It’s Decision Time: What The Dickens?

I struggled with Dickens for years. But last year I had a breakthrough. I discovered that what worked for me was to treat the book as a serial over a long period of time – the same way that the first readers would have received the book. I resolved to work my way through the canon, reading one of the “big books” a year.

And so now I am wondering what this years book should be. A few months ago I was certain of what I would read, but now I’m not so sure.

So I’m going to set out the four possibilities. With a quotation and the points for and against. Maybe that will help we towards a decision. Maybe you can tell me something that will help.

Here are the  contenders:

Bleak House

The Opening

“LONDON. Michaelmas Term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow-flakes — gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill-temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if the day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.”

The Case For

  • It seems to be regarded as one of Dickens’ greatest work.
  • I saw the BBC dramatisation a couple of years back . That would help me keep track of the characters, but it was long enough ago that I’m not going to make too many comparisons.
  • It’s on my Filling The Gaps List.

The Case Against

  • Do I really want to read a story I already know quite well?
  •  It’s just not calling me too loudly right now.

A Tale of Two Cities

The Opening

“IT WAS the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way- in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

The Case For

  • I just love that opening – the sentiment, the words, the rhythm – everything.
  • It’s the most popular Dickens that I haven’t read on LibraryThing – and I do trust my fellow LTers.
  • I love books about the French Revolution.

The Case Against

  • Do I really want to read Dickens writing about history rather than his own times?
  • I look further forward in the book and it doesn’t grab me the way that opening does. But maybe I just need to get involved with the characters and their stories?

Our Mutual Friend

The Opening

“In these times of ours, though concerning the exact year there is no need to be precise, a boat of dirty and disreputable appearance, with two figures in it, floated on the Thames, between Southwark bridge which is of iron, and London Bridge which is of stone, as an autumn evening was closing in. The figures in this boat were those of a strong man with ragged grizzled hair and a sun-browned face, and a dark girl of nineteen or twenty, sufficiently like him to be recognizable as his daughter. The girl rowed, pulling a pair of sculls very easily; the man, with the rudder-lines slack in his hands, and his hands loose in his waistband, kept an eager look out. He had no net, hook, or line, and he could not be a fisherman; his boat had no cushion for a sitter, no paint, no inscription, no appliance beyond a rusty boathook and a coil of rope, and he could not be a waterman; his boat was too crazy and too small to take in cargo for delivery, and he could not be a lighterman or river-carrier; there was no clue to what he looked for, but he looked for something, with a most intent and searching gaze. The tide, which had turned an hour before, was running down, and his eyes watched every little race and eddy in its broad sweep, as the boat made slight head-way against it, or drove stern foremost before it, according as he directed his daughter by a movement of his head. She watched his face as earnestly as he watched the river. But, in the intensity of her look there was a touch of dread or horror.”

The Case For

  • It does seem to be particularly highly regarded.
  • I read the opening chapter and fell in love. The riverside setting is definitely a plus point.

The Case Against

  • Is it too dark, too complicated? One to save for later maybe?

The Old Curiosity Shop

“Night is generally my time for walking. In the summer I often leave home early in the morning, and roam about fields and lanes all day, or even escape for days or weeks together; but, saving in the country, I seldom go out until after dark, though, Heaven be thanked, I love its light and feel the cheerfulness it sheds upon the earth, as much as any creature living. I have fallen insensibly into this habit, both because it favours my infirmity and because it affords me greater opportunity of speculating on the characters and occupations of those who fill the streets. The glare and hurry of broad noon are not adapted to idle pursuits like mine; a glimpse of passing faces caught by the light of a street-lamp or a shop window is often better for my purpose than their full revelation in the daylight; and, if I must add the truth, night is kinder in this respect than day, which too often destroys an air-built castle at the moment of its completion, without the least ceremony or remorse.”

 The Case For

  • I came home one day and found my mother watching the end of a film version. I was hooked, and I wanted to know what lead up to that ending.
  • It is calling loudly.

The Case Against

  • Is it too sentimental? Not as strong a book as the others?

I think I may know now. But what do you think?

31 responses

  1. I think this is the way to read Dickens I didn’t get him myself until I read Bleak House a couple of years ago in the original installments. It was just after the BBC serial and it didn’t matter one iota. The reading was a joy from start to finish.

    I have Our Mutual Friend on the shelves waiting for similar treatment. I’ll probably get round to it in the spring.

    • The serial approach makes so much sense, doesn’t it.

      I loved the dramatisation of Bleak House, but I’m just beginning to feel that maybe I’d get more from reading it when that is a little less fresh in my mind.

  2. Although the first three possibilites are all favourites of mine, I’d start with Our Mutual Friend.

    It has evocative descriptions of London and lots of mystery and intrigue to keep you turning the pages. At times it is very dark but at others it is funny and romantic. And once you read it, there’s an excellent BBC adaption to watch!

    • I have heard so many good things about Our Mutual Friend that I feel I must read it at the perfect moment. Whether that moment is now is what I need to work out.

  3. My inclination would be to read the one that is calling the loudest (The Old Curiosity Shop)… but there is definitely a case to be made for continuing beyond a first chapter you’ve fallen in love with (Our Mutual Friend).

    Bleak House will probably be my next Dickens, and I like the idea of treating it as a serial! Also, it was a real struggle for me to get through A Tale of Two Cities, even though I love that opening passage.

    • Oh, ‘Bleak House’ is superb! I just wish I hadn’t seen the TV series first 😦 I haven’t read ‘Old Curiosity’ and have had a small aversion to ‘Tale of Two Cities’ since high school (historical fiction by Dickens is not appealing to the average 11 year old). However, I do intend to re-read it one day 🙂 ‘Our Mutual Friend’ is good but I tended to get bogged down and confused mid-way through. It is quite dark in places, but the TV adaptation is quite interesting and ‘experts’ like Susan Hill reckon its Dickens’ finest work. I therefore recommend BH or OMF. Enjoy!


    • I think it may come to a decision between TOCS and OMF depending on what type of book appeals most on day one. I have heard nothing but good about Bleak House and I loved the BBC series, I just think I need to leave a gap between television and book.

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  5. I’d start with A Tale of Two Cities, which is the first one I read, apart from A Christmas Carol, which you haven’t listed. A Christms Carol is very short, so that might be a good place to start. I loved A Tale of Two Cities even though I read as a school set book!

    I read Bleak House after seeing the TV version and even though I read it soon after I found it very long and, yes, a bit boring in parts. And if a book isn’t “calling me” I don’t usually enjoy it.

    I haven’t read the others you listed, so can’t comment.

    • I have read, and loved, A Christmas Carol. It’s probably time for a re-read come the season.

      I do like the sound of a Tale of Twoo Cities, it’s just not calling me as loudly as the others right now.

  6. Have you heard of Mousehold Words? ( It’s a wonderful way to read books in a serial fashion, without being tempted to read ahead and get burned out or ruin the fun of the suspense.

    Personally, I’d start with Our Mutual Friend, because it seems to have already grabbed you a bit.

    • Thank you – yes, I do know and love Mousehold Words.

      I’m going to read a couple of chapters of The Old Curiosity Shop this week, just to see if it might call louder. I want to know what came before that ending!

  7. This probably won’t help as I was always told to start Dickens with Great Expectations. As I still have yet to read a word of his I am not qualified to comment on teh short list. From those though I think I would go with Bleak House.

    • I started with A Christmas Carol, then Oliver Twist, then Great Expectations. I tend to think that Bleak House may be the best book overall, I’m just not sure that it’s the right book for now.

  8. Hi- dropping in from Carrie’s. The Old Curiosity Shop speaks loudest to me and makes me want to read. Now I’m going to have to go look for it. I’ve read Great Expectations and enjoyed it a great deal. Plus watched the movie which seemed lacking in the story. Anyway TOCS doesn’t seem too sentimental and it doesn’t sound as dark as the rest.

    • Hello! I loved the David Lean version of Great Expectations, but I was less taken with the more recent BBC version. It seemed a little self-conscious to me. Unless the darkness calls me it probably will be The Old Curiosity Shop.

  9. I’m reading Bleak House in installments this year, and I am actually quite enjoying it. I wasn’t sure if I would. It seems to be a good way for me to read dickens.
    Otherwise, I would have to say go for the old curiosite shop, because out of the ones I’ve read, it is the only one I’ve liked enough to recommend!

    • Installments do make sense – after all most of the books were first published that way. I’m pleased to have a recommendation for The Old Curiosity shop – it is still calling loudly.

    • That’s whatI’m thinking – I just have to figure out which book is calling loudest. I will work my way through them all in time.

    • Thank you for hosting. I was trying to resist – I’m signed up for so many things – but I just found so many lovely books that fitted the theme.

  10. I spent a week, a while ago, writing about The Old Curiosity Shop, here, for example.

    It is weaker than the others. It is, in one particular spot, pretty sentimental. It is Minor Dickens.

    My theme that week was The Deep Pleasures of Minor Dickens.

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