On reading Dickens

CHARLES Dickens liked to refer to himself as The Inimitable; over the last few weeks he has been inescapable. In television adaptations and documentaries, radio serials, biographies, stage plays and skits, the novelist has been sliced, diced and served up to the nation.

Some of the dishes at this feast of Dickens have been superlative – one thinks in particular of Armando Iannucci’s BBC2 essay – but I must confess that there is a small, curdled internal part of myself which eyes this banquet and responds with a grudging croak: “Please, sir, can I have some less?”

This is jealousy, of course. Dickens is mine and I don’t want to share. It is absurd, I know, to feel that the world’s best-known novelist belongs to me, but I do feel it. So on Tuesday, when the 200th anniversary of Dickens’ birth is celebrated with great public hooplas from Australia to Zurich, I will mark it in the best way I know how – by sitting at home, in a comfortable chair, in silence, with a cup of tea and Dombey And Son.

To explain: a few years ago I set myself the task of reading all of Dickens’ novels in the order of publication. It was a reaction against the books I was reading for work at that time, mostly ghostwritten celebrity memoirs. Dickens, I figured, would be good for me – muesli for the mind, cleaning out a system clarted with Jade Goody and Jordan. Note, then, that the idea was not to read for pleasure, but for betterment. The point wasn’t to read, but to have read; to be able to say, “I have read all of Dickens, every dot, every comma, every steaming punch-bowl and mutton-pie of him.”

What humbug. It became clear within a few pages of the wonderful Pickwick Papers that Dickens ought to be savoured not devoured. Getting to the end will be a great exhausted sadness. The books are so vast, so rich and strange, so heavily populated, and at times so resistant to entry, that the experience of going through them feels more like exploration than mere reading.

Dickens wrote 15 novels between 1836 and 1870, beginning with The Pickwick Papers and ending with the unfinished The Mystery Of Edwin Drood, publishing each, initially, in monthly parts. He also wrote shorter works such as the perennial A Christmas Carol, which remains, perhaps, his best-loved and most read book. The novels alone add up to 3,859,231 words, of which I have so far read 1,596,387, having reached the end of Martin Chuzzlewit, his sixth major work. I have also read Great Expectations, but that was years ago when I was younger even than Pip, so I don’t count it in the tally.

Buying the books, by the way, is part of the pleasure. Dickens is one of these writers whose books sell, but too often sit on the shelves unread for years before being sold on or donated. So you can pick them up cheap. I could buy them all from Amazon for about 30 quid, but it’s much more fun to browse the charity shops and church sales. I found Bleak House in a Fyffes Bananas box at the top of Whitby’s famous 199 steps. My hardback copy of Barnaby Rudge cost £3 from Young’s Interesting Books in Glasgow, and was signed by one Bessie S McLaren on the 19th of August, 1922. Stack all of Dickens’ novels together and they’d probably be the same height as me, although, admittedly, I am far from tall, being rather more Quilp than Uriah Heep.

It feels a little vulgar talking about a writer in terms of the size of their output, but in the case of Dickens I think it says something about his sheer inventive verve. For me, Dickens is all about character. The plots, though intricate, seem incidental. Will Oliver Twist hang? Will Barnaby Rudge? I don’t really care. The pleasure of Dickens is getting to spend time in the company of the characters, especially the minor characters, of which there are a great many. Dickens is said to have invented 13,000 individual people, the equivalent of the population of Stranraer, or – if you prefer – Kirkwall and Kelso shoved together.

Everyone knows the names of the title characters, the Copperfields and Twists, but read deeply and the real treasures emerge. Take, for instance, Dick Swiveller. Take the name alone. This young toper from The Old Curiosity Shop has a heart of gold, but very little else in the way of that particular metal. He is a penniless gentlemen whose home – effectively a bedsit – he affects to believe is a lofty set of chambers, and who carries around with him a small greasy book in which he notes down which London streets he can no longer stroll down for fear of encountering creditors. His allowance, which he receives from a rich aunt, goes mainly on brandy.

It is in characters such as these that much of Dickens’s humour lies. It is often thought, by those who have seen the TV and film adaptations, but have not read the books, that Dickens is depressing, that he writes about nothing but orphans and workhouses and mad old women in yellowing lace. This is simply untrue. Dickens is hilarious. He has a wry, twinkle-eyed, nudge-you-in-the-ribs avuncular voice, and his jokes have not grown stale despite being more than a century old. An EastEnders writer once suggested to me that had he been alive in our times, Dickens would have been writing for EastEnders. Yeah, right. On the strength of his love of character and humour, Dickens is much more likely to have been on the team at Coronation Street, penning one-liners for Norris.

That said, it would be wrong to deny that Dickens was, at heart, serious. Oliver Twist, for example, is much angrier, more despairing and violent than any adaptation I have seen. There are, too, moments of real bleak weirdness in Dickens. There is an eerie character who appears for only a few pages in The Old Curiosity Shop, a pale, long-haired nameless man “begrimed with smoke” who tends the furnace in a factory, as he has done since childhood, and considers it his only friend and family. In that novel, too, is the demise of Little Nell – often considered laughably sentimental, but for me merely the natural conclusion of a book which is, Dick Swiveller aside, a rather shivery death-haunted work.

This mix of belly-laughs and clutching heartache is the real beauty of Dickens and what makes his writing so realistic. He will have known from his journalism that this is what life is like. His early articles were collected together as Sketches For Boz, a vivaciously, almost obsessively observed account of pawnbrokers, pickpockets and pubs – life as it is lived. I have learned a lot about writing from them, but they mean more to me than that. I think what I detect in these pieces – and with which I identify very strongly – is a desire of a natural loner and introvert to engage with society and feel like he belongs through the process of description. Dickens draws closer to people by writing about them. I try, stumblingly, to follow his example.

The day will come, possibly years from now, when I will read the final line of the final novel and my Dickens odyssey will be over. I’m not looking forward to it. I can’t wait, however, to introduce my own young sons to the books. They watched and sort of enjoyed Great Expectations on the BBC over Christmas (“Daddy, why is the lady on fire?”) but it is not the same at all. Not until Nicholas Nickleby – and indeed Dick Swiveller – replace Captain Jack Sparrow in their affections will I be satisfied. For I will have introduced two hungry minds to the eternal works of a great genius, and who – truly – could ask for more?