To the average reader, Victorian era literature can be suffocating. Victorian literature has a certain reputation for overly long and boring books in which polite people get offended and worry about money a lot, which is pretty undeserved. This is to say nothing of the popular misconception about the actual times, as much characterised by sexual prudishness as by old dudes with crazy muttonchop moustaches and homebound ladies consigned to obscure gender roles. One of the reasons Charles Dickens is remarkable as an author is because his novels tackle the concerns of high society, as well as the struggles of dire poverty. For his day, Dickens was a compassionate writer.
Dickens lived from 1812 until 1870 and became a megastar on the publication of Oliver Twist in 1837. Monthly episodes of his novels published in popular literary journals met with widespread anticipation and rabid fandom. You might liken it to a TV show like Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones; people could not wait to find out what happened next. Queen Victoria herself read his novels and would stay up well past midnight reading and discussing the stories with friends. Dickens travelled all over Europe and North America giving readings and making public appearances attended by all and sundry. At his death, Dickens was buried in the Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey, memorialised alongside the likes of William Shakespeare, Geoffrey Chaucer, and Jane Austen.
It bears mentioning that these books were not written to be rushed through in a short period of time. One of the reasons I think there’s a hesitancy to read Victorian fiction these days is that oftentimes people’s first introduction to such works is in the classroom, where students are forced to read them as fast as possible and then analyse any initial enjoyment one might have had out of the text. I get it, these texts often have herculean girth about them, being forced to rush through them is like having an overzealous personal trainer who makes you run marathon lengths at a time… This will only lead to contempt and annoyance. The approach then, should be to read these books in digestible chunks. In his day, Dickens was read by people who read for leisure, and were forced to wait for the next instalment if they wanted to find out what happens next. You should be dedicated to finishing it, but at your own leisure. If you find yourself getting fatigued, put the book down and pick it up sometime in the near future.
Dickens is famous for his compelling, comical and often tragic characters. If nothing else sticks with you after reading a Dickens novel, it will be the characters. Who could forget the slimy and exploitative Fagan, who runs a racket of child thieves in Oliver Twist in exchange for giving said thieves shelter; the spongy man-child Mr. Skimpole, who lives opulently on others’ wallets and has “no idea of that thing called money” from Bleak House; or the convict Abel Magwitch, who, at the beginning of Great Expectations, threatens to allow his friend to “tear open” Pip if he does not supply him with a metal file and food, thus setting the plot in motion. These side characters are where Dickens truly shines in terms of his social criticism and characterisation, where his imagination runs wild on the social spectrum of Victorian society. Dickens is withering in his social criticism, reducing even the haughtiest of the haughtiest cigar-chomping knows-bests to a figure worthy of ridicule and laughter.
Dickens’ protagonists are in themselves interesting to look at. Whilst they may not be as comical or outlandish as his sideshows, they are treated with an earnest sentimentality that makes their struggles worthy of investing emotional attachment. Everybody knows the common character arc of ‘rags to riches’ for which Dickens is famous, but what people don’t appreciate is how much crap these protagonists have to put up with on their road to success. For example, poor old David Copperfield from the novel bearing his name, who is shipped off to boarding school by his prick of a stepfather after he attempts to fend off a beating from said prick by biting his hand, and then is forced to wear a sign around his neck that says “Take care of him. He bites.” These protagonists have the odds well and truly stacked against them, and must fight tooth and claw in order to achieve their success. But when they achieved that success, and they often did, Dickens was fond of happy endings. It is one of the greatest gratifications that literature can give you. Nobody does rags to riches quite like Dickens. The word “Dickensian” at once describes the sentimental rags to riches tropes of Dickens’ protagonists as well as these comically repulsive, lecherous characters that pervade the worlds Dickens created.
In 1842, Dickens travelled to America for the first time for a tour and charity ball in Philadelphia held in his honour, which marked a significant change in his oeuvre. Whilst in America, Dickens witnessed extreme poverty and the slimiest of the stereotypically American Capitalist slime, which left him disillusioned. When Dickens returned to England in the late 1840s he began writing monolithic novels with thousands of characters and an angrier, more politically and socially conscious authorial voice. For example, the 1000-page Bleak House focuses on the civil court in London and the labyrinthine Jarndyce v. Jarndyce will dispute; a vast tangle of red tape and affidavits that fritters away the characters’ time, money and sanity. Jarndyce v. Jarndyce is literally incomprehensible, and one of the great strengths of the novel is that it manages to loom high above the characters’ heads as a vague presence without actually being materially defined. During the court case the reader encounters murder, disease, extreme poverty, spontaneous combustion, melodrama, and several romances (one of which is slightly creepy, it is evident when you get to it).
At first Bleak House seems to have no direction or overall purpose, at risk of ballooning out of sensibility or control, but if you stick with the novel it will show itself to be one of the greatest portraits of Victorian life ever written. Bleak House is a priceless, vertical slice of London during the mid-19th century, characterising the city as afflicted with an intangible malaise. You’ll find those muttonchop men and polite ladies, to be sure, but you will also find a myriad of other types: A drunken illiterate landlord whose demon of a cat perches atop his shoulder and hisses at visitors, a street-sweeper whose story is so wretched and miserable so as to be oftentimes comical, as well as a vaguely senile woman who keeps a seemingly infinite amount of birds named after terms of the Jarndyce case and those who are related to it. Out of all of Dickens’ books, Bleak House is the one I would recommend starting with due to the dual perspectives in which it is told. On the one hand, we have the first person narration of Esther Summerson, the novel’s protagonist, and on the other, we have this detached omniscient third person narrator which spares nobody of its ire. Oscillating between these two styles has the effect of balancing sentiment with jaded vitriol. In structuring his novel in this way, Dickens is able to have these styles bounce off each other, recontextualising events and characters which were coloured in some way by the narrative mode they were introduced in. It is the best possible introduction to Dickens’ work due to this balance between sentimentality and vicious social commentary; because so much of his work lies on a spectrum between the two, you get the fullest sense of Dickens’ stylistic variety.