Tag Archives: Charles Dickens

Dodger by Terry Pratchett

Dodger by Terry Pratchett

I’m late reading Dodger – it came out last September, and typically I finish a new Pratchett book within a couple days of getting my hands on a copy. Dodger has been sitting on my shelf for months, for two reasons:

  1. There was a lot going on
  2. I started it, and didn’t immediately love it

It’s easy to explain why I turned away from Dodger, despite being rather enamoured of Terry Pratchett’s novels – it’s that Charles Dickens again.

Dodger, for those who haven’t spent as much time with Dickens as I have recently, is named for the boy thief with the laughing face and the quick fingers in Oliver Twist. It’s a speculative rewriting of history, mixing actual historical figures with a completely fictional story, deliberately changing actual events to get a better plot.

Pratchett’s Dodger is a quick, canny young reprobate, who saves a girl from a beating an in doing so gets drawn into a world of wider intrigue where he needs to use every trick and twist he’s learned in the poor parts of London to stay alive and out of the reach of those who would snuff him out like a candle.

Too much Dickens, not enough Pratchett
Dodger isn’t like Pratchett’s other books. It’s not set on the Discworld, but it a somewhat alternate-universe version of the 19th century, perhaps the same universe as Nation (which I very much enjoyed, incidentally). It’s being marketed at children, judging by the suggested reading at the end, and certainly looks like it’s going to be a Pratchett retelling of parts of Oliver Twist. It isn’t. Dodger is an entirely separate and unique story, which has more to do with Dickens’ actual life than the contents of Oliver Twist.

Dodger is something of an odd mix, I found – I think it’s like a mash up of Pratchett and Dickens, like a writing excercise taken full length. Pratchett has an extra 170 years of writing conventions and tropes to deal with, so in writing a historical novel he’s had to abandon many of his enjoyable fantastic elements but can’t really replace them with Dickens’ tricks as they’ve become cliched in the interim – particularly what I think of as ‘is it really you?’ where a chance encounter or a detail mentioned in passing causes someone to start up and cry ‘is it really you?’ as they discover that the book only has 6 characters, and therefore their missing brother, aunt, benefactor, mother and pet dog are all in the room with them already.

I’m very fond of Pratchett’s Discworld novels and not very fond of Dickens, so it’s not surprising that I was disappointed at first reading. Beyond my personal taste though, I felt that there was something a bit off about this one – a lot of the characters sounded the same to me when they spoke. I think – although I can’t tell for sure – that it’s the Vimes Does A Speech voice, which crops up in the Vimes books when he starts to lecture. Perhaps everyone was lecturing Dodger, but it did seem odd to me that so many of the secondary charcters had this same tone when Pratchett’s minor characters are usually so memorable.

The plot didn’t immediately grab me either, although I did get into it towards the middle, and finished the book in a couple of days this time round.

Too much Pratchett, not enough Dickens
Pratchett is not – to state the obvious – an on-the-spot period writer like Dickens was, and he’s had to bend history quite a bit to get his story to fit in. I’m not fond of historical changes unless they’re either clearly marked (I’d like footnotes, please, with references and suggestions for further reading) or so big that and obvious that you can’t possibly take them as fact (like dragons fighting Napoleon, for example). Pratchett’s book drags so many well-known names (like that Dickens) into the story that you hope no one would take it for direct reporting, but it’s still not always clear. I don’t quite know whether to call the changes inaccuracies, as the end notes make clear that at least some of them are deliberate, but there are quite a few things which don’t ring true, even to my untrained eye.

One thing which bothered me – and this is possibly only because I’ve just finished Oliver Twist – is that Pratchett throws Dickens into the story, but as a solidly Victorian character. And he seems like he should be, being heavily associated with the reign of that Queen, which, in fairness went on an awful long time. In Dodger, Dickens reads like a young, hungry journalist of about 20. Even allowing for the fact that gents at this period seemed to carry that phase on into their 30s and possibly longer (see Dickens’ own Pickwick Papers for an example), by the time Queen Victoria came to the throne, Dickens was 25 and married, a character formed in the pre-Victorian era.

There’s no mention of a wife in Dodger, and it’s written as though Pratchett’s Dodger is the inspiration for the character in Oliver Twist but it seems like Dickens in this story encounters the Dodger some time after he would have written the fictional Dodger. The Dodger first appears in Chapter 8 of Oliver Twist, a chapter first published in May 1837, according to Wikipedia. In Dodger, Queen Victoria is mentioned as not only being securely on the the throne (accession June 1837, coronation 1838) but married to Albert (1840).

All in all, I think this was probably a good book (if you like Dickens, which I don’t) but it wasn’t a book you’d recommend to someone because they told you they loved Colour of Magic or my own favourite, Small Gods. It’s very different from Pratchett’s Discworld books. I imagine Pratchett enjoyed writing it, and did it for the love of the thing, and that’s a good enough reason to do it.

He has written so many books I’ve loved to bits that I can hardly complain that I haven’t had enough – although I do always want more. It’s like someone inviting you round for dinner regularly and putting your favourite foods on the table every week – it might take months before you realise they were serving their favourite foods and it’s all been a happy coincidence. For me, the discovery that Pratchett wasn’t writing to my exact tastes has been so long in coming that I really can’t do more than grouse, looking back at all the wonderful books I’ve had, that this one was merely acceptable.

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

If you’ve been following along as I read my way through the List, you may have thought this day would never come. I’m here to tell you that I read a whole Dickens book in less than a week – and I enjoyed it. #182 Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens is available for free on Project Gutenberg and Kindle.

Oliver Twist is a pretty well-known story, what with all the movies and the hit musical, never mind TV shows, plays, tales for children and more. It tells the story of one child, Oliver Twist, who is born in a workhouse and dragged up in early 19th century England. Oliver suffers a series of reversals, and the cast of secondary characters is astonishing – not just because of the variety but because of how they take over. You don’t even see Oliver for chapters at a time, but I certainly didn’t care.

I didn’t find the story upsetting but there is plenty of grief in the book, and a lot of violence, including towards children. However, it didn’t bother me –  I can’t usually take it any more seriously than the characters do, and Dickens goes so wry at those points that I quite often had to reread a passage to realise that something quite grim indeed had just happened. But it’s worth a warning.

Somewhat implausible
Oliver has the most luck of any child in any story I’ve ever read. It’s not all good luck – far from it, most of it is dreadful luck – but honestly, if you knew Oliver you’d be tempted to send him to buy a lottery ticket because either he’d win or be abducted by aliens or fall down a hole and land in a dragons hoard, and whatever happened, it would be entertaining.

Oliver himself is of the faint and faithful, delicate and good child. I doubt Dickens invented the type, but between Oliver, Tiny Tim (from A Christmas Carol) and poor little Nell (who I haven’t actually encountered yet, as The Old Curiosity Shop isn’t on the list) he certainly added to its numbers. Thanks to his faint, faithful, goodness, he very nearly expires several times and almost vanishes from the novel entirely, shoved aside by much more vivid characters.

And, oh, Dickens is good at a character portrait, when he’s having fun. The Artful Dodger, Nancy, Sikes, the good Doctor, the workhouse beadle and the matron – the villains and quirky characters are a delight, steal every scene shamelessly and make the book. It starts with a bang and carries on with new twists and turns in every chapter – none of the waiting around I found in Great Expectations or A Tale of Two Cities. Start Oliver at the beginning and run with it through to the end.

Not unproblematic
If you’re familiar with the text, you’ll notice I didn’t mention Fagin. Dickens first published Oliver Twist in 1837, and it ran as a serial story until 1839, neatly covering the period when Queen Victorian became queen and was crowned. So although Oliver is often treated as a tale of Victorian squalor, it’s actually earlier than that.

Which is to say, that if you thought Victorian attitudes to certain sections of society were unreconstructed, you should see their predecessors. When Dickens wrote Oliver Twist, a hanging was a good day out, the British Empire was a brilliant scheme for dealing with foreigners and savages and people were only just starting to consider the idea that starving poor people to death might not be an appropriate punishment for the crime of being unlucky.

Fagin is a very memorable character. He’s thief-in-chief of a gang of juvenile delinquents. He’s taken up and trained each of them, looks out for them, to a certain extent, and makes sure they’re fed and kept in gin and tobacco. He’s intensely miserly, doesn’t care much about anyone but himself and is thoroughly unpleasant. He’s also Jewish. Which wouldn’t, of itself, be terrible except that it’s so rare to see a Jewish character in Great Works of English Literature before 1950 (partly because the Jewish texts aren’t considered Great Works generally, maybe Pretty Good Works or perhaps Unjustly Forgotten works, like, oh, all the rest of the Others) and Judaism is mentioned like a vice, another bad character trait when the character is already cringing, creeping, miserly, grasping and physically disgusting, like Shylock in Merchant of Venice.

Dickens tagged his characters – the ginger hair, the white waistcoat, the angel, the brute – so people would remember them throughout the months and years of reading a serial in installments. Fagin is ‘the Jew’ – he’s pretty much the only Jewish person in Dickens, so in one, narrow, sense it’s a reasonable appellation, but in another: it sucks.

Wikipedia suggests that Dickens was made aware of this problem and worked to correct it, which is interesting and – like the conversation about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory does raise the question of which edition one should read: the first (‘true’) edition? the later (‘director’s cut’) edition? an even later, even cleaner one? I, personally, tend to see this sort of change as correcting a mistake – like tweaking a story to fix a plot hole or factual inaccuracy, but one does have to draw the line somewhere, and other texts are trickier.

All in all, I enjoyed Oliver Twist. I’ve read it twice now, and think it’s a good story and probably my favourite Dickens so far. I’ve been told to look forward to David Copperfield – that and Bleak House are the last two on the list, so any words of encouragement are welcome!

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens

The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens

I am clearly missing something about Dickens novels, as the ones I like the most appear the lowest down the list. I should probably search out the ones panned by critics and fans alike, the ones rarely mentioned, and I’d love them. Anyway, #106 The Pickwick Papers is available for free on Project Gutenberg and is the second lowest on the list. Oliver Twist trails at #182, and I’ve read and enjoyed that one.

The novel follows the adventures of Mr Pickwick and three of his protégés as they venture forth from London to the provinces, hoping that travel will broaden the mind and improve their spirits. They plan to report back to the rest of the Pickwick Club, left behind in London, regularly with news of their scientific and social discoveries.

The Pickwick Papers has a somewhat annoying conceit which is that the story has been reconstructed from the papers left behind by the eponymous club. It’s useful to the author, no doubt, as it allows him to steer away from things he doesn’t want to talk about. It also means that Dickens shouldn’t be able to recount things certain people would prefer went unrecorded or wouldn’t have known, but he doesn’t let the conceit constrain him, and gives up mentioning after about the first ten chapters.

Better than Great Expectations
All in all, I found The Pickwick Papers to be the easiest of Dickens’ novels I’ve read. The story starts straight away and rattles off, shifting locations and plots in a pleasing, if episodic, manner. It was published – and probably written – in installments, which actually works quite well as the whole is enormously long – over 750 pages, depending on the edition – but each chapter is about the same length and contains a complete incident.

Unlike some of Dickens’ other novels, there are relatively few characters – although I would applaud anyone who could keep them all straight reading it in monthly installments as some characters must have vanished for a year or more before popping up again and throwing themselves into the action.

I did struggle with a few elements though – I had trouble keeping the characteristics of Mr Pickwick’s three friends apart, as they all seemed very similar. They did have certain traits which stood out, but on the whole it was a bit of a blur. I also couldn’t tell how old people were supposed to be – particularly the three friends – as Dickens frequently exaggerated for comic effect, and I just got confused. At one point he described someone as ‘single young lady of 53′, obviously satirical but the other descriptions are as much in doubt. Add in the different standards of the day and I wound up feeling faintly – or not so faintly – horrified any time one of the characters made a pass at a woman as the ladies all seemed to be about 17 and the men all sounded about 60.

19th century life displayed and dissected
The Pickwick Papers is written to be amusing – it’s droll in parts, wry in others and often satirical. As a result it’s focus is typically on ordinary events, the kind which don’t make much of an appearance in other works. So we see, for example, the process of hiring a cab, paying a fare, travelling by stage, taking a room at an inn – minutiae of early 19th century life which just don’t appear in many books or period dramas but which help bring the era to life.

The Pickwick Papers first appeared in 1836, the year before Queen Victoria ascended the throne.Victorians tend to seem prudish, with their 14 pounds of underwear and stories of covering the ‘limbs’ of pianos to protect nice young ladies from thinking about legs – either it was a late-Victorian phenomenon or the Pickwick Club don’t move in such elevated circles, because they come across as a collection of fairly randy drunkards. A The Pickwick Papers drinking game would be to match the characters drink for drink, and have any drinking team with a sporting problem looking for a basin to throw up in pretty quickly.

I won’t say I took a wild shine to any of the characters, but I did enjoy the stories and one part, where they go pigeon shooting, almost made me laugh out loud (it’s Chapter 7, to save you reading the other 56) and I enjoyed their trips to some of my old haunts – they visited Bath, Bristol and perhaps Ely or Norwich, although the description there wasn’t as vivid. In fact, one of our favourite pubs in Bath – somewhere you can get a good pint and hear yourself talk – is named after one of the characters: it’s Sam Wellers on Upper Borough Walls.

The Pickwick Papers also links through to plenty of other books – it was clearly popular at the time and seems to have been considered wholesome reading for children, which seems slightly odd with all the drinking, kissing serving maids and whatnot. For example, the altogether more puritanical Little Women devotes the whole of Chapter 10 to the Pickwick Club and the Marches own version thereof.

While I wouldn’t start a fan club, I did enjoy The Pickwick Papers overall – although it’s got little in common with the rest of Dickens’ oeuvre, so if you’re wondering if you’ll get on with the rest of his works, don’t start here.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

The highest rated Dickens on the list, #17 Great Expectations bored me rigid. It’s taken me half a year to finish this book – I’ve read other Dickens novels to get away from it. Nonetheless, Great Expectations is available for free on Project Gutenberg and Kindle.

Great Expectations tells the story of Pip, an orphan with little to hope for who is being raised by his sister. After a few early upsets, he meets the wealthy Miss Havisham and her beautiful ward, Estella, and a mysterious benefactor takes pity on him and sends him away to be raised as a gentleman – giving him the expectations mentioned in the title.

Why bother?
Given how long it took me, you may be wondering why I finished Great Expectations – after all, I made no promises about finishing all the books on the list, only trying them. The answer to that is twofold: completeness (of the list) and Thursday Next.

The Thursday Next series of books is written by Jasper Fforde and covers Thursday’s adventures in and out of fiction. It starts with The Eyre Affair, which features Miss Havisham as a main character. In spoiling (to a certain extent) Great Expectations, Fforde encouraged me to finish the book, just to see what happened inside the novel.

It does get better
Having reread the Thursday Next series (more on that another day) I picked up Great Expectations where I’d left it, about chapter 30 (of 59). And I waded on through Pip’s formative years (he reminds me of Adrian Mole, honestly, with his self-centered self-importance) I despaired a little but! I burst through into the final chapters of the book – the last third or so suddenly starts revealing secrets kept, wrapping up trailing sub-plots and crams in a surprising amount of action. It’s as though after watching someone paint a fence very slowly for a couple hundred pages we’ve suddenly been catapulted into an action film.

The shock was pleasant and I was glad I hung on until the end – given that I’d started the book, that is. The less Pip talked, the more I liked everyone else in the book – I had one character I was rooting for in the first half (Herbert) but several others redeemed themselves (in terms of being interesting, not necessarily ethical) and by the end of it, I wished most people well and although I was still glad to wave them goodbye.

I doubt I’ll reread it, but if I did, I think I’d start half way through. Pip repeats himself enough that that shouldn’t cause too many problems…

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

Another classic novel, highly regarded by readers and scholars, #63 A Tale of Two Cities is available for free on Project Gutenberg and Kindle.

A Tale of Two Cities is set in London and Paris, before and during the French Revolution. Two men are caught up in the injustices of both eras, one facing aristocratic retribution, the other punished for being an aristocrat. As the blood runs in the streets, they find their lives are more entwined than they ever thought possible.

Historical novel
Published in 1849, the novel is set 60 years earlier, yet the events of the French Revolution would have still been fresh in readers’ minds – like novels written today and set during the Second World War.

It’s more alien today, and although I remember learning about the French Revolution, the events were chaotic enough that I don’t have a clear picture of how it unraveled – and Dickens doesn’t explain much.

While I don’t expect a novel to be a history book, I like to know what’s going on, and I found the first part of the story hard to follow. There was so much foreshadowing that I felt Dickens had stopped shoveling it on and started beating me about the head with the spade instead, yelling ‘IT’S COMING!’. Despite this, I didn’t really know what was coming – uprising, yes, blood in the streets, yes, guillotine, sure – but how much, how soon and where? And since we’ve been in London for ten years, why do we care?

I read A Tale of Two Cities between reading the first half of Great Expectations (last year!) and finishing it (more on that next week), and the comparison helped me realise: I just don’t like Dickens’ style of build up. In both cases, I would have happily jumped in at the deep end about half to two-thirds of the way through, and probably enjoyed the book rather more without the flanneling at the front.

What actually happens
Stripped of the waffle, the story is interesting, in a melodramatic way. I don’t want to spoil anything (I didn’t know what happened at the end when I started reading the book, one reason I was reluctant to do any research while in the middle of it) but you’d be forgiven for thinking that there are only about a dozen people in London and Paris combined. That said, after I got through Book One (in which the author talks about tumbrils for quite a while but none are seen) and the action came back to Paris, I got quite interested and didn’t manage to predict the end.

However, I was disappointed with the book – and for an entirely irrational reason. One of my favourite books ever is Diana Wynne Jones’ A Tale of Time City. I think it’s brilliant and I’ve loved the book from when I first read it in primary school and still loved it (uncritically, you’ll be shocked to hear) last time I read it a year ago. As you can see, the title is based on Dickens’ book – and so I thought I’d like his, too, by association. A childhood dream, crushed by a wordy description of a tumbril – that’s pretty much A Tale of Two Cities in a nutshell.

On balance, I’m glad I read the book – but only because I can say I did, and it’s one of those classics one is “supposed” to read, so I’ve got a few more bragging points.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

As it’s Christmas next week, it seemed like a good moment for the most obviously festive book on the list.
#47 A Christmas Carol is available for free on Project Gutenberg and in the Kindle store.

First published in 1843, the story is now one of the most popular Christmas stories, told alongside classics like ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas (also free) and, of course, the nativity story.

Dickens’ tale is brief but action packed, and covers the conversion to ‘keeping Christmas’ of one Ebeneezer Scrooge, miser and misanthropist, after a series of supernatural visitations.

A Victorian Christmas
As Scrooge is visited by the different spirits, he is shown a range of contemporary Christmases, from his own lonely childhood to the festive fun at his nephew’s house. It’s interesting to see which traditions have changed and which haven’t – although sucking pigs are out of fashion and filberts have been renamed hazel nuts, eating, drinking, and playing silly games are still very much in vogue.

In fact, many of our ‘essential’ traditions (tree, cards…) formed during this period, when Christmas returned to being a big mid-winter festival after a period of Puritan-enforced austerity.

The reason for the season
Dickens can’t resist a bit of moralising, and Carol is packed with lessons, from the over-arching message, which still resonates, down to very timely messages whose power has faded, such as a page arguing against a move to force bakeries to close on Sundays, denying poor people (who have no ovens at home) of their heartiest meal in the week.

This argument is put in Scrooge’s mouth, a rather unlikely home, and makes it clear that the spirits are avatars of Christianity. Although A Christmas Carol has been suggested as a secular alternative to the nativity story (for example in An Atheist’s Guide to Christmas) it’s seems to me like a solidly religious book with Christianity providing a cultural background (several mentions of church and God) and also the driving force, i.e. the spiritual redemption of Scrooge.

That said, one could ignore this side of it, and read the ‘spirit of Christmas’ as something other than religious as it does, also, mean generosity, loving kindness and goodwill, all of which are valuable things to celebrate and keep – whether in ones heart or elsewhere – throughout the year.

I enjoyed A Christmas Carol and it’s given me hope – I’ve got six more Dickens novels to read, and I’m not dreading them so much now. And, if I’m honest, I was touched by the descriptions of celebrations – it did actually put me in a festive mood, and help me look past the sometimes onerous preparations to the joy at the end of the tunnel.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.