The Pickwick Papers

By Charles Dickens

Rating: 4 stars

This book, Dickens’ first novel, was a bit of a slow burner for me. The early part is an episodic travelogue in which the eponymous Mr Pickwick and some of his friends go travelling around the south of England, and the humorous adventures that they have along the way. Later the style seems to change a bit and, following the intervention of Dodgson and Fogg for Mrs Bardell, the pace picks up and I found myself reading more avidly.

The characters are probably the best part of the book for me, especially the irrepressible Sam Weller, Mr Pickwick’s valet, who’s always ready with a quick wit (especially of the ‘as X said to Y’ variety). Mr Jingle is a great literary invention as well, in his gentle sort of villainy, while Pickwick’s followers are amusing but not really all that interesting.

I know I have a love-hate relationship with Dickens, but I do feel that this is one that I could reread, and maybe even grow to love.

Book details

ISBN: 9780140436112
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Year of publication: 1837

Complete Ghost Stories

By Charles Dickens

Rating: 3 stars

Containing all of Dickens’ ghost stories, the stories in this volume are mostly fairly short, although there are two longer stories: the famous A Christmas Carol and The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain. While the former of those two novellas is a joy to read, I found the latter curiously difficult. I’m not sure why, but it was a struggle to get through. I found it dense, the characters uninteresting and the language leaden.

As for the other stories, they were a bit of a mixed bag. There were some lovely ones in there, including The Signalman, A Child’s Dream of a Star and the humorous The Lawyer and the Ghost.

The Goblins Who Stole a Sexton feels a little like a trial run for A Christmas Carol, with a humbug-laden sexton being taught to be charitable by supernatural creatures. Some of the stories have lost their power over the years, some are just plain weird and I really didn’t get The Haunted House which spent a huge amount of time on set-up, and then concluded in a few paragraphs, having completely ignored the carefully constructed situation of the house and the friends who had gathered within it.

This volume is worth it for A Christmas Carol and A Child’s Dream of a Star alone, but I fear that Dickens was no M.R. James.

Book details

ISBN: 9781853267345
Publisher: Wordsworth Classics
Year of publication: 1989

Martin Chuzzlewit

By Charles Dickens

Rating: 3 stars

I have issues with Dickens. I usually enjoy them as I’m reading them, but as soon as I put them down I don’t really want to pick them up again. This is partially why this book has taken me such a long time to read. That, and the fact that it’s about 800 pages long.

The plot is difficult to sum up since there are several meandering subplots that eventually start to come together towards the end of the book (and it was when this happened that I started to really become gripped by it). Old Martin Chuzzlewit is a wealthy man but spends his time hoarding his wealth and seeing plots all around him by his family to grab it. He falls out with his grandson and namesake over the woman he raised from a child to care for him, Mary, who Young Martin has fallen in love with. This sends Young Martin first to study with his relative Seth Pecksniff as an architect and then to America, where several misfortunes happen to him and eventually bring him back to England.

There’s no room in a short review to describe the other characters in the book: the good-hearted Tom Pinch; the hypocritical Pecksniff and his daughters; the rascal Montague Tigg; Old Martin’s brother Anthony and his villainous son Jonas and many more. Dickens’ characters have always been wonderful and these are certainly memorable. Caricatures, certainly, but lovingly rendered for all that.

One of the problems that I had with the book was its several plots, often moving between them, leaving cliffhangers aplenty. I appreciate this is probably due to the original episodic nature of the publication but I still found it somewhat irritating. This was especially apparent in the American sections, where, at one point, we left Young Martin on the verge of death, and didn’t return to him for several chapters.

Speaking of the American sections, I think these were some of the funniest in the book. They do display some degree of anti-Americanism, which Dickens admitted was down to his own perception on his first visit there. He later retracted this and left an afterword making clear that he no longer agreed with this (not in my edition, but I found it on the Wikipedia page). However, I’d argue that the American characters are no worse than the English ones, just “differently bad” with their obsession with Equality and Freedom.

I did find myself at times getting frustrated with the pace of the story and starting to skim-read, as I usually do, and having to stop and force myself to go back and read it again slowly, remembering that Dickens’ art is in his writing, not necessarily the storytelling. The gothic style of writing is certainly dramatic, at times melodramatic, but no less enjoyable for that.

Dickens is, of course, well known for his happy endings, and, despite knowing it must be coming, I was still captivated by it, but then I’m a sucker for happy endings :).

Did this book make me change my mind about Dickens? No, not really. It took me ages to work up to it, I enjoyed it while I was reading it, and now that I’m done, I have no desire to read any more Dickens. I’m sure I’ll pick up another one eventually and the cycle will repeat.

Book details

ISBN: 9781853262050
Publisher: Wordsworth Editions
Year of publication: 1844

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