Arguably the greatest writer of his time, Charles Dickens shaped the way we see Victorian Britain. His distinctive, quirky characters – many of them versions of people he encountered – have not only endured, but given us brilliantly expressive ways to refer to people in the modern day, whether they’re an Artful Dodger, a Miss Havisham or a Scrooge.
As well as 15 novels – his last, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, remains unfinished – Dickens wrote five novellas, a number of plays and many short stories. His novels are mostly built around the aching disparity between poverty and wealth, and to this day it is hard to find a more endearing and surprisingly mobilising writer.
The entry point
Perhaps the most well-known of his works, Oliver Twist was Dickens’ second novel. Even if you haven’t yet read the book, you will probably be familiar with the workhouse boy who asks for more, escapes to London and is recruited by the Artful Dodger to a gang of pickpockets led by the criminal Fagin. Adaptations have been abundant, whether in the form of the Lionel Bart musical, Oliver!, various other film and television versions, and, most recently, an audiobook version directed by Sam Mendes and starring Brian Cox, Daniel Kaluuya and Nicola Coughlan. Oliver Twist is a great introduction to the colourful realm of Dickens, particularly his lively, characterful and humorous dialogue.
The fan favourite
The most autobiographical of Dickens’ novels, David Copperfield is a coming-of-age story of a boy facing hurdles to complete his education and ultimately (spoiler!) becoming a successful author. It features chunks of a memoir Dickens once tried to write but abandoned out of self-consciousness – notably, his account of a two-year stint working in a boot blacking factory as a child after his father was sent to debtors’ prison. It was an ordeal that never left him and looms large over everything he wrote.
Not only is this novel a fan favourite, it was the author’s favourite too. In the preface to a later edition, Dickens wrote: “like many fond parents, I have in my heart of hearts a favourite child. And his name is David Copperfield.”
If you’re in a rush
Dickens wrote a great many short stories and some of them are among his best writing. A great place to start is The Signal-Man, one of his best-regarded short stories, about a railway worker tormented by a ghostly apparition that predicts terrible accidents. It is thought to have been inspired by Dickens’s experience in a major rail crash five years earlier that killed 23 people and left the author with what we would now know as post-traumatic stress disorder.
The Signal-Man is a great example of his fascination with the supernatural – ghosts feature dozens of times in his works – though “common sense” barred him from believing and, in his surviving letters, he wrote scathingly about those purporting to have been visited by spirits.
His short stories are also often where Dickens best exhibited his dry and cutting wit, and some of his satirical sketches are a great example of this. The Boy at Mugby, which is also inspired by his rail travel, is a portrait of a group of staff at the fictional Mugby station who strive for incompetence and aim to serve the worst food and drink possible.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” A Tale of Two Cities famously begins. It is a rare historical novel from the author, spread across London and Paris in the run-up to the French revolution. It was considered at the time the most un-Dickens-like of his books, more ambitious than his other stories. Most of Dickens’s stories were published serially in newspapers and journals as he wrote, allowing narratives and characters to be shaped by what his readers thought of them. A Tale of Two Cities is perhaps where this can be seen best – it’s easy to see how readers would have been left on tenterhooks waiting for the next instalment.
The one to drop into dinner party conversation
The most studied and analysed Dickens novel is one of his last, Great Expectations. The story of the timid orphan Pip and the obsessive and corrupting power of greed is a classic Dickens tale. Though a celebrity by this time and far from the poverty that shaped him, Dickens still wrote with enormous empathy for the working class and disdain for the wealthy, painting a bleak picture of lives disfigured by the desire for money.
If you only read one, it should be
Of course, the ultimate Dickens experience, particularly at this time of year, is A Christmas Carol. Unlike some of his heftier tomes, the novella can be read in a couple of hours, and is perhaps best consumed that way. A Christmas Carol tells the cautionary tale of Ebenezer Scrooge, a cruel and unpopular miser who is visited by three ghosts demonstrating what might become of him if he fails to change his ways. Not only is it a rich and well-crafted ghost story, with moments that are genuinely chilling, it is also remarkable as a work of serious political activism. As a passionate social justice campaigner, Dickens unashamedly used fiction as an agent for change, to push his ideas of equality, charity and fairness. In this case, Dickens had originally planned to write a political pamphlet, later realising a work of fiction might be a more palatable way of getting his message across.
A Christmas Carol was one of five Christmas novellas he wrote over near-consecutive years, which include the less well-known but equally excellent story The Chimes, also very much worth a read.