Dickens Mania

The 2012 Dickens Bicentenary is bigger than Ben Hur, with so many events, exhibitions, publications,  films, TV programmes, conferences, concerts, dinners and breakfasts that it’s hard to imagine how anyone will get time to sit down and read one of his 600-plus page books!

If you’re already a Dickens fan, begin by working out which is your favourite novel and go from there. We have copies of all of them here in the Barr Smith Library, on the shelves and onlinePickwick Papers was incredibly popular when it first came out, accompanied by marketing merchandise such as special Pickwick cigars, china figurines, song books and Sam Weller joke books. Many people love Great Expectations and Dickens himself preferred The Personal History of David Copperfield, probably for autobiographical reasons.  In April this year, the whole of London will apparently be reading Oliver Twist in “London’s first ever pan-London community reading festival

If you’re not convinced that Dickens is for you, I’d recommend Great Expectations as a good place to start.  Coming in at a moderate 484 pages in the Penguin Classics paperback edition, it’s shorter and more manageable than his earlier work, and it has all of the features that make Dickensian novels such a pleasure to read.  There’s a wonderful cast of characters: Pip the orphan, the madwoman Miss Havisham, the sinister lawyer Jaggers, the cold-hearted Estella and the laughable Mr Pumblechook. The main plot revolves around a mystery: who is Pip’s mysterious benefactor? Who is generous enough to give him a fortune that allows him to live like a gentleman in London?

The answer to the puzzle lies in both the themes and the plot of the novel. Pip believes that Miss Havisham is his secret benefactor, and that she intends him to marry Estella, her beautiful ward (whom he adores.)  But the novel is about unrequited love as well as hopeful ambition, insurmountable social differences as well as the equalizing power of money.  Is Pip’s fortune great enough to help him win Estella’s love? Will he become a ‘gentleman’ in spite of his lowly birth? What is the secret that the lawyer Jaggers  and his mysterious client is hiding from him?

Like all of Dickens’ novels, Great Expectations also gives you a vivid and detailed picture of life in Victorian England. Its themes are timeless and universal – love, honour, greed – but its setting is a very specific period and place. It’s fascinating to read about Pip’s early life  in the draughty wooden house on the Kentish marshlands,  where he keeps himself warm ‘in the chimney corner’ after a frugal supper of bread-and-butter. On festive days, his sister and her guests might enjoy gin-and-water and a ‘savoury pork pie’ while Pip stirs the meagre Christmas pudding over the fire with a copper-stick.  No wonder that later in life he is overwhelmed by London’s churches and mansions, its crystal and mahogany and lace, the mulled wine and cherries and cakes that he is given to eat and drink.

Lastly, and not least, there is Dickens’ use of language, his gift for conjuring unforgettable images with words.  Here is his haunting description of Pip’s first sight of Miss Havisham:

In an armchair,  with her elbow resting on a table and her head leaning on that hand, sat the strangest lady I have ever seen, or shall see. She was dressed in rich materials –  satins, and lace, and silks – all of white … she had a long white veil dependent from her hair, and she had bridal flowers in her hair, but her hair was white … I glanced down at the silk stocking {and saw that it} had been trodden ragged… The withered bridal dress on {her} collapsed form looked like grave-clothes, the long veil like a shroud.

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