Saturday, October 23, 2010

Final Comments on Bleak House and My Favorite Dickens Novels

I have finished Bleak House -- all 28 discs of the audio version, alternating with nearly 1000 pages of the print version.  We're nearly finished with the eight-week readalong, and again, I'd like to thank Amanda for organizing this -- it's nice to see so many participants.  I know not everyone is as big a Dickens fan as I am, so I'm especially impressed with the bloggers that have stuck with it this far, considering the length.  It's a big reading commitment, especially if you're not enjoying it.  I did enjoy this just as much this time around as my previous read, and even more than my multiple viewings of the excellent BBC adaptation.  If you're intrigued by the story but put off by the length of the book, please, do yourself a favor and watch this -- believe me, you will be hooked.  It may even inspire you to attempt reading it.

I'm not even going to attempt to recap the plot thus far -- it would take too long and include far too many spoilers.  I love Bleak House because of the memorable characters, the fascinating, twisty plot, the great cliffhangers, and the brilliant way in which Dickens ties everything together while including social commentary, mystery, humor, tragedy, and romance.  Seriously, this book has everything.  It will remain one of my favorite books of all time.  If I was going into outer space for a year and could only bring ten books with me, this would be one of them.

Like Bleak House, most of Dickens' works are a commitment.  They are long.  His prose is flowery and sometimes challenging.  His plots can be labyrinthine.  Some of his characters (especially the women) can be irritating.  I also find that he's elitist -- good characters, even if they are criminals, are usually nice looking and come to a happy end, and they are usually well-born, even if they are miserable orphans and don't realize they are From a Good Family.  Many of the poor, unhappy characters are uneducated, unloved, and unattractive, and they suffer sad fates.  Those that are not rarely rise above their station.

However, this does not deter me, because Dickens is really and truly worth it.  I read my first Dickens work, Great Expectations, back in college and then basically ignored his oeuvre until 2007, when I read A Tale of Two Cities with an online classics group.  It wasn't until I watched the BBC miniseries adaptation of Bleak House that I was seriously hooked on Dickens.  I've now read about half of his major works.  I'm ranking them below in order of preference.

Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock
1.  Bleak House.  Still my favorite.  Maybe it was the miniseries, but I am captivated by the tragic story of the Jarndyce court case.  The lives of the Jarndyce heirs are intertwined with the heroine, Esther Summerson, as well as the mysterious Lady Dedlock.  This book has everything -- romance, blackmail, murder, the brilliant Inspector Bucket (the first detective in English fiction!) and a host of side characters that are both grotesque and charming.

2.  Oliver Twist.  The quintessential Dickens orphan.  By now, the trope of the Poor Orphan is a little hackneyed, but little Oliver manages to survive the workhouse and a gang of thieves and still be sweet and saintly.  Also one of Dickens' shorter works, so it's a great starting point for the Dickens novice.

3.  Great Expectations.  My first Dickens, read in my last semester of college.  I took a fifth class, Introduction to Fiction, on a whim.  I can't remember any of the other books we read except this one.  I was sure I'd hate it but I was blown away, it was so enjoyable!  It contains some of Dickens' most memorable characters -- Pip, the hero; his kindly but hapless stepbrother Joe, and his shrew of a sister.

4/5.  Little Dorrit and David Copperfield -- tied for fourth place.  Copperfield started out so well, vying with Bleak House for my favorite, but the middle gets really slow, and the story doesn't seem to go anywhere.  And David's True Love Dora is one of his most annoying ingenues EVER, so it slips in the ranking.  Little Dorrit has a lot of the colorful characters for which Dickens is famous, but somehow the story isn't quite as enchanting.  Young Amy Dorrit was born and raised in the Marshalsea Prison, where her father has spent years imprisoned for debts.  Dickens was pointing out the injustice of this vicious cycle.  The hero, Arthur Clennam, is trying to help the Dorrits and falls in love with Amy.

6.  A Tale of Two Cities.  This one gets big points for being fairly short, and also for having the BOTH the best first line and the best last line in a book EVER.  Lots of great books have great first lines, but to have both is pretty impressive.  Also, one of the best female villains, Madame DeFarge.  However, points are taken away because, once again, Lucie Manette, the beautiful ingenue, is so boooring.  Why is everyone so in love with her?  Apparently Dickens believes that since she is young, innocent and pretty, no character development is therefore necessary. Snore.

7.  Nicholas Nickleby.  Poor Nicholas has to get a teaching job at a terrible school to support his widowed mother and sister, and along the way he has some adventures.  It was okay, but the characters didn't appeal to me nearly as much as those in Bleak House, Oliver Twist, or even Great Expectations.

8/9.  Hard Times and A Christmas Carol.  Bleah.  They're short, but I just don't see the appeal.  Hard Times is often read in schools because it's one of Dickens shortest works -- because he left out all the good stuff!  Seriously, I cannot recall a single element of this book that I liked, or a single interesting character.  It seems like Dickens had a novel all planned out and hadn't added any of the funny and/or grotesque side characters, but he was in a rush to publish something so he just handed it off to the publisher.  A huge disappointment.

And A Christmas Carol -- it's so popular, and I've seen so many adaptations -- there's even a Disney adaptation with Mickey Mouse and Scrooge McDuck.   When I finally got around to reading it, I didn't see what the big deal was.  I suppose I would have enjoyed it more if a TV version hadn't scared the crap out of me when I was about six or seven.  (What was my mother thinking, letting me watch this?  I was so scared of the Ghost of Christmas Future I slept under the bed for a week).  I finally got around to reading it a few years ago and was seriously underwhelmed.

So, now that I'm nearly finished with Bleak House I have to think about which Dickens to read next.  My top choices are Martin Chuzzlewith, Dombey and Son, and Our Mutual Friend.  Bloggers, have you read any of these?  Which one should I read next?  I'd love to hear your comments and also your thoughts about other Dickens novels.


  1. I think if I ever read another Dickens novel, it will be Nicholas Nickleby, but because the story itself sounds appealing (I've actually no idea what it's about) but because I have a character in one of my books called Nicholas Nightingale. He's a street magician and people assume his name is a stage name based on Nickleby's name. It's not, but it's mentioned several times in the book, so I thought I should probably read NN. Maybe. :D

  2. I found NN somewhat hard to get into. I read it along with an online Dickens group, but I don't know if I would have stuck with it on my own. I didn't find the characters nearly as appealing as in some of the other Dickens books. And sadly, no magicians.

  3. I am spending much time this weekend trying to be finished with this project too! I'm watching a little, then reading a little, then watching a little. I'm loving the movie, just as you said! And I can tell that if was to do a re-read of this down the road, I would get TONS more out of it and probably more and more out of it each time I did re-read. It's that layered of a book. This time around, I'm sad that I may be just getting the first layer!

    I've read all the Dickens you listed except Little Dorrit. I enjoyed them all, except Hard Times which I thought was even too dark for a Dickens book! I haven't read the ones you are thinking of going for but they all sound intriguing!

    Anyway, hopefully I'll have a wrap up post by this time next week!

  4. I liked A Christmas Carol because my mom would read it to us at Christmas time. We had a big beautiful illustrated edition. I still like it for the memories.

    I haven't read much Dickens but I've enjoyed for one reason or another all that I've read! Next year I'll get to Bleak House. The fact that you love it so much is what gets me excited about it. Thanks for that.

  5. Suey -- are you just loving the miniseries? I need to watch it again. Mr. Bucket and Sgt. George are just wonderful. I look forward to your review.

    Rebecca -- which other Dickens have you read? I may give A Christmas Carol another try. Patrick Stewart does a one-man version, and he also narrated an audio version. I'm sure I'd love anything he read.

  6. The only Dickens I've finished so far is Bleak House, partly because of the mini-series I'm sure! Although seeing it first did ruin all the surprises when I read the book. I've tried to read Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities (couldn't stand that I could see what Sidney was going to do from a mile away and for her too!) and wasn't able to finish them, although I'd like to try again at some point. And perhaps rereading Bleak House some day would give me more enjoyment and understanding of it, I'm afraid I found it a bit of a slog the first time. I've also read part of Our Mutual Friend this year, which I think is quite good for Dickens, funny and compassionate and doesn't seem to get mentioned as often as it deserves to. I hope you read it soon and maybe inspire me to finish it!

  7. Of your three possible next Dickens reads, I'd suggest Our Mutual Friend- it's the strongest book overall, with plenty of msytery, tragedy, romance and humour set mainly in London like Bleak House. There's also a very good BBC adaption!

  8. Karen, I've read embarrassingly few Dickens novels. I've read all the Christmas novellas (five of them), I've read his history of England, and then I've read Oliver Twist, Tale of Two Cities, and Great Expectations. I look forward to reading more!

  9. I've finally past the halfway mark and should really do an update post this week! Bleak House has required more patience than previous Dickens novels, but I'm finally starting to think it will be worth it. Great Expectations is still my favorite... wonder if that will change.

  10. I recently finished reading this for the readalong too and although I didn't love it as much as you do, I did enjoy it. This is only the second Dickens book I've read (the first was A Christmas Carol) so I can't really help you with your next choice. I've heard a lot of good things about Our Mutual Friend though, and I think that's probably going to be the next one I read.

  11. David Copperfield has always been my favorite Dickens. I think second would be a tie between Bleak House and Great Expectations. I'm in the middle of Tale of Two Cities (for the second time) and haven't chosen which Dickens I will read next. It seems like it's going to be a nice winter for his books though!

  12. Carolyn -- I've heard a lot of great things about Our Mutual Friend, so I'll probably go with that one. Great Expectations is definitely worth finishing. And I know what you mean about Sydney -- Lucie is pretty bland.

    Sarah - I didn't know about the BBC adaptation of OMF. It's so tempting to watch the movies first.

    Rebecca -- that isn't embarrassing at all! That's way more Dickens than most people have ever read. I wouldn't have read so many if I hadn't joined an online Dickens group, The Imitable Boz, through Yahoo groups. They're reading the books in order, and the current read is Barnaby Rudge which I skipped in favor of BH. Might start again for the next book which should be Chuzzlewit.

    Helen -- maybe we should have an OMF readalong! It's always more interesting to hear other bloggers' comments.

    Kristen -- I loved the beginning of Copperfield but I thought the middle was slow. I know it was Dickens' personal favorite. I still haven't seen the BBC adaptation with Maggie Smith, I think she's probably perfect as Betsy Trotwood.

  13. How about the Pickwick Papers? Lots of great Victorian atmosphere, a bit of humour and another lovely Dickensian court case.

  14. Our Mutual Friend was mentioned a lot on Lost, so that makes me want to read it! I've really liked most of the Dickens' books I've read. The only things I've read that you haven't are his other Christmas stories, which I didn't like even though I liked A Christmas Carol. The others were rather boring. Christmas wasn't widely celebrated in Dickens' time any more and it helped bring it back, so I think I have an appreciation of that and just hearing it so much as a kid that make me love it.
    Bleak House is my favorite as well, then Great Expectations, David Copperfield, Nicholas Nickelby, so basically the same order as you. I can never know quite where to put A Christmas Carol on the list though.
    I started Oliver Twist this somewhere and hated it! Since you have it ranked so high perhaps I should try again. It's not really a summery book so perhaps timing was part of the problem. When I was reading it I suddenly understood why so many people hate Dickens.

  15. Falaise -- I do want to read Pickwick someday. I'm in an online Dickens group and they read last year but I just couldn't get into it. I had read a lot of Dickens that year so maybe I was burned out. I'll have to try again.

    Lindsey -- I can't explain why I like OT so much. It's pretty heavy on the melodrama, and Oliver is pretty cloying. I found the characters so vivid and the plot really pulled me. I'm always rooting for Oliver even though he is way too angelic and unrealistic. It's weird.

  16. I'd been seeing the Bleak House readalong posts around but most of the ones I'd seen were hating it, so when I saw your comment on Shelf Love about loving Bleak House, I had to stop by. Like you, I adore the miniseries which got me to read the book which I also loved.

    I strongly disliked David Copperfield and could not wait until it was done. That was my first Dickens.

    I want to read Our Mutual Friend next. As with Bleak House, the lovely BBC adaptation of Our Mutual Friend spurs my interest. If there are multiple adaptations out there, the one I mean has Anna Friel of "Pushing Daisies" in it.