I didn’t read Dickens until I was an adult. His books seemed so long-winded, they just didn’t appeal to me as a child. It wasn’t until I was commuting into London every day that I had the time to tackle some really big novels. Whether I was crammed into a packed train on the Great Western line, holding on single-handedly on the London tube, or shivering on a wind-swept platform, I always had my head in a book. And I discovered a passion for Dickens’ great novels. Here are some of the reasons I enjoy his work so much. Warning – contains spoilers!
His writing is evocative
The opening of Bleak House is a perfect example. Dickens captures the implacable November weather in London with his descriptions of mud, smoke, black drizzle, soot, mire and fog. This is the quintessential Dickensian London:
Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping, and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights…
But of course, the mud and fog are metaphors for the real focus of his attack – The High Court of Chancery:
Never can there come fog too thick, never can there come mud and mire too deep, to assort with the groping and floundering condition which this High Court of Chancery, most pestilent of hoary sinners, holds, this day, in the sight of heaven and earth.
His writing is funny
Dickens is a brilliant satirist, but his humour is not always so severe. Often, it is gently amusing. I love the passage in Bleak House where the hapless Mr Guppy attempts a marriage proposal to Esther Summerson, without ever once mentioning the word “marriage.” After outlining the details of his past, present and future income, he sets forth the credentials of his mother to be a mother-in-law:
She is eminently calculated for a mother-in-law. She never interferes, is all for peace, and her disposition easy. She has her failings – as who has not? – but I never knew her do it when company was present; at which time you may freely trust her with wines, spirits, or malt liquors.
With the prospect of such a mother-in-law, it’s a wonder Esther doesn’t snap him up straightaway!
His writing is satirical
Dickens’ fiercest satire is reserved for those institutions which, he perceived, made the lives of his fellow citizens a misery – the law courts, the workhouses and needlessly bureaucratic government departments. The Circumlocution Office in Little Dorrit is my favourite:
The Circumlocution Office was…the most important Department under Government. No public business of any kind could possibly be done at any time without the acquiescence of the Circumlocution Office. Its finger was in the largest public pie, and in the smallest public tart. It was equally impossible to do the plainest right and to undo the plainest wrong without the express authority of the Circumlocution Office. If another Gunpowder Plot had been discovered half an hour before the lighting of the match, nobody would have been justified in saving the parliament until there had been half a score of boards, half a bushel of minutes, several sacks of official memoranda, and a family-vault full of ungrammatical correspondence, on the part of the Circumlocution Office.
His writing is compassionate
For me, what shines through most in Dickens’ work is his compassion. This is a writer who has a BIG heart. Although he pokes gentle fun at the likes of Mr Guppy and tears to shreds the pomposity of government departments, what comes to the fore time and time again is his compassion for ordinary people struggling to live good lives. I find the story of Mr Peggotty’s search for Little Em’ly in David Copperfield incredibly moving. And in Bleak House the death of the crossing-sweeper, Jo, moves me to tears. The chapter ends with a cry of helpless rage from the author at the poverty that leads to such meaningless waste of life:
Dead, your Majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen. Dead, Right Reverends and Wrong Reverends of every order. Dead, men and women, born with Heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us, every day.
He never lets a character go to waste
For me, Dickens is the undisputed master of plot construction. His novels are teeming with characters, but here’s the thing – every character counts. From the grandest aristocrat to the humblest crossing-sweeper, each character is significant to the plot in some way, whether for good or ill. This, I believe, is one of the main reasons his novels are so satisfying to read. So in Bleak House, George Rouncewell, who cares for Jo (who knows the truth about Nemo) before he dies and is wrongly accused of the murder of the wily lawyer Tulkinghorn (who sets much of the plot in motion), turns out to be the long-lost son of the house-keeper at Chesney Wold, home to Lady Dedlock, who turns out to be the mother of the herione, Esther Summerson, etc. etc. Is it contrived? Maybe a little, but this web of connections doesn’t half make a good story! And I love that about Dickens.