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)

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From Douglas-Fairhurst: This isn’t a novel, strictly speaking, but it is still one of the most influential stories ever written. Since A Christmas Carol’s first appearance in 1843, it has been reproduced in so many different forms, from Marcel Marceau to the Muppets, that it is now as much a part of Christmas as turkey or presents, while words like “Scrooge” are deeply rooted in the national psyche. At once funny and touching, it has become one of our most powerful modern myths.

Great Expectations (1860-61)

This is the story of Pip, an orphan who has eyes for Estrella, a girl of a higher class. He receives a fortune from Magwitch, a fugitive he once provided food for, and puts the money toward his education so that he might gain Estrella’s favor. Does he win over the girl? I won’t spoil the ending.

From Douglas-Fairhurst: A slim novel that punches well above its weight, Great Expectations is a fable about the corrupting power of money, and the redeeming power of love, that has never lost its grip on the public imagination. It is also beautifully constructed. If some of Dickens’ novels sprawl luxuriously across the page, this one is as trim as a whippet. Touch any part of it and the whole structure quivers into life. 

Bleak House (1852-53)

Dickens’ ninth novel, Bleak House, centers around Jarndyce and Jarndyce, a drawn-out case in England’s Court of Chancery involving one person who drew up several last wills with contradicting terms. The story follows the characters tied up in the case, many of whom are listed as beneficiaries.

From Douglas-Fairhurst: Each of Dickens’ major novels has its admirers, but few can match Bleak House for its range and verve. It is at once a remarkable verbal photograph of mid-Victorian life and a narrative experiment that anticipates much modern fiction. Some of its scenes, such as the death of Jo, the crossing sweeper, tread a fine line between pathos and melodrama, but they have a raw power that was never equaled even by Dickens himself.

The Life of Charles Dickens (1872-74), by John Forster

Soon after Dickens died from a stroke in 1870, John Forster, his friend and editor for more than 30 years, gathered letters, documents and memories and wrote his first biography.

From Douglas-Fairhurst: The result was patchy, pompous and sometimes reads more like a disguised autobiography. One reviewer sniffed that it “should not be called The Life of Dickens, but the History of Dickens’ Relations to Mr. Forster.” But it also contained some remarkable revelations, including the fragment of autobiography in which Dickens first told the truth about his miserable childhood. It is the foundation stone for all later biography.


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