July 15, 2011

Doing Dickens

‘The characters simply go on and on, behaving like idiots, in a kind of eternity.’

This is what reading The Pickwick Papers is like, according to George Orwell. I heard this quote the other day, which terrified me, as Pickwick was first on my to-do list of reading all of Charles Dickens’s novels, in order, one a month. Easy, right? I’d planned to do this because (a) it is Dickens’s 200th anniversary in 2012 and (b) I decided I couldn’t put off reading his books until retirement or enforced bed-rest any longer.

A few brave souls, including Becky from our Art department, have decided to join me (well, there were more, but some dropped out – maybe they’d heard the quote too), and we had our inaugural Dickens discussion today.

So was George Orwell right about Pickwick? Well yes and no. It’s true, it is a bit of a picaresque adventure, where characters lurch from one calamity to another without much in the way of aim or conclusion. There’s a lot of ‘whoops, I’m in the wrong bedroom!’ and ‘oh no, I’ve fallen in a ditch’. But once you get past that, Pickwick is a brilliant read, for a number  of reasons:

• Everyone is drunk all the time.

• People insult each other with words like ‘poltroon’ and ‘gammon’.

• The fabulous Mr Jingle, whose elliptical speech (‘Present! Think I was; fired a musket, – fired with an idea, – rushed into wine shop – wrote it down – whiz, bang!’) reminded me of drunken Rowley Birkin QC from The Fast Show. Apologies to readers under thirty for this ancient cultural reference.

• The even more wonderful ‘Fat Boy’, with his ‘mountainous cheeks’, who either eats, passes out or looks at food (and occasionally people) ravenously.

• The way Dickens treats his characters ironically and is very happy for us to laugh at them as well as with them. Pickwick gets everything wrong, and we know it.

• The bizarre switches in mood, with dark and often shocking stories-within-stories about mistreated children, hauntings and criminals.

• That you can see what makes Dickens Dickens in embryo – law courts, debtors’ jails, feasts, ghosts, Christmas – and think of treats to come.

• It mentions Gravesend, my home town!

By the end of Pickwick its characters had started to feel like slightly annoying but adorable friends. Not only that, I feel Dickens is going to be my friend too. I’m already starting to get quite defensive of him – wanting to ask people who say ‘I hate Dickens’: have you read him? In fact, have you read a book? You may disagree though – in fact, I’m sure a lot of people will.

Next on the list: Oliver Twist. This is shorter than Pickwick, and we already know the plot, so I’m looking forward to our next meeting. (We’re thinking of dressing up and having Victorian pies and everything…)


Louise Willder

Copywriter Manager, Penguin Press


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Join the conversation! 21 Comments

  1. I loved the Pickwick Papers! Glad you did too. It’s just so funny. I think less of George Orwell now to be honest – Dickens is God!

  2. This is fabulous! Makes me want to join in. I have a love/ hate relationship with Dickens – made it through Bleak House and Oliver Twist (and adaptations of others!) and have been recommended Tale of Two Cities so many times I ought to just get on with it!

  3. Re-reading Dickens for his 200th anniversary sounds like a good idea. I’ve read quite a few over the years but it would be interesting to read them in the order they were written.

  4. Hmmm…Dickens? Maybe I should start reading it then!

  5. The only way to deal with Dickens is just to surrender yourself to his world, get lost in it. He’s hard work at first but he’s worth it. Bleak House and David Copperfield are brilliant, Pickwick is just Pickwick, don’t analyze just enjoy. And A Tale of Two Cities will have you weeping by the end. This from a hater of literary sentimentality and mawkishness!! Just read him.

  6. ps the blog above neglected to mention the inimitable Sam Weller, by far the best character in Pickwick.

  7. I am so jealous right now… Actually, I decided to take on Dickens too but backwards! So I am on Bleak House right now…

  8. Quite apart from enjoying the plots and the character names(something Dickens was noted for), reading him in chronological order offers an all-round view of him developing as a writer. Will you be also reading Peter Ackroyd’s biography of DIckens during or after this marathon ? 🙂

  9. i have read a few but i also think That reading them in order is very thrilling

  10. All good steam to you and your team Louise! I’m making my way through The Norton Shakespeare this year. Only 2,000 more pages for me. Many authors staring at me from my shelves as I continue my journey.I’ll not be distracted though. Soldier on friend.

  11. I LOVED Dickens as a child, because I loved words and devoured them like the Fat Boy devours pastries. I glommed them, not worrying about understanding storylines or context.
    As an adolescent, I grew tired of Dickens, finding each book a slog.
    As an adult, realising that reading Dickens as a novelist was largely reading him out of context, I began reading the way his original audience would – a chapter a week. The man wrote for weekly magazines, and when you get into that weekly rhythm, his style makes so much more sense, his stories seem so much livelier, his wit sharper, his characters more endearing (or terrifying).

  12. I’ve had a love/hate relationship with Dickens since having to bury myself in “Bleak House” at uni. This has re-inspired me.

  13. I was at Liverpool University in the early 1980’s,much interested in Politics at the time and read that the then Labour Leader Neil Kinnock had also decided to read Dickens from start to finish. I managed to pick up nearly all his books from ex Eng Lit students at Uni,my plan of attack was to read his shorter books first. I started with Oliver Twist,onto Hard Times, a Tale of Two Cities,but came a cropper with an attempt at one of longer novels, David Copperfield.
    Time for another attempt.

  14. Dicken’s characterisation and sense of history makes reading all his books worth while. But if you can only manage one I would recommend Tale of Two Cities. Has everything in it and a moral tale for every age.

  15. I agree 100% with you, Clare. I always loved the true deepness of his characters. Dickens for ever!

  16. Reading Dickens is a bit like watching Eastenders in parts, but you don’t really want to hit anyone! It is no wonder his stories make excellent cinema and TV.

  17. You looked so fine, and your wonderful clogs only added to the perfection; I wish every one of your readers could have seen how great you looked!
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