Reading Dickens

I’ve started reading Little Dorrit for the third or fourth time…skim-reading it in places, because I long ago decided that the only way to read Dickens is to jump when you start to get bored, because there’s no denying he gave a wealth of detail and sometimes it’s about something you just don’t need a wealth of detail about. That prison in Marseilles at the beginning for instance – I never will know what that’s there for, because I invariably get bored before I find out so I skip it.

But don’t go thinking it’s inherently boring, or that all of it’s boring, or that it’s boring in proportion to its quantity, or anything like that. The truth is that he was a god damn genius, and he really is doing something with all those words. It’s not slack, it’s not verbiage for the sake of verbiage. It’s detail.

Like, there’s the bit in chapter 3 where Affery takes Arthur up to the garret room where he’ll sleep for the night, and there’s a very detailed description of what’s in the room and what the room is like. I skipped some, because there was a lot, but I knew if I’d read it it would have been good stuff. That’s how Dickens is. You sort of have to skip in order to keep going, but you know you’re skipping rich writing. But I didn’t skip it all and I was rewarded with a real yell of laughter because at the end of the list of furniture was

…a washing-stand that looked as if it had stood for ages in a hail of dirty soapsuds, and a bedstead with four bare atomies of posts, each terminating in a spike, as if for the dismal accommodation of lodgers who might prefer to impale themselves.

That’s Dickens for you.

Anybody read it? Anybody want to read it along with me?



  1. says

    My wife just picked up two copies of Nicholas Nickleby yesterday. We try to read one book a month together, and this is for December.

    I had not read much Dickens until this last January, when she convinced me to read Great Expectations with her (a yearly ritual for her). I had not expected the precision writing, the wry humor, and the richly detailed world — let alone the well-developed characters.

    I’ve not read Little Dorrit yet. But I reckon it’s going on the list.

  2. says

    ^ Yes that’s exactly it – the precision writing. That’s what I was trying to say. There’s a lot of it, in the usual Victorian way – but it’s precision writing. Often so much so that the hair stands on end.

  3. opposablethumbs says

    I don’t know if this is the only time Dickens broke completely through the fourth wall of the page to address himself directly not only to the reader in general but specifically to certain named members of society, but it must surely be the one that carries most weight:

    Jo the crossing-sweeper in Bleak House, who dies of poverty and neglect despite the last-minute efforts of a kindly would-be saviour.

    “Dead, your Majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen. Dead, Right Reverends and Wrong Reverends of every order. Dead, men and women, born with Heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us every day.”

  4. epicure says

    There’s a LOT of Little Dorrit – it is actually two books after all… Dickens could be so exciting – I remember reading Bleak House, and the part where Inspector Bucket and Esther are chasing through the snow, the horses falling and having to be got back on their hooves, trying to find Lady Dedlock… at the end of it I was out of breath and sweating!

    As above mentioned, the other amazing thing in that book is his sudden diatribe after Jo, the crossing sweeper dies – suddenly it’s Dickens own voice excoriating the ‘right reverends and wrong reverends’ who could let people live and die in such conditions. Wonderful.

  5. says

    Read chapter 1. Thought paragraph 3 was thoroughly descriptive, and gripping in a ‘staring’ kind of way. Despite the author expressing “Everything that lived or grew, was oppressed by the glare; except the lizard, passing swiftly over rough stone walls, and the cicala, chirping his dry hot chirp, like a rattle.” The stare. The stare. The stare. Sounds like a good name for a film of the Alfred Hitchcock genre.

  6. Chris W says

    Everytime someone asks me what my facebook page or name is, i ask them what Dickens they last read.

    Just two different cultural assumptions colliding.

  7. says

    Absolutely love Dickens. His wit and humour are incomparable. I’d read Little Dorrit with you, but I’ve decided to go back and read my unread ones in order, and Martin Chuzzlewit is already sitting on my Kobo, ready to read next (currently about halfway through both A Map of Glass by Jane Urquhart and Two Solitudes by Hugh MacLennan and plan to be done in a week or so).

    And I never skip. I don’t want to miss anything. But that’s okay, I never get bored.

  8. says

    I’m halfway through reading 2nd chapter. I think Mr. & Mrs. Meagles are a perfectly well-rounded empathetic couple. I found part of the following paragraph – that’s midway through the 2nd chapter – to be extremely poignant.

    ‘Mother’ being affectionate term used by all family members for Mrs. Beagles … that includes Mr. Meagles, whose relaying the following:

    “O dear, dear!” cried Mother, breaking out again, “when I saw all those children ranged tier above tier, and appealing from the father none of them has ever known on earth, to the great Father of us all in Heaven, I thought, does any wretched mother ever come here, and look among those young faces, wondering which is the poor child she brought into this forlorn world, never through all its life to know her love, her kiss, her face, her voice, even her name!” Now that was practical in Mother, and I told her so. I said, “Mother, that’s what I call practical in you, my dear.”‘

    This rings so many bells from my institutional perspective.

  9. says

    I’ve read Little Dorrit, but the last time was a while ago. Maybe after I finish Les Miserables, speaking of an abundance of words.

    I’ll follow the discussion, in any case, and maybe I’ll be motivated to read LD again, or at least flip through looking for juicy passages.

    What? I love 19th-century novels, even if my reading habits do get me weird looks at the dentist’s office, and the doctor’s office, and the coffee shop I have my Saturday morning breakfast at, and…

  10. says

    Martin Chuzzlewit has that great line –

    spoiler alert, Ibis, in case you want to come to it fresh

    this means you, Ibis

    (just in case)

    – about Pecksniff warming his backside at the fire with such an air of benevolence as if he were warming someone else’s.

    Dickens at his best is incomparable, and there’s a lot of his best.

  11. says

    Ophelia – it’s nice to find someone who doesn’t think my reading habits are weird weird weird, that’s for sure.

    The dentist, upon being told that I was reading Les Miserables, said “Oh, is the book based on the musical? Do you sing along?” Nice well-meaning guy, good dentist, but totally clueless about Books.

  12. says

    Well for several years I ran a book group called “Fun With Dead White Guys” so you see, I wouldn’t think that. 😀

    We even read the (translation of) The Tale of Genji. The whole damn thing. It’s long.

  13. Stacy says

    ^Cheating! Lady Murasaki was neither white nor a guy!

    I’ve read The Tale of Genji too. Well, not all of it. I quit after Genji died.

  14. Al Dente says

    From the OP:

    there’s no denying he gave a wealth of detail and sometimes it’s about something you just don’t need a wealth of detail about.

    Dickens’ early novels were published in other peoples’ magazines and he was paid by the word so he did a little padding here and there. His later novels were serialized in his own magazine and he often needed verbiage to fill out an issue. He wrote A Christmas Carol because he needed a novella for a December issue of his magazine.

  15. Funny Diva says

    Ibis @17
    Thanks for beating me to it!
    That “CD was paid by the word myth” always raises my hackles, as it were. Though it’s interesting to imagine what he’d write to refute the charge! (as he was never backward in coming forward in his own defense!)

    I loved, loved, loved Little Dorrit when I read it last summer. The satire is sharp and unrelenting and delivered in gorgeous prose by a master wordsmith. Bleak House runs a close second. To this modern reader, Dickens is at his best in his Condition of England novels (Bleak House, Little Dorrit, and to a lesser extent Hard Times), when he really goes after his society’s indifference to the suffering of the poor–especially of poor children.

    I’ve been struggling through The Old Curiosity Shop…maybe I’ll join the fun here and get out Dorrit again instead…
    (his style and voice and types of characters developed a _lot_ over his career…”Shop” is much earlier).

  16. says

    Funny Diva, yes indeed. I’ve never even attempted The Old Curiosity Shop – or Dombey and Son, either. I’ll probably go on not attempting unless someone tells me they should not be missed.

    I have attempted Our Mutual Friend once or twice. That I do want to make a more serious rush at.

    I can re-read (parts of) David Copperfield any time. I skip the mawkish parts, but that still leaves a hell of a lot.

  17. says

    OB: Yes, I can see that Little Dorrit is being slowly weaved into the intriguing storyline in Chapter 5. Arthur has become very curious about the young petite waif-like girl, who is probably much older in years than she appears, who attends to Arthur’s invalided mother when she rings the bell. LD also seems to be very timid and shy, and likes to eat all her meals alone in a wee corner, or some such.. She is a complete mystery to Arthur, who simply must find out about her roots.

    In chapter 5 Family Affairs Arthur’s talk with his mother about his father – who had departed the world, I think some 15 years prior – gets very heated. There seemed to have been things that the father had wanted to confide in the son – but he was unable due to failing health. It bothers Arthur, as he just wants to get to the bottom of the matter. He wants to avail of the opportunity of time spent with the mother to get to the real truth. Time is after all not on her side. He is even prepared to relinquish all rights to his inheritance. She remains stubborn and seeks support from her devoted elderly assistant. The latter and the mother stand between him, just like he had done so between the father and the mother. Not good.

    I love the way the way the author expresses the physical demeanour of the mother, as she became more exacerbated with the questions her ever so tetchy son was putting to her.

    Still so recoiling in her chair that her overpoised weight moved it, from time to time, a little on its wheels, and gave her the appearance of a phantom of fierce aspect gliding away from him, she interposed her left arm, bent at the elbow with the back of her hand towards her face, between herself and him, and looked at him in a fixed silence.

    It’s dripping with body imagery. The mother quite reminds me of a much older first cousin of my mother, who also had a similar demeanour when she was confronted with personal family questions.

    The author gives more of the same flavour, as the passage – midway through the fifth chapter – is rounded off.

    He stopped in the hope that she would speak. But her grey hair was
    not more immovable in its two folds, than were her firm lips.

    The imagery, descriptiveness, and alliteration is sprinkled in abundance throughout the whole five chapters is jaw-droppingly astounding. Kudos to Dickens. The book is thoroughly enjoyable.

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