Dickensian Reflections

One of my favourite ‘cut and come again books’ into which I dip when I have a spare few moments is Susan Hill’s Howards End is on the Landing.  Each chapter conjures up memories of my own reading life and I often find myself thinking ‘just like me’.  I do have to admit however that I have never actually read one of Dickens’ novels while seated behind a sofa. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever read anything behind a sofa. I’ve always lived in houses where sofas stood flush against the living room wall. But, be that as it may, in the chapter headed Great Expectations behind the Sofa Hill does admit to having the same three favourite Dickens novels as my own.

[I]t is time I went back to Little Dorrit. Is it the best? I sometimes think so. Then again, I change my mind. Bleak House is the greatest of all the novels. But Our Mutual Friend has, I think, absolutely no flaws, and there is something about its description of London’s river at its blackest, most secret, most terrifying, and the low life that lurked about its quays and alleys and pot-houses, that takes me back to those Michaelmas terms, and the chill mist drifting off the Thames.

And, with Anne Shirley, I want to exclaim at the finding of a kindred spirit.

Which is the greatest? I couldn’t possibly say but, while I love most Dickens, it is these three to which I find myself returning time after time. If not to read the entire novel then to comfort myself with favourite passages or to spend the evening in the company of a much loved character such as Arthur Clennam, or Mr Wilfer.

While I love most of them, you will have noticed. And again Susan Hill and I walk hand in hand. My husband, she says, is welcome to laugh at Pickwick because I never could…

Me neither, me neither.

However, one of Ms Hill’s pronouncements has given me pause for thought.

In the silly game of which authors to throw overboard from the lifeboat and which one – just one – to save, I would always save Dickens. He is mighty. He is flawed. His flaws are huge but magnificent – and all of a piece with the whole.

Could I really save Dickens at the expense of Shakespeare? Could I manage with just Shakespeare if there was no Dickens to add narrative variety? The question has been tormenting me all day, much to the puzzlement of the friend with whom I had lunch, who pointed out that unless I was extremely unlucky it wasn’t a decision I was ever likely to have to make. Well, I know that. But what if I did? Sometimes the most unlikely things do happen, otherwise they wouldn’t be simply unlikely, they would be impossible.

Which should I choose? I’m going to fret about this all night. Be blowed to questions of international finance and political and banking corruption. Let’s stick to the really important dilemmas in life.

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22 thoughts on “Dickensian Reflections

    1. It’s a wonderful book for dipping into, Claire. I often take it out with me if I know I’m going to have to wait around and need something I can pick up and put down quite easily.

    1. Naomi, you have a treat in store. Susan Hill write just about everything and does it all superbly. There are literary novels such as ‘In the Springtime of the Year’, crime fiction beginning with ‘The Various Haunts of Men’, a nice line in ghost stories, for example, ‘The Man in Black’, children’s books, picture books, collections, on and on and on. And all of them are superbly written. My comments are a response to a book she wrote about having a year when she just read books she and her husband (the Shakespearian Scholar, Stanley Wells) had lying about the house. Between them, they have a lot of books!

  1. Heh, definitely a really important dilemma to ponder. If I had to choose between Dickens and Shakespeare I think I might go with Dickens because of his gentle humor and wit and general silliness. Even in his comedies Shakespeare is always serious. But if I had to choose between Dickens and say, Virginia Woolf, I’ll take Woolf please 🙂

    1. Now, Virginia Woolf would come into contention if it were her journals and essays, but not her fiction. I have read it, but I just can’t get excited about it. But, that has to be a good thing because it means if there’s only one set you can have it and we won’t be involved in fisty-cuffs.

  2. This is very helpful, as having finally conquered Great Expectations, I was wondering where I should head next. Little Dorrit or Our Mutual Friend, then? These are better than David Copperfield? The Old Curiosity Shop? You see it’s difficult to know which would be the right choice!

    1. I need to think about this, Litlove. Given the problems you’ve had with Dickens in the past, I’m not sure either of these is the way to go. although of the two I would suggest ‘Our Mutual Friend’. If you are going to go down the audio route again, then there is are two excellent versions available on Audible, one narrated by David Timson and the other David Troughton. Of the two I would go for the former, but it is much more expensive. If you want to stick with Martin Jarvis then the ‘Copperfield’ is very good and probably a better choice at this stage in your Dickensian journey. Unfortunately, I don’t know of a good unabridged version of ‘Oliver Twist’ which I might otherwise have suggested. If you want a different way into Dickens you could see if you could rent/borrow a copy of the RSC’s production of ‘Nicholas Nickleby’ (far too expensive too buy). It was one of the most stunning theatre experiences I’ve ever had and a very interesting way of exploring a rather rambling early novel.

  3. To my shame I haven’t read any of your three favourite Dickens novels, but you have inspired me to try one as an audiobook. Which should I choose?

    I agree, Susan Hill’s book is lovely for dipping in to. She’s such a good writer, and very well read.

    And as for your dilemma – Dickens or Shakespeare – definitely Shakespeare, or Dickens…? I hope I never have to make that decision!

    1. I’d go for ‘Bleak House’ first, Karen. The passage about the fog near the beginning is one of the most controlled yet truly superb pieces of writing I know and the rest of the book lives up to it.
      And you’re absolutely right. Of course it has to be Shakespeare, or Dickens. Unless of course it’s Dickens, or Shakespeare…!

      Off to see ‘Julius Caesar’ this afternoon. Can’t wait.

      1. Thank you for the suggestion Alex. I loved the graveyard scene in ‘Great Expectations’, so I think I’d enjoy this.
        I hope JC lives up to your expectations.

  4. Of course that is a better topic to worry about all night. the state of the world would just leave you depressed. And deep inside you always remember that you will always have both.

  5. Truly an important question. I would choose Dickens without a doubt. But then, I haven’t read anything by Shakespeare, only watched various movies, so … But for now, I’ll stubbornly stick with Dickens and not let the fact that I really haven’t enough firsthand knowledge of Shakespeare complicate things!

    1. I don’t know whether to envy or feel sorry for you, Christina. You should try and see some Shakespeare on the stage. It is never the same on the screen, however well it’s done.

        1. That would have been the RSC’s version, I think, Christina. I’ve been over to Stratford today to see their latest show. I’ll probably blog about it tomorrow.

          1. That sounds great, Alex. It’s been years since the last time I was in the theatre. I love it – but my boyfriend is not a fan and well, with two small children, we don’t get to go out that much in the evenings. Looking forward to living vicariously through you 😉

  6. Still haven’t found Timon, but had to stop off here! Definitely save Dickens! I’d hate a world without Shakespeare, but I don’t think I could live in one without Dickens. Especially Bleak House – for me, the finest novel I’ve ever read. Legal thriller, murder mystery, social commentary, love story and spontaneous combustion – what more could anyone ask for? I agree about the fog passage, but would argue for the clocks during Tulkinghorn’s last journey home…

    1. I know so much of Shakespeare off by heart (woe betide those who muck about with the script on stage!) that perhaps I could do without the texts. Knowing all of Dickens really isn’t an option. The Timon will be somewhere in November.

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