Classics Club Spin #19: The Result

The result of the latest Classics Club Spin has been revealed today!

The idea of the Spin was to list twenty books from my Classics Club list, number them 1 to 20, and the number announced today (Tuesday) represents the book I have to read before 31st January 2019. The number that has been selected is…

1

And this means the book I need to read is…

Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens

To Paul Dombey, business is all and money can do anything. He runs his family life as he runs his firm: coldly, calculatingly and commercially. The only person he cares for is his frail son, grooming him for entry into the family business; his daughter Florence, abandoned and ignored, craves affection from her unloving father, who sees her only as a ‘base coin that couldn’t be invested’. As Dombey’s callousness extends to others – from his defiant second wife Edith, to Florence’s admirer Walter Gay – he sows the seeds of his own destruction. Can this heartless businessman be redeemed?

A compelling depiction of a man imprisoned by his own pride, Dombey and Son explores the devastating effects of emotional deprivation on a dysfunctional family and on society as a whole.

~

I’m glad I have until the end of January to read this book, as it was probably the longest on my list! I’m happy with this result as it’s been a while since I read any Dickens, but I was hoping for Nicholas Nickleby rather than this one.

Have you read Dombey and Son? Did you take part in the Classics Spin? What will you be reading?

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

Oliver Twist I know it’s the middle of January, but I still have a few books that I read towards the end of 2015 to write about – and Oliver Twist is one of them. I’ve been trying to read at least one Dickens novel a year and having started 2015 with David Copperfield I decided to end it with another of his books. Of the two, I much preferred David Copperfield, but I did still enjoy Oliver Twist. As I’ve mentioned before, I find it difficult to think of anything new to say about books that are so well known and widely studied, so I’m just posting some general impressions of the novel here rather than attempting any sort of analysis.

I think most people, even without reading the book, probably have a basic idea of what it is about: an orphan boy who is raised in a workhouse in Victorian London – where he famously says, “Please, sir, I want some more” – and who later becomes involved with a gang of thieves and pickpockets. Maybe you have seen one of the many films, adaptations and musicals and so will know a little bit more, but the only way to discover the whole of Oliver’s story in the way Charles Dickens intended is to read the book!

This is the first time I have read Oliver Twist in its entirety and I was surprised by how much of it was completely unfamiliar to me. I had either forgotten or was unaware of whole chunks of the plot and of the roles played by characters such as Rose Maylie, Noah Claypole and Monks, so I was in the unusual position of reading a story that I both knew and didn’t know!

While this hasn’t become a favourite, I found Oliver Twist an enjoyable, entertaining read (one of the easiest to read and to follow of all the Dickens novels I’ve read so far) and as you would expect from Dickens, the pages are populated with colourful, larger than life characters, from Mr Bumble the beadle and the brutal Bill Sikes to the Artful Dodger and the villainous Fagin. The characters are mostly either ‘very good’ or ‘very bad’. Nancy, Bill Sikes’ lover, is the only one I found significantly more complex and she makes an interesting contrast with the novel’s other main female character, the pure, gentle Rose Maylie.

This is one of the earliest of Dickens’ major works, first published as a serial from 1837-1839, and it’s a relatively short novel by his standards (there are over 500 pages in the edition I read, but in comparison with books like Our Mutual Friend and Bleak House that’s not long at all). The amount of social commentary in the book is also particularly heavy; it was written just a few years after the Poor Law Amendment Act was passed by parliament in 1834, stating that relief for the poor would only be provided within the workhouse. The idea was that conditions inside the workhouse would be so harsh and unpleasant that only those people desperately in need of help would consider entering one. Telling Oliver’s story gave Dickens a chance to express his own views on the Poor Laws and related issues such as poverty and child labour.

Oliver Twist was the final novel by Dickens on my list for the Classics Club, but I will continue to work my way through his other books, as I have about half of them still to read. I think either Dombey and Son or Little Dorrit might be next.

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

David Copperfield Since I started blogging I have been trying to read at least one Dickens novel a year – I read A Christmas Carol in 2009, Bleak House in 2010, Our Mutual Friend and The Mystery of Edwin Drood in 2011, Great Expectations in 2012 and A Tale of Two Cities in 2013. Unfortunately I didn’t manage to read any Dickens at all in 2014 so decided to make him a priority this year. With plenty of his books still to choose from, I picked up David Copperfield on the first day of January. It took me most of the month to read it – it’s a long book – and it has taken me almost as long to decide what to say about it!

How do you begin to write about a book like this? The plot is not the sort that you can sum up adequately in a paragraph or two. In fact, there really isn’t a central plot at all, but rather, lots of subplots all circling around the narrator, David Copperfield – or Trotwood, Trot, Daisy or Doady as he is called at various points in the novel…usually anything but David!

At the time of David’s birth, his father has already been dead for six months. Growing up in the small Suffolk town of Blunderstone, his early years are relatively peaceful and uneventful, until his mother marries again and David is sent away to boarding school. As he progresses through school and on into adulthood, a host of fascinating and eccentric characters pass in and out of David’s life. These include:

  • Betsey Trotwood, David’s formidable but kind-hearted great-aunt, who never quite recovers from the disappointment of David being a boy instead of the little girl she’d set her heart on.
  • Mr Murdstone, David’s cruel and brutal stepfather.
  • David’s beloved childhood nurse, Peggotty, her brother Daniel and his nephew and niece, Ham and Little Em’ly.
  • James Steerforth, a handsome, charming and manipulative schoolfriend of David’s.
  • The villainous ‘humble clerk’, Uriah Heep.
  • Wilkins Micawber, with whom David lodges in London, always in debt but never giving up hope that ‘something will turn up’.
  • And Dora Spenlow and Agnes Wickfield, two very different young women who enter David’s life.

All of these characters, as well as many others, have an important role to play in David’s story, helping to shape the man he grows up to be.

Of all of Dickens’ novels David Copperfield was apparently the author’s own favourite. In his own words, “like many fond parents, I have in my heart of hearts a favourite child. And his name is David Copperfield.” It’s also supposedly the most autobiographical of his novels – and having read Claire Tomalin’s Charles Dickens: A Life, I can see where he drew on some of his own personal experiences in writing David’s story. Even the style of David Copperfield is autobiographical, with David himself narrating the events of his life, sometimes in retrospect from an unspecified point in the future.

Although, as I’ve explained, the story is made up of a set of complex and closely linked subplots, this is very much a novel that is driven by the characters. As with any book with such a large cast of characters, there were some that I loved (such as Betsey Trotwood and Peggotty), and some I disliked (such as Steerforth and the Murdstones) but all were so well-drawn they seemed to jump out of the pages. The one character I really couldn’t stand, though, was Dora Spenlow! Dickens gets a lot of criticism for his female characters, but Dora is the worst I’ve encountered in any of his books so far: a woman who happily calls herself a ‘silly little thing’ and asks to be thought of as a ‘child-wife’. Thank goodness for Agnes Wickfield – I suppose she could also be criticised for representing the Victorian ideal, but I found her a much more likeable and far less infuriating character than Dora!

David Copperfield, as I mentioned at the start of this post, is a very long book. My edition had more than 900 pages, which seemed quite daunting at first, and I fully expected it to take much longer than a month to read, especially as I like to have one or two other books on the go at the same time. Once I started reading, though, I found it surprisingly addictive and it was actually a much quicker read than I imagined it would be. Of the seven Dickens novels I’ve now read, A Tale of Two Cities is still my favourite, but I think this one ties with Our Mutual Friend for second place.

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

A Tale of Two Cities When I decided to take part in the Classics Club Spin last month, in which a book would be chosen for me from a list of twenty, A Tale of Two Cities was not one of the titles I was hoping would be picked. I have to be in the right mood to want to read Dickens and I wasn’t really in that mood. Expecting it to be a long and boring read, I thought it would be a good idea to start immediately so that I would have a chance of being finished by the end of December…

I actually finished it within a week and despite my lack of enthusiasm when the spin number was announced, A Tale of Two Cities is one of the best books I’ve read this year!

The novel is set before and during the French Revolution; Paris and London are the two cities of the title. The story begins with Doctor Manette being released from the Bastille after eighteen years as a political prisoner. Reunited with his daughter, Lucie, and returning with her to England, the lives of the Manettes become entwined with the lives of two young men who are both in love with Lucie. One of these is Charles Darnay, a former French aristocrat, and the other is Sydney Carton, an English lawyer. We follow these characters and others as they return to France where they become caught up in the dramatic events of the French Revolution – and the scheming of wine shop owner, Monsieur Defarge, and his sinister wife, who is never seen without her knitting!

This is the sixth Dickens novel I’ve read and my favourite so far. I find it interesting that everyone who reads Dickens has different favourites and least favourites; there doesn’t seem to be one book that is universally regarded as his best. I think part of the reason I loved this book so much was that in many ways it was very different from the others I’ve read but I know that some readers will probably dislike it for that same reason, so it’s really a matter of personal opinion.

One of the things that struck me about this book was the absence of humour, in comparison to the other Dickens novels I’ve read – and as Dickens and I don’t usually share the same sense of humour, this was definitely a positive thing for me! Of course, the French Revolution is a serious subject, so the more serious tone of the writing was quite appropriate. I also thought the characters felt more realistic and well-rounded than usual (if there is a comedy character in the novel, it’s probably Jerry Cruncher). My favourite character, which probably won’t surprise anyone else who has read this book, was Sydney Carton – although I didn’t fall in love with him until the last few chapters. I hadn’t guessed when we first met him that he would turn out to be so heroic and self-sacrificing.

I was also impressed by how tightly plotted the book is. The focus stays firmly on the main storyline which makes it easy to follow, unlike Bleak House or Our Mutual Friend which have more complex structures with lots of subplots and lots of long descriptive passages. In A Tale of Two Cities, everything feels relevant and helps to move the story forward. The novel begins with some of the most famous lines in literature (It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…) and closes with some that are almost as well known (It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known). I’ve seen those final lines quoted many times before but out of context they didn’t mean much to me; now that I know who and what they refer to they have much more significance. I don’t want to say too much and spoil the story for anyone who hasn’t read it yet, but the ending is heartbreaking. This is the first Dickens novel that has made me cry!

The Classics Club spin was a success for me this time, then. I do have some other Dickens novels on my Classics Club list and feel much happier about reading them now!

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…

The Classics Club

The result of the Classics Club Spin has been announced today! The Spin number is…

Number 10!

This means I have to read the book at number 10 on the list I posted last week.

A Tale of Two Cities

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

This is not one of the books I was hoping would be chosen, but I’m happy enough with this result as it’s been a while since I last read anything by Dickens.

Have you read it? What did you think of it?

If you participated too, I hope the Spin has selected something you’ll love!

Memories of A Christmas Carol: a Classics Club meme

The Classics Club monthly meme question for December asks us for our thoughts and memories of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens:

What is your favorite memory of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol? Have you ever read it? If not, will you? Why should others read it rather than relying on the film adaptations?

A Christmas Carol I was given a copy of A Christmas Carol as a Christmas present when I was a child, though I don’t know exactly how old I was. I can’t remember who gave it to me either, but I suspect it was probably an aunt or uncle. I remember taking the book with me to my grandmother’s a few days after Christmas and reading those famous opening lines for the first time:

Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.

The last time I re-read the book was in 2009, shortly after I started blogging, and it was still a pleasure to read – both the story itself and this particular edition. It’s a beautiful hardback book with colour illustrations and black and white line drawings by Arthur Rackham. Reading a book that looks and feels beautiful can really enhance the experience! Rackham’s twelve colour plates, originally published in 1915, can be seen here. I’ve always liked the one of Bob Cratchit sliding down the icy street.

I received a different edition of the book a few years later from another family member (again I’ve forgotten who it was). I’m not sure where I’ve put this one, though I know I must still have it somewhere. After a lot of searching online – which wasn’t easy, as there are literally hundreds of different versions of A Christmas Carol and I couldn’t recall the names of either the illustrators or the publisher – I managed to find a picture of the front cover for you:

A Christmas Carol - Peter Fluck and Roger Law This edition, which I’ve discovered was published by Viking, was illustrated by Peter Fluck and Roger Law (who were also the creators of Spitting Image) with pictures of grotesque puppet-like caricatures, like the one of Scrooge pictured on the cover.

There have been so many adaptations of A Christmas Carol, but although the story and the sentiment might be the same, if you only watch them instead of reading the novel you will be missing out on so much. As I said in my 2009 post on the book, even if you already know the story it’s still worth reading it for the richness and humour of Dickens’ writing and for his wonderful descriptions and imagery.

You can see how other Classics Club members responded to this month’s meme here.

Have a great Christmas and I’ll be back later in the week with my Best Books of 2012!

Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin

I’ve only read one of Claire Tomalin’s other biographies (Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self) but having read that one, Charles Dickens: A Life was everything I was expecting: well researched, thorough and very readable. It took me a long time to finish it but that’s just because I was reading other books at the same time and is no reflection on how much I was enjoying it. Charles Dickens is an ideal subject for a biography as he had such an eventful life and career. One of the things I liked about Tomalin’s Samuel Pepys book was the way she attempted to give us a balanced view of Pepys, looking at both his good points and his bad points, and she does the same here with Dickens.

There are plenty of positive things about Dickens that we can take away from this biography: his incredible energy, his literary talent and the amount of hard work and effort he was prepared to put in to achieve his ambitions. But Tomalin also shows us Dickens’ flaws, particularly the insensitive and cruel way he treated his wife Catherine Hogarth and sometimes his children too. And of course, she discusses his affair with the actress Nelly Ternan (this is the subject of one of Tomalin’s other biographies, The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens, which I haven’t read).

It was interesting to read about the progress of Dickens’ career as a writer, and how he went from writing character sketches of the people around him to developing longer stories and eventually producing his famous novels. I enjoyed reading what Tomalin had to say about the Dickens novels that I’ve read – it seems that she admires most of his work though not all of it – but be aware that if you haven’t read all of his books she does include some spoilers. I can understand this, as many of the plot points and characters in Dickens’ novels give us insights into the mind of Dickens himself, and it would be hard to discuss the man without discussing his work. However, I’m sure there will be a lot of people like myself who will read this biography without having read Dickens’ complete works first, so I thought I should warn you that you might come across things you would prefer not to know!

Overall I was left with a negative impression of Dickens rather than a positive one. I can admire the motivation, ambition and talent of someone who worked his way up from a job in a boot blacking factory to become first a journalist and then one of the most famous and successful writers in the world. But the way he treated people in his personal life, as well as the high opinion he seemed to have of himself, makes it hard for me to like him.

I’m not sure how this book compares with other Dickens biographies as this is the only one I’ve ever read, but I enjoyed it, learned a lot from it and was left with a much better understanding of the complex person Dickens was. And as well as the huge amount of information this book contains about the life and work of Dickens himself, as someone who loves reading about the Victorian period in general I was fascinated by all the little details of 19th century life! The book also comes with plenty of additional material including maps, illustrations, a bibliography and a list of the important people in Dickens’ life.

Finally, this has nothing to do with this biography but I was surprised to find how much of Dickens’ life story was already familiar to me through reading novels like Drood and The Last Dickens. This shows that although historical fiction may not always be completely accurate it’s often a good way to absorb historical facts while being entertained at the same time!