June 30, 2011

The Genius of Dickens

I apologize for the lack of posts; this past week has been quite busy and I've not been on the computer much.

Dickens is the kind of writer who must either be loved or hated. Readers either see him as brilliant and witty or dull and tedious, and there are elements of his style which support both views; it doesn't help, for instance, that he was paid by the word and that he was in constant need of money. In addition to the length of his novels, they deal with very dismal themes - not the kind of light reading you want for a rainy day. In fact, until I began watching the Masterpiece Theatre adaptations of his works, I did not realize that Dickens' novels were concerned with anything but starving orphans, a misconception which I am sure is shared by many others. Dickens is simply not appreciated by the majority of readers nowadays.

A few weeks ago I finished reading Little Dorrit, one of Dickens' less familiar novels, although it has become more well known since the release of the BBC production starring Claire Foy and Matthew Macfadyen. Although we had long owned an older production of David Copperfield, the Little Dorrit mini-series was my family's introduction to the world of Dickens adaptations, and my introduction to Dickens as something more than a boring and dismal writer. It had intrigue. And romance. And wit. And - and color! I was startled and pleased, and began to take an interest in reading more of his books than I had hitherto.

I had read A Christmas Carol and The Pickwick Papers before, but though I enjoyed both, I did not fully appreciate them. After watching a slew of Dickens adaptations I picked up Martin Chuzzlewit, not being in the mood for one of his more popular and more dismal novels, like Oliver Twist, and learned to appreciate his writing. Then, as I already mentioned, I just recently completed Little Dorrit and found it fantastic.

I am no literary expert, and so I do not intend to go to great lengths to talk about the minutiae of Dickens' style and his expert use of adverbs or some such silliness. But I would like to do my bit to set aside the idea that Dickens oughtn't be a classic or that his stories have no life. While it is true that he tended toward wordiness, it is amazing how much wit and truth he put in those "useless" words - proving that, while less may be more, it does not necessarily follow that more is nothing. (Chew on that conundrum for a bit.)

Many, if not all, of Dickens' novels have a high moral tone and a heavy political criticism, but unlike most modern novels - and, no doubt, many of his own era - he succeeds in keeping the reader engaged even through long chapters on the Circumlocution Office by his tongue-in-cheek narration. Although he is essentially satirizing the British government and there is no action, he makes up for it with humor and shows a little later that some detail on the Circumlocution Office was necessary for the storyline. I do not suggest using this as license to run to great lengths with backstory and description, but I believe a little such spice would not go amiss. Writing gurus today are so adamant about chopping words and never having any sentence that does not move the plot along that, judging from the sizes of paragraphs in modern novels, writers seem afraid of exceeding three or four sentences in each. So the moral of this story is not to be flowery merely for the sake of being flowery (unless you're getting paid by the word, in which case, have at it), but not to be scared using too many words.

Another thing for which Dickens ought always to be regarded as a classic is his skill in crafting characters. I have seen many books around on "crafting characters" and "creating the perfect character" and "eliminating every cliche that ever existed from your main character"; but I really have no idea why such works are needed when we have Dickens novels. In his books he displays a variety of characters such as I have never seen in any other author's work, and characters who exemplify such extremes and yet also come across as unquestionably realistic. His main characters, indeed, are not so much this way as his supporting characters are; in Little Dorrit, the titular character narrated a relatively small proportion of the book. Throughout the novel she is a quiet, retiring young woman who hardly stands out at all, but is made remarkable in her silent virtue by the characters who surround her - her petulant father, her ne'er-do-well brother, her proud sister, and the hard and self-righteous Mrs. Clennam. Arthur Clennam, the narrator of most of the story, is a kindhearted man with a desire to do right, but again, he is not remarkable in the way the minor characters are.

Little Dorrit alone provides a plethora of fantastic minor characters. There is Fanny Dorrit, the main character's proud sister who is given to outbursts of temper followed by outbursts of tears and cries of "I wish I was dead!" There is good-natured Mrs. Plornish, who believes she can speak Italian and always has to "translate" for the Italian Cavaletto (who can communicate in English). There is Maggy, the orphan girl who had a fever when she was ten and has never gotten any older since. There is the whole cast of characters who make up the Circumlocution Office, particularly Barnacle Junior with his eyeglass-woes. And then there is my personal favorite: Mr. Pancks, the grubby rent-collector who is disliked by the population of Bleeding Heart Yard, while his hypocritical employer is beloved by all. Pancks is described as the Tug - always puffing and snorting and going along at a great rate, chugging into 'dock', towing the 'ship' (his employer) around.

Those are just a few of the outrageous characters who populate Dickens' novels. Most writer's minor characters appear to serve a plot point and then slip into oblivion, but with Dickens, everyone is made to stand out no matter how slight his role is. Just about any of his stories will provide a writer with a lesson in minor characters and how they make a story move - and that is the genius of Dickens.


  1. I agree! I have not read very many Dickens' novels yet, but what I have been extremely impressed by is the plot. Every little item is important and connects together. It was Great Expectations that made me realize this. It seems like a million different threads, but in the end they are all twisted together in a tight knot that it would be impossible to imagine away.

    Yes, I definitely agree, Dickens is a genius!

  2. Thanks, Eyebright! I'm also just getting started on Dickens, really; I've read three, but there are so many more waiting for me. It is crazy how he can have so many characters and so many plot threads, and yet manages to bring them all together by the end. It certainly inspires humility.

  3. I definitely agree with you about Dickens being loved or hated. My first introduction to him was movie adaptations of A Christmas Carol and a plod of several weeks through A Tale of Two Cities. I picked up Our Mutual Friend through a feeling of need to read Dickens simply because he was a classic author, I think. Two hundred pages into the book, I was depressed and bored. And then, as I kept on reading, I started to see how the different story lines were coming together and the brilliant artistry of his words and characters. I fell in love with his writing. Since then, I've probably read about half of his books and loved just about every one of them.

  4. That sounds like my experience with James Fenimore Cooper's "The Last of the Mohicans." I dragged myself through the first hundred pages or so before realizing, "Hey, this is a fantastic book!" and devouring the rest. Perseverance does bring its own reward, eh?

    Have you seen many of the BBC/Masterpiece Theatre adaptations? Some of them are just terrific, though I think "Little Dorrit" is my favourite.

  5. I don't think I've seen any of Dickens' works as a movie except for A Christmas Carol and one version of Oliver Twist that I watched so many years ago I can barely remember it. However, I would enjoy watching some of them and I'm hoping to start soon. I loved reading Bleak House and the movie looks really interesting. Have you seen it?

  6. I have seen and really enjoyed the newer one, starring Anna Maxwell Martin and Gillian Anderson; the older movie was dark (literally - the lighting was bad) and confusing. Martin Chuzzlewit (Paul Scofield) and Our Mutual Friend (Keeley Hawes) are good, too. I just love BBC for their adaptations!

  7. Oh, yes! Have you seen the new Emma with Romola Garai? They modernized it a little but the movie is so wonderful in every other respect that I can forgive them for it.

  8. It's a favourite with us! I liked the Kate Beckinsale version, but the Romola Garai adaptation tops it.

  9. She's so perfect for the role and Jonny Lee Miller does such a wonderful job playing Mr. Knightley. My dad actually watched this with me for the first time a couple of weeks ago on a night when I was depressed and needed cheering up. Needless to say, four hours of special time alone with him while watching a Jane Austen movie did the trick. I was pretty much floating on the way to bed!


meet the authoress
I am a writer of historical fiction and fantasy, scribbling from my home in the United States. More importantly, I am a Christian, which flavors everything I write. My debut novel, "The Soldier's Cross," was published by Ambassador Intl. in 2010.
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published writings

The Soldier's Cross: Set in the early 15th Century, this is the story of an English girl's journey to find her brother's cross pendant, lost at the Battle of Agincourt, and of her search for peace in the chaotic world of the Middle Ages.
finished writings

Tempus Regina:Hurled back in time and caught in the worlds of ages past, a Victorian woman finds herself called out with the title of the time queen. The death of one legend and the birth of another rest on her shoulders - but far weightier than both is her duty to the brother she left alone in her own era. Querying.
currently writing

Wordcrafter: "One man in a thousand, Solomon says / will stick more close than a brother. / And it's worthwhile seeking him half your days / if you find him before the other." Justin King unwittingly plunges into one such friendship the day he lets a stranger come in from the cold. Wordcount: 124,000 words

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