Thursday, January 19, 2006

My Favorite Dickens Novels

In honor of the new BBC production of Bleak House finally making its way across the Atlantic (well, it hasn't been that long, but it feels like it), I'm blogging today on my favorite Dickens novels. There's a tie at the top, with 1 being the best score:

1. Bleak House. Every time I read this novel I find something new to admire about it. Dickens's range in it is shown most clearly by the fact that the funniest scene in the novel (if you like black humor), the tea party at the Snagbys' house, and the most tragic one, the death of Jo the crossing sweeper, both involve some of the same characters. There are very few authors who can blend comedy and tragedy in a single work. Shakespeare is one, Dickens another.

1. Our Mutual Friend. Maybe not quite as good, from a purely critical standpoint, as Bleak House, but still tied for first place as far as I'm concerned. It has screamingly funny scenes, like the one where Dickens describes a ragged school and its highly unenthusiastic pupils, thrilling scenes, like Lizzie's rescue of Eugene, and touching scenes, like the marriage at the end.

3. David Copperfield. I don't think there's another novel that describes the influence of other people, good and bad, on one person's life so nicely.

4. Great Expectations. If you can read the scene where Pip goes to see Wopsle play Hamlet without screaming with laughter, you need antidepressants.

5. Little Dorrit. The last line in this novel is one of the nicest ever written.

6.A Tale of Two Cities. The first Dickens novel I ever read, on a subway going from Manhattan to Brooklyn. I ought to send a thank-you card to the guy who didn't want his copy and gave it to me.

7.Nicholas Nickleby. In all honesty, I probably like the RSC adaptation of the book as much if not more than the book itself, but that's a lot of liking either way.

8.The Pickwick Papers. A little too episodic for me to place higher, but still very funny. Its scenes in debtors' prison are a nice rehearsal for Dickens's later works.

9.Dombey and Son. I feel a little bad about ranking this so low, since there's much in it to admire. I had a feminist professor who analyzed its gender aspects half to death, which may account for my failure to warm to it more.

10.Hard Times. I like it better than The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge, but I still think of this book as a Dickens novel that's had all the life drained out of it. Still, it's worth reading, especially in conjunction with Elizabeth Gaskell's Ruth, which has certain similarities to it with regard to family relationships. This novel was the darling of anti-Thatcherites during the 1980's and 1990's--one TV adaptation even had Sissy Jupe (or Louisa?) anachronistically denouncing the Conservative Party, which was a very different animal from the Utilitarians mocked in the novel.

Historical fiction update: Been sort of slow in the reading department lately, but I finally received Rhoda Edwards' novel about Richard III, The Broken Sword. It uses the device of multiple narrators that was used in Rosemary Jarman's We Speak No Treason, but The Broken Sword is the better book by far, without the purple prose and romance-novel elements that marred We Speak No Treason. Its characterizations are good, and the author has a wry sense of humor that gives a refreshing note to the usual strife of the Wars of the Roses.

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