Charles Dickens, born Feb. 7 1812, is considered one of the most popular writers in the history of literature. Photo: The Print Collector/Getty Images
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Charles Dickens: The Essential Reading List
From our favourite Dickens classics to a biography that explores the parallels between his life and writing, we look at some must-have tomes for any Dickens fan. / BY Athena McKenzie / February 4th, 2021
“There are books of which the backs and covers are by far the best parts.” —from Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens.
It’s safe to say the backs and covers were not the best parts of Charles Dickens’ own books. One of the most popular writers of the Victorian Era (it’s been argued that Dickens was the first pop culture celebrity) he penned 15 novels, and numerous short stories, essays, plays and novellas. Along with the deft social commentary in his work, he is celebrated for his unforgettable characters, which include Ebenezer Scrooge, Oliver Twist, Miss Havisham and David Copperfield. Similar to Shakespeare, he produced lasting phrases that people still quote — even if they don’t realize the original source.
To mark his birthday on February 7, we’ve rounded up some of his essential reads.
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The Pickwick Papers
“There are dark shadows on the earth, but its lights are stronger in the contrast.” — from The Pickwick Papers
Originally published serially between 1836 and 1837 as The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, Dickens’ first novel follows the humorous adventures of the Pickwick Club and its founder Mr. Samuel Pickwick, Esquire, as they travel around the English countryside. Despite its humorous approach, the novel signalled Dickens’ focus on the social and political, with its commentary on the parliamentary system, lawyers, the Poor Laws and the ills of debtors’ prison. The series was wildly popular. Along with theatrical adaptations, there was Pickwick merchandise, including Pickwick cigars, songbooks and figurines. One can only assume there would have been an amusement park if the series had been written in the 21st century.
“Please, sir,’ replied Oliver, ‘I want some more.’” — from Oliver Twist
Another serialized work, Oliver Twist was Dickens’ second novel, and instalments overlapped with The Pickwick Papers. Drawing on Dickens’ own miserable childhood, it examines the horrors of the time’s workhouses and serves as a condemnation of Victorian England’s Poor Laws. When orphan Oliver Twist asks for more gruel, he is kicked out of his workhouse. In his misadventures, he meets Jack Dawkins (the Artful Dodger) who brings him into a gang of pickpockets trained by a criminal named Fagin.
A Christmas Carol
“God bless us every one!” — from A Christmas Carol
Originally published 1843, A Christmas Carol, is arguably Dickens’ most popular book. With its iconic cultural touch points — the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future, Tiny Tim, and Ebenezer Scrooge himself — it has become an enduring classic. Its influence has so suffused our culture, most of us know the broad strokes of the story, whether we’ve read the novella at all. The story of a miserly businessman’s dark journey of the soul from selfishness to redemption illustrates the hope and potential of the festive season.
“Trifles make the sum of life.” — From David Copperfield
Considered Dickens’ most autobiographical novel, David Copperfield, is a coming of age story that follows the titular orphan as he navigates his journey from childhood to becoming a successful novelist.
As with his other works, this one delves into the issues of the times, with commentary of child labour, the prison system, social classes and marriage. It is widely regarded as a masterpiece of storytelling and was the author’s own favourite: In the preface to the 1867 edition, he wrote, “like many fond parents, I have in my heart of hearts a favourite child. And his name is David Copperfield.”
“A word in earnest is as good as a speech.” — from Bleak House
Dickens’ ninth novel, serialized in 1852 through 1853, looked to dramatize the flaws of England’s court system. One of his most critically acclaimed works, it centres around a case of several last wills from one person, each with contradicting terms. The story follows many of the beneficiaries and their competing claims of inheritance — complicated by murder — as the legal battle becomes a decades-long fiasco, ripe for Dickens entertaining brand of social satire.
“Ask no questions, and you’ll be told no lies.” — from Great Expectations
The story of Pip, an orphan who only has eyes for Estrella, a girl of a higher class, first appeared in instalments in Dickens’ periodical All the Year Round. The coming-of-age story is said to channel his own aspirations to be a gentleman, and explores the corrupting power of money. It also introduces readers to one of Dickens’ most famous characters, Miss Havisham, a bitter recluse who insists on only wearing her wedding dress after being left at the altar.
The Mystery of Charles Dickens by A.N. Wilson
Embracing a fiction-writing approach for this biography — published last November to mark the 150th anniversary of Dickens’ death — A. N. Wilson speculates how Dickens’ own childhood and life infused his writing.
Delving into the books and their characters, Wilson explores why Dickens’ novels were so popular with nineteenth century readers and why these books still resonate today.