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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Charles Dickens: A Critical Study (1906), by G. K. Chesterton

Gilbert Keith Chesterton, an English writer in the early 20th century, devoted whole chapters of his study of Dickens to the novelist’s youth, his characters, his debut novel The Pickwick Papers, America and Christmas, among other topics.

From Douglas-Fairhurst: If Dickens invented the modern celebration of Christmas, Chesterton almost single-handedly invented the modern celebration of Dickens. What he relishes above all in Dickens’ writing is its joyful prodigality, and his own book comes close to matching Dickens in its energy and good humor. There have been many hundreds of books on Dickens written since Chesterton’s, but few are as lively or significant. Almost every sentence is a quotable gem.

The Violent Effigy: A Study of Dickens’ Imagination (1973, rev. ed. 2008), by John Carey

When the University of Oxford expanded its English curriculum to include literature written after the 1830s, professor and literary critic John Carey began to deliver lectures on Charles Dickens. These lectures eventually turned into a book, The Violent Effigy, which attempts to guide readers, unpretentiously, through Dickens’ fertile imagination.

From Douglas-Fairhurst: This brilliantly iconoclastic study starts from the premise that “we could scrap all the solemn parts of Dickens’ novels without impairing his status as a writer,” and sets out to celebrate the strange poetry of his imagination instead. Rather than a solemn treatise on Dickens’ symbolism, we are reminded of his obsession with masks and wooden legs; rather than viewing Dickens as a serious social critic, we are presented with a showman and comedian who “did not want to provoke … reform so much as to retain a large and lucrative audience.” It is the funniest book on Dickens ever written.

Dickens (1990), by Peter Ackroyd

This tome of 1,000-plus pages by Peter Ackroyd, a biographer who has also made Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot his subjects, captures the nonfiction—or life and times of Charles Dickens—that the writer often wove into his fiction.

From Douglas-Fairhurst: When Peter Ackroyd’s huge biography of Dickens was first published, it was attacked by some reviewers for what they saw as its self-indulgent postmodern tricks, including fictional dialogues in which Ackroyd conversed with his subject. Yet such passages are central to a book in which Ackroyd involves himself sympathetically in every aspect of Dickens’ life. As a result, you finish this book feeling not just that you know more about Dickens, but that you actually know him. A biography that rivals Dickens’ novels for its rich cast of characters, sprawling plot and unpredictable swerves between realism and romance.

Other Dickens: Pickwick to Chuzzlewit (1999), by John Bowen


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