Big Chuck D casts a long shadow over… everything: London, Middle England, TV, period drama, overacting, weird ‘modern versions of’, cameo appearances, top hats. There’s so much terrible shit committed in his name that it’s tempting to just try and avoid him. He doesn’t do himself any favours: generally awful female characters, plots that hinge on stupid coincidences and people called things like Mr Fezziwig. And yet… he is the greatest. Don’t ask me exactly how, he just is.
Okay, he’s great because you can’t imagine him not having existed. He’s great because even the worst of his books (probably ‘Hard Times’) is so bursting with invention, humour and human insight that it makes everything else look a bit drab. He’s great because his prose burns off the page: ‘The weather for many a day and night has been so wet that the trees seem wet through, and the soft loppings and prunings of the woodman’s axe can make no crash or crackle as they fall’ (‘Bleak House’).
Some of his characters are psychologically complex, others are caricatures. Sometimes he’s really against prisons, other times he seems really into them. He’s English in his ability to hold diametrically contradictory opinions about the same thing simultaneously. He’s human, in his faults and in his vast gifts, and I love him.
Get started with: ‘Great Expectations’
Dickens published in serial form and his novels come in two sizes: long and medium. The long ones (‘Bleak House’, ‘Little Dorrit’, ‘Dombey and Son’, ‘David Copperfield’ and more) can feel like a bit of an undertaking, so start with a medium one. ‘Great Expectations’ is one of his later novels, deeply rooted in his childhood and full of an awareness of death (Dickens died at just 58, which makes his huge output even more flabbergasting).
From its eerie start in a deserted churchyard, to its creepy shut-away bride Miss Havisham, to its climactic chase along the Thames, it’s probably his most gothic work, and full of startlingly vivid writing: ‘She brought her other hand from behind her, and held the two out side by side. The last wrist was much disfigured — deeply scarred and scarred across and across.’ I know it’s spring, and you should really read it in the darker months, but it’s a magical, consuming book.
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