After a day spent at the Dickens Fair (go visit! it’s fun! there’s only one more weekend!) in the San Francisco area and a few evenings spent in reading Little Dorrit, I find myself thinking about why I like Dickens novels. My usual response, when people ask, is to either say I like the language or that I enjoy the characters, but the reasoning is actually more complicated. The complaints I hear most involve the length and the wordiness.
Length is a legitimate issue with Dickens. My 2003 Penguin Classics edition of Little Dorrit weighs in at 985 pages, 860 pages of which are actually the novel. David Copperfield is well over 900 pages and Bleak House is over 1000 pages. So yes, the novels are long. But too long? Puh-LEEZE. Game of Thrones is nearly 700 pages long. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows are all well over 400 pages long. The American edition of Order of the Phoenix came in at a whopping 870 pages. The Da Vinci Code is 450-odd pages. The four books of Twilight total 2492 pages. The Lord of the Rings trilogy is 1000 pages, the His Dark Materials trilogy is about the same… you get my point. Books are often long. Yes, Dickens could have tightened some stories and some chapters. Yes, he goes haring off on some odd tangents (see: storytelling chapter in Nicholas Nickelby – a depressing story about sisters who become nuns and a weirdly funny story about a suicidal baron? Ooookay…). I say, stop whining. You read all those other long books. Yes, the sentence structure is different in Dickens, but not so much as to be unintelligible. Stop whining and start reading.
The readers who complain about length need to take the publication circumstances into account. Dickens wrote serialized novels. They were published a few chapters at a time in cheap paperback pamphlets over the course of several months. Of course the stories are long! Our closest equivalent is television. Now before you start screaming, let me explain. Television shows are serialized stories, released a chapter at a time over the course of several months. Sound familiar? Imagine a television show like, say, Friends as a published written work. It ran for 10 seasons at around 24 episodes per season. In terms of books, that could be 10 books of 24 chapters each. Each volume would be quite long to cover the whole story, but it would all hang together. Some chapters would be better than others, some might seem to want editing, but since each chapter was released individually, the authors wouldn’t want to go back and change it from what their audience already knows and loves. Though Dickens never wrote novels to be sequels of another of his creations, the format of his work is essentially the same as the serialized shows.
While I can write off complaints about length as a lack of patience or contextual understanding, I have less patience with grumping about the language itself. I admit, I love the way Dickens uses language. I also have to admit that I grew up with it. Children’s fiction from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were beloved at my house – Nesbit, Eager, Milne… I still love them. And they use language differently than we do today. Their writing is more formal, more challenging. It is also firmly rooted in a cultural context that no longer exists. Part of my love for Dickens is something that I suspect is a stumbling block for many – he uses lots of big words. He also uses lots of words. There’s a story that comes up whenever Dickensian novels are the subject of discussion. Dickens’ novels are so long, they say, because he was paid by the word. He tried to make them as long as possible so he’d get paid more. It may be apocryphal – I don’t know. But again, context. People who wrote for newspapers, who wrote articles and serialized stories, were all paid by the word. And more importantly, they still are today. The story may or may not be true – but it’s not a circumstance unique to Charles Dickens.
Dickens’ novels often come laden with descriptors like “dark,” “depressing,” “intense,” “gritty,” “emotional,” and so forth. The sense of humor that comes twinkling through at odd moments hardly ever comes up. Like I’ve mentioned, I’m re-reading Little Dorrit right now, and this evening I read the chapter that introduces the Circumlocution Office (motto: How Not To Do It). While it’s a brilliant and skewering critique of governmental bureaucracy, it also has some moments that are achingly funny. One of my favorites is the exchange between Barnacle Junior and Arthur Clennam:
The Present Barnacle, holding Mr. Clennam’s card in his hand, had a youthful aspect, and the fluffiest little whisker, perhaps, that ever was seen. Such a downy tip was on his callow chin, that he seemed half fledged like a young bird; and a compassionate observer might have urged, that if he had not singed the calves of his legs, he would have died of cold. He had a superior eye-glass dangling round his neck, but unfortunately had such flat orbits to his eyes and such limp little eyelids, that it wouldn’t stick in when he put it up, but kept tumbling out against his waistcoat buttons with a click that discomposed him very much.
‘Oh, I say. Look here! My father’s not in the way, and won’t be in the way to-day,’ said Barnacle Junior. ‘Is this anything that I can do?’
(Click! Eye-glass down. Barnacle Junior quite frightened and feeling all round himself, but not able to find it.)
‘You are very good,’ said Arthur Clennam. ‘I wish however to see Mr. Barnacle.’
‘But I say. Look here! You haven’t got any appointment, you know,’ said Barnacle Junior.
(By this time he had found the eye-glass, and put it up again.)
‘No,’ said Arthur Clennam. ‘That is what I wish to have.’
‘But I say. Look here! Is this public business?’ asked Barnacle Junior.
(Click! Eye-glass down again. Barnacle Junior in that state of search after it, that Mr. Clennam felt it useless to reply at present.)
‘Is it,’ said Barnacle Junior, taking heed of his visitors brown face, ‘anything about – Tonnage – or that sort of thing?’
(Pausing for a reply, he opened his right eye with his hand, and stuck his glass in it, in that inflammatory manner that his eye began watering dreadfully.)
‘No,’ said Arthur, ‘it is nothing about tonnage.’
‘Then look here. Is it private business?’
‘I really am not sure. It relates to a Mr. Dorrit.’
‘Look here, I tell you what! You had better call at our house, if you are going that way. Twenty-four, Mews Street, Grosvenor Square. My father’s got a slight touch of gout, and is kept at home by it.
(The misguided young Barnacle evidently going blind in his eye-glass side, but ashamed to make any further alteration in his painful arrangements.)
–pages 123-4, 2003 Penguin edition
This scene is important to the novel, but also had me snorting with laughter. I can just envision Dickens giggling while he wrote it.
Give Dickens a chance. Sometimes one has to approach it like Shakespeare. The language is recognizable but a little foreign, and if you spend too much time trying to understand every single word individually, you’ll get hopelessly bogged down. Let the words flow past and paint the picture for you. Flow is much easier than slogging through it sentence by sentence. One way to approach it, if you have trouble with the printed books, is to get an audiobook version. Try the local library and have it on in the car or something. Do NOT start with the movies. Dickens’ novels are complicated and delicately balanced creations, and Hollywood has yet to do justice to them.