The Essentials: Charles Dickens

What are the must-read books written by and about the famed British author?

Author Charles Dickens is best known for his memorable cast of characters, including Ebenezer Scrooge, David Copperfield and Oliver Twist, shown here. (The Granger Collection, NYC)

One of the most-read authors of the Victorian era, Charles Dickens wrote over a dozen novels in his career, as well as short stories, plays and nonfiction. He is probably best known for his memorable cast of characters, including Ebenezer Scrooge, Oliver Twist and David Copperfield.

Becoming Dickens, a biography released in 2011 in time for the 200th anniversary of his birth, chronicles the writer’s meteoric rise from relative obscurity as a journalist to one of England’s most adored novelists. Here, the book’s author, Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, recommends five novels by Dickens and five additional books that offer insight into the writer and his work.

The Pickwick Papers (1836)

In Charles Dickens’ first novel, The Pickwick Papers, Samuel Pickwick, the founder of the Pickwick Club in London, and three of the group’s members—Nathaniel Winkle, Augustus Snodgrass and Tracy Tupman—travel around the English countryside. Sam Weller, a cockney who speaks in proverbs, joins the party as Mr. Pickwick’s assistant, adding more comedy to their adventures, which include romances, hunting outings, a costume party and jail stays.

From Douglas-Fairhurst: This started out as a collection of monthly comic sketches and only slowly developed into something more like a novel. A huge craze at the time of its original publication in 1836-37—it produced as many commercial spinoffs as any modern film—it still has the power to reduce a reader to tears of laughter. As a comic double-act, Mr. Pickwick and Sam Weller are as immortal as Laurel and Hardy or Abbott and Costello.

Oliver Twist (1837-39)

When orphan Oliver Twist loses a bet and brazenly asks for more gruel, he is kicked out of his workhouse and sent to serve as an apprentice to an undertaker. On the run after a scuffle with another of the undertaker’s apprentices, Oliver Twist meets Jack Dawkins, or the Artful Dodger, who brings him into a gang of pickpockets trained by a criminal named Fagin.

From Douglas-Fairhurst: “Please, sir, I want some more”—When Dickens wrote that at the start of his first fully planned novel, he was probably hoping that the sentiment would be echoed by his readers. He wasn’t disappointed. His waif-like hero may be a little passive for modern tastes, but Oliver’s adventures with Fagin and the Artful Dodger quickly passed from fiction into folklore. There may be fewer jokes than in The Pickwick Papers, but Dickens’ satire on attitudes toward poverty remains as relevant as ever.

A Christmas Carol (1843)

Ebenezer Scrooge’s deceased business partner Jacob Marley and three other spirits—the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come—visit him in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The spirits tour Scrooge through scenes of past and present holidays. He even gets a preview of what is in store for him should he continue on his miserly ways. Scared straight, he wakes from the dream a new man, joyful and benevolent.


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