection of the novels), I thought that the narrator Esther Summerson was another of Dickens’s rather drippy females – another Agnes from David Copperfield. Esther is always going on about being good and so forth – how everybody loves her. Then it was pointed out that Dickens was doing all of this deliberately, showing the insecurities of someone unloved in childhood and compensating. As soon as you see this, all falls into place and the author’s sheer brilliance is plain to see.
I am not quite sure why I am so fond of Our Mutual Friend, and, balancing this, rather less so of Little Dorrit. Let me just say that when I first met my wife, I was captivated by the fact that she was called “Lizzie” rather than “Liz” or “Betty” or some other form of Elizabeth. At once I said: “Oh just like Lizzie Hexam in Our Mutual Friend!” It says much for my good luck that she didn’t walk out on such a pretentious twit right then and there. (I cannot remember precisely, but I bet I compounded it by saying: “And Lizzie Eustace and Lizzie Borden.”) I might add, in praise of Little Dorrit, that I just love the character who thinks she can talk to foreigners by speaking loudly and in baby language. My late father used to go all over the continent doing just this, convinced he was fluent in about 10 languages.
There are some lesser novels of which I am incredibly fond, Dombey and Son and Oliver Twist in particular. I love the bit when Mr. Bumble has married the matron of the workhouse, is now under her thumb, and (being accused of a crime) told that in law even though his wife may have been the main party he is the one responsible. Most people know the first line but miss the far funnier last lines.
“It was all Mrs. Bumble. She would do it,” urged Mr. Bumble; first looking round to ascertain that his partner had left the room.
“That is no excuse,” replied Mr. Brownlow. “You were present on the occasion of the destruction of these trinkets, and indeed are the more guilty of the two, in the eye of the law; for the law supposes that your wife acts under your direction.”
“If the law supposes that,” said Mr. Bumble, squeezing his hat emphatically in both hands, “the law is a ass — a idiot. If that’s the eye of the law, the law is a bachelor; and the worst I wish the law is, that his eye may be opened by experience — by experience.”
Laying great stress on the repetition of these two words, Mr. Bumble fixed his hat on very tight, and putting his hands in his pockets, followed his helpmate down stairs.
And then there is Great Expectations. I had always viewed this through the lens of David Lean’s fantastic film adaptation – surely the best ever of a Dickens novel. That incredible opening scene across the marshes and down into the churchyard. But rereading the novel recently, I realized how much obviously had to be cut, but how also Lean had given the story an optimism that I don’t see in the book. I think it an incredibly dark tale of how a frustrated and unhappy woman, Miss Havisham, sets out successfully to destroy the happiness of two young people, Pip and Estella. I know that one version of the ending has the two come together again, but truly it is a story of destroyed hopes and love. Very powerful and I would say quite equal to anything in Dostoevsky, who is the great novelist I think of in a context like this.
As this week we celebrate Dickens’s 200th anniversary, I just want to say how lucky I am to have had Dickens as part of my life. And I haven’t even mentioned that I spent last Christmas Eve in tears as I reread a Christmas Carol and I am in tears now as I think of the death of David’s mother.