Two hundred years ago, on Feb. 7, 1812, Charles Dickens was born. Forty years ago, after reading all his novels, I finished a PhD dissertation on his work and more or less stopped reading him. It wasn’t that I was disaffected, but life took over and there was rarely enough time to reread a 900-page novel.
The 200th anniversary sounded like the right occasion to return to the man we graduate students described glibly as England’s greatest novelist and its second-greatest writer after Shakespeare.
Does he really deserve those slightly dusty laurels? How would he strike me now? I designated 2012 as my year of rereading Dickens. My first impulse was to begin at the beginning, with Sketches by Boz, and carry on to The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which was unfinished when Dickens died in 1870. But a few of the books I remembered with least pleasure – Barnaby Rudge and The Old Curiosity Shop – appeared at the start of his career, so that did not appeal. I toyed with the idea of reading backward from Edwin Drood, but dropped that too.
Finally, I decided that I would read where the spirit took me, in no particular order, guided only by pleasure. Each book, I assumed (and so far, correctly), would suggest the next one.
I began in the fall, to get a jump on things, and am progressing slowly, because the sentences as well as the books are long and complicated, and because you cannot have too many dinners of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding in a row. I read something contemporary between each Dickens, taking a break with the comparatively easy syntax of most 21st-century books. (But everything echoes Dickens. Charles Foran’s engrossing Mordecai reminded me that Mordecai Richler shared Dickens’s satirical bent, his anger at the stupidities of society, his versatility as a writer and the constant need to turn that versatility into money-making projects.)
My starting point was easy. I remembered Great Expectations as a masterpiece of psychological insight, moral exploration and obsessive love. It did not disappoint me. I followed it with another first-person account of childhood (and Freud’s favourite Dickens), David Copperfield. The 50-cent Signet paperback I was reading (so elderly the pages fell to the floor as I turned them, until my living room looked as if a particularly deliberate book vandal was at work) numbered more than 900 pages, so next I chose a shorter one, the unfinished Edwin Drood. Then I treated myself to Bleak House, among other things one of the first mystery stories and still an incomparable one.
So far, is this a new Dickens for me? The things I loved as a student still delight me. Exaggeration, obsession and mania were his natural modes, and the characters who go round and round in their private, deluded universes entertain me as much as ever. Often, there’s a moral component to their manias – as with Mrs. Jellyby, the philanthropist in Bleak House who neglects her family and focuses on the African poor; or Mr. Turveydrop, the dancing master in the same book who preens himself on his deportment while living off his son, But benign characters, like Peggotty, the faithful housekeeper who often bursts her buttons while hugging David in Copperfield, also enjoy their share of Dickensian eccentricity.
George Orwell described the hallmark of Dickens’s style as “the unnecessary detail” – unnecessary perhaps, but perfectly calculated. While Dickens wrote, he mimicked the expression and voice of each character, with the result that even minor ones are densely imagined. When Pumblechook, the fatuous seed merchant in Great Expectations, is tied up and robbed, his mouth is stuffed with “flowering annuals.” Not just flowers, not just annuals, but flowering annuals, a precise category familiar to a seedsman. Dickens knew that self-important man through and through, and gave him a Dantean punishment right down to the plant material he stuffed in his mouth.
At a deeper level, there is Dickens’s note-perfect instinct for an action that is breathtakingly unexpected but completely true to character. I had forgotten the scene in Bleak House when Hortense, the French maid, suddenly astonishes a group of onlookers by taking off her shoes (unheard of for a servant in the 19th century) and striding enraged through the wet grass across her employer’s park. It’s a surreal demonstration of her intense, frustrated malice and would not be out of place in a 21st-century novel.
On the other hand, I am more impatient with Dickens’s faults than I was as a student. Unfortunately the dead space in a Dickens novel is often at the centre of the book, because his weakness, for most of his career, was romantic love and young women. He is good at mad infatuation on the hero’s part, but the heroine is too often either infantile, like Dora in David Copperfield, or a plaster saint like Agnes in the same book.
Surprisingly – and sadly, because he did not live to develop it more fully – there is a change in the later novels, most probably due to his love affair with the reputedly witty young actress Ellen Ternan. Rosa Bud, the heroine of Edwin Drood, has spirit and wit, and is more brave than her fiancé about defying society’s expectations.
With 11 months and 11 novels to go, I keep returning to that old canard, “England’s best novelist.” Is he? No matter what yardstick you use, he does not come up short.
Relevance: The contagious menace that is the rich-poor divide in Bleak House is all too familiar in David Cameron’s Britain.
Popularity (of a sort): More than any other novelist, the BBC continues to mine his work, producing often dazzling adaptations.
Influence: The writer so important to Dostoyevsky and Kafka still inspires novelists from Peter Carey to John Irving, Zadie Smith, Jane Smiley and Carlos Fuentes.
I may change my mind in the course of the year, but for all his faults, there is still no one to touch him – for breadth, for depth (especially in the later novels), for moral seriousness, hilarious comedy, social criticism and for filling a room with characters you suddenly know better than some of your closest friends.
My reading project continues in Mexico City, where I am living until June. This huge metropolis reminds me of Dickens’s London, with its chaos, its gulf between rich and poor, its good humour in the midst of dismaying problems, above all its vividness. He would have felt at home here.
My next Dickens is the sunniest, The Pickwick Papers, and it has a Hispanic connection in its affectionate indebtedness to Don Quixote. On Feb. 7, while reading this wandering tale of romantic guys and their street-smart servant, in whatever café I find myself, I’ll raise a glass of tequila and say, “Feliz cumpleanos, Senor Dickens. Happy Birthday, Mr. Dickens.”
Katherine Ashenburg is the author of The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History.