Wednesday, February 19, 2014

What Dickens Taught Me

Did you know that Charles Dicken’s birthday is in February?

I've been reading LITTLE DORRIT lately. It's one of those books that's taking me awhile, because I read a little bit and then put it aside to read something else. But I will finish it at some point!

I've been thinking about Dickens (who after Austen, is my favorite classic author) and what he’s taught me as a writer.

What I love about Dickens:

1. Dialogue: Dickens is a master at making each character sound unique. You can determine who a character is just by the way they speak. 
See if you can guess who said these lines:

A.  “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.”
B.  “I’m a very umble person.”
C.  “Barkis is willin’”
D.  “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known.”
E.  “Please, sir, I want some more.”
(Answers to be posted tomorrow.)

      2. Character traits/tags: Along with dialogue, Dickens gives all his characters a physical attribute, mannerism,   dialogue tic, or repeated word or image. In LITTLE DORRIT, Mrs. General is often spoken of as a varnish, which is fitting for her character. To read more about using traits/tags in your work, see JimBrutcher’s blog (2/10/05).

  3. Names: Dicken’s character’s names can sometimes be a little bit over the top, but they are descriptive of the characters, just like the names in J.K. Rowling’s work. 

     4. Plotting: Dicken’s plots are masterful, the way he weaves in some many different plot strands into a unified whole. You never meet a character once in Dickens. That character will come back at a different time in a different way.

Alas, I do have a few Dickens pet-peeves (gasp!):

1.  Sometimes he takes the character tag thing too far. I’ve read several scenes in LITTLE DORRIT where the characters are not named, but they are only referred to the as the “traveler” or the “little lady” and we are supposed to guess who the characters are by traits alone. This only leaves a reader (like me!) confused.

  2. Like most Victorian novelists, the “show don’t tell” rule is not adhered to. This reminds me how modern fiction trusts the reader a bit more.

3.  Although most of Dicken’s minor women characters are interesting (Nancy, Betsy Trotwood, Maggie, Peggoty), I am not impressed with his lead women characters. He seems to glorify women who aren’t assertive or have a mind of their own (i.e. Little Dorrit, Agnes from DAVID COPPERFIELD). Granted, he is a product of his times, but as a female reader, I am not happy with his lack of strong women characters.

If you like Dickens’ style, but want to read something modern:

I really enjoyed THE GREAT TROUBLE: A MYSTERY OF LONDON, THE GREAT BLUE DEATH, AND A BOY NAMED EEL (Deborah Hopkinson). Eel seems to be a character who’d be best friends with Oliver Twist. He has spunk, charisma, and a lot of heart. Hopkinson’s style and the way that unconnected characters ended up connecting in the end reminded me a lot of Dickens.   (There is some gruesomeness in describing the Blue Death, so not for squeamish readers.) 

THE TRAITOR’S GATE by Avi is also told in the Dicken’s style. I loved how Avi emulated Dicken-style language and plotting in this. This involves John Huffman whose father has just been sentenced to Whitecross Street Prison. This was based on Dicken’s early life.

Masterpiece's DAVID COPPERFIELD with young Daniel Radcliffe

If you haven’t read Dickens before, and are looking somewhere to start, OLIVER TWIST and DAVID COPPERFIELD are good starting points. Caveat: TWIST has a very violent scene at the end that might be too intense for sensitive readers, and COPPERFIELD is very long (it took my son and husband three months to read it!), but it isn’t as dark as some of his other novels.

Happy Birthday, Dickens!

Thank you for the legacy you’ve left to English literature.


  1. Dickens fan here also, I raise my hand.
    When I think of Dickens I also think of the most masterful first lines. Pick up any of his books and read those alone, and you'll bow your heard in reverence. Happy you were born, master!

    1. So true! "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..." and so many more. Always glad to meet another Dickens fan. :)

  2. Happy Birthday, Mr. Dickens! Though I'm sorry to say I've not read any of his work. I tried once- and the name of the book is eluding me at the moment- maybe something involving the letter P...? I should try again someday though!

    1. Leandra, maybe it was Pickwick Papers? That's one I haven't read. Even if you don't pick up his books, you should check out some of the Masterpiece specials of his books. David Copperfield with Radcliffe is particularly good.

  3. Interesting post! I spent a year or so working on a historical novel about Dickens. For some reason I put the manuscript away after his 200th birthday went by. Probably because several other authors came out with similar works. But it was great fun to research. I even visited one of his homes in England.

    1. Oh, Marcia, I hope you pick that book up again! I'd love to read a book about Dickens. How wonderful that you even got to go to one of his homes--I'd love to do that someday. :)

  4. My daughter read Oliver Twist this past year, but thought it was horrible and sad. Now we are reading A Tale of Two Cities, which is ok so far. She's very sensitive and doesn't like dark or sad stories. Thanks for the mentions of when there are dark things in the books, it's helpful.

    1. Thanks for stopping by! I have a son who's very sensitive to violence, so I wouldn't have him read Oliver Twist at this point. A Tale of Two Cities does have some darkness with the French revolution, and the ending is rather sad. My favorite for kids is David Copperfield. My son read it last year and really enjoyed it.

  5. Dickens is my favourite classics writer. I read one of his every year (or try to). Last year I finished Great Expectations and it was heart-crackingly good. I read Little Dorrit in college and grew to love it. Didn't really like Amy Dorrit, though. But Mr. Clennam and his mother, and the side characters are all so colourful. This year, I might read David Copperfield or Our Mutual Friend. Haven't decided yet but already, I can't wait. :)

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Claudine! I'm impressed at your plan to read a Dickens a year. I feel the same way about Little Dorrit so far. I haven't read Our Mutual Friend, yet, but I've heard that's one of his better ones. I might have to tackle that one next. David Copperfield is my favorite so far--enjoy!

  6. I've tried to read Dickens, but I can never get past his first chapters. That said, I have enjoyed the stories he's told through movies.

    1. It definitely is a slower pace than I'm used to, too. That's why it's taking me so long to read Dorrit. (9 + months, but who's counting?) I love the movies too. A few years ago, before Downton Abbey started, Masterpiece did a whole season of just Dickens adaptions--I was in heaven!