Ranking the Novels of Dickens

BAYLOR

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Ive read by him.

A Christmas Carrol
A Tale of Two Cities
Over Twist
Great Expectations
 

Bick

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I've taken the plunge and started another Dickens - a long one again - David Copperfield. It will be interesting to see how I judge this relative to his preceding novel chronologically (Dombey and Son) and a later masterpiece (Our Mutual Friend). DC was Dickens favorite novel, of course and deemed most autobiographical in certain details.
 

M mtmulder

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Dickens wrote fourteen completed novels plus a substantial fifteenth, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which I will count as a novel in the simple ranking below. Missing from my list is Dombey and Son (1846-1848), which I haven't read.

I didn't care to attempt to rank each novel individually, but I figured I could make two lists, what I regard as greater Dickens (seven) and lesser Dickens (seven), or my favorite seven and my less favorite seven -- something like that. The novels below are listed in chronological order, not personal preference order. The dating is drawn from A. O. J. Cockshut's little book The Imagination of Charles Dickens.

Greater Seven:
Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-1844)
David Copperfield (1849-1850)
Bleak House (1852-1853)
Little Dorrit (1855-1857)
Great Expectations (1860-1861)
Our Mutual Friend (1864-1865)
Edwin Drood (1870)

Lesser Seven:

Pickwick Papers (1836-1837)
Oliver Twist (1837-1839)
Nicholas Nickleby (1838-1839)
The Old Curiosity Shop (1840-1841)
Barnaby Rudge (1841)
Hard Times (1854)
A Tale of Two Cities (1859)

I hasten to add that I like them all except that I found Pickwick tedious at times and something that it took determination to finish; and I don't remember that I was particularly fond of Hard Times. I have read those once each, also just once for Barnaby Rudge. I expect to try Hard Times someday for a second reading. It's fairly likely I'll read most of Nicholas Nickleby again someday, but I have no plans for now to do so, and I expect I will skip the tales told within the novel, which weren't much good, as I recall. Indeed I'm not certain I read all of them the first time. The other three in the Lesser list are ones I have read at least twice.

I've read all of the completed ones in the Greater list at least twice except for Chuzzlewit and Little Dorrit, which I would like to read again within the next few years. I've read Great Expectations, Bleak House, and Our Mutual Friend three or four times each. My records indicate I've read Drood just once, but I thought it was at least twice. Dickens is a rereading favorite of mine.

How about you, who have read at least two Dickens novels? I'm thinking unabridged editions here, but of course you can count an abridged edition read in school if you like. That was my introduction to Dickens's novels, as I remember, an abridged version of Great Expectations that was included in a ?9th? grade reader, and which we didn't finish, I think. The first unabridged Dickens novel I read was Oliver Twist, over 40 years ago. I remember that I thought I'd mark paragraphs that could be safely skipped should I reread the novel; I had the impression that Dickens was wordy. I think I ended up marking about two paragraphs -- something ridiculous like that!

Hoping for some discussion here.
Sorry, just joined and I didn’t know you had already responded to this many times. Read your response about Barnaby Rudge and glad I have it. Have any recent books you like?
 

Extollager

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Hello, M Mulder, and welcome to Chrons!

Not sure I understand the intent of your question -- whether you're asking about recent readings of Dickens, or books published recently. Dombey and Son is the Dickens I've read most recently. Little Dorrit may be the one I will reread next, now that I've read them all, or Edwin Drood.

As for books by authors other than Dickens, I'm just starting Testament, my first novel by R. C. Hutchinson, and, thirty pages or so into it, am having that delectable sensation one gets when one feels, taking up a book, that one is in good hands and that Now is the right time to be reading it. It's "recent" compared to Dickens, but (1939) not exactly "recent." The most recently-published novel that I've read recently is Eugene Vodolazkin's Laurus, about which there's a separate thread. That was published in English about three years ago.

I'll probably start a thread on Hutchinson one of these days.
 

Bick

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I'm about 100 pages into David Copperfield, and I'm amazed at how little I remember it. I first read it about 34 years ago, I think, so I was expecting recall to be limited, but I'm struck that I essentially had almost no memory of the proceedings so far. I'm enjoying it though. Its quite Dombeyish so far, in truth, with David substituted for Paul.
 

Guillermo Stitch

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Dickens wrote fourteen completed novels plus a substantial fifteenth, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which I will count as a novel in the simple ranking below. Missing from my list is Dombey and Son (1846-1848), which I haven't read.

I didn't care to attempt to rank each novel individually, but I figured I could make two lists, what I regard as greater Dickens (seven) and lesser Dickens (seven), or my favorite seven and my less favorite seven -- something like that. The novels below are listed in chronological order, not personal preference order. The dating is drawn from A. O. J. Cockshut's little book The Imagination of Charles Dickens.

Greater Seven:
Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-1844)
David Copperfield (1849-1850)
Bleak House (1852-1853)
Little Dorrit (1855-1857)
Great Expectations (1860-1861)
Our Mutual Friend (1864-1865)
Edwin Drood (1870)

Lesser Seven:

Pickwick Papers (1836-1837)
Oliver Twist (1837-1839)
Nicholas Nickleby (1838-1839)
The Old Curiosity Shop (1840-1841)
Barnaby Rudge (1841)
Hard Times (1854)
A Tale of Two Cities (1859)

I hasten to add that I like them all except that I found Pickwick tedious at times and something that it took determination to finish; and I don't remember that I was particularly fond of Hard Times. I have read those once each, also just once for Barnaby Rudge. I expect to try Hard Times someday for a second reading. It's fairly likely I'll read most of Nicholas Nickleby again someday, but I have no plans for now to do so, and I expect I will skip the tales told within the novel, which weren't much good, as I recall. Indeed I'm not certain I read all of them the first time. The other three in the Lesser list are ones I have read at least twice.

I've read all of the completed ones in the Greater list at least twice except for Chuzzlewit and Little Dorrit, which I would like to read again within the next few years. I've read Great Expectations, Bleak House, and Our Mutual Friend three or four times each. My records indicate I've read Drood just once, but I thought it was at least twice. Dickens is a rereading favorite of mine.

How about you, who have read at least two Dickens novels? I'm thinking unabridged editions here, but of course you can count an abridged edition read in school if you like. That was my introduction to Dickens's novels, as I remember, an abridged version of Great Expectations that was included in a ?9th? grade reader, and which we didn't finish, I think. The first unabridged Dickens novel I read was Oliver Twist, over 40 years ago. I remember that I thought I'd mark paragraphs that could be safely skipped should I reread the novel; I had the impression that Dickens was wordy. I think I ended up marking about two paragraphs -- something ridiculous like that!

Hoping for some discussion here.

I'm pretty much in exact agreement with you upper and lower 7's, actually. I do love Pickwick but it isn't a proper novel and so will never satisfy like one. I thoroughly recommend you get yourself back to both Chuzzlewit and Little Dorrit, both firm favourites I've mine. If forced, I might give the latter the edge.
 

Bick

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So, I realise I didn't post any comments on David Copperfield, which was remiss of me. I'll also perhaps offer a revised/updated score sheet to rank those I've now read.

I find I have a fair bit to say about Copperfield, as I feel it falls between two stools regards type of Dickens book, and it also seems to vary tremendously as the book itself progresses. I've drawn various personal conclusions about the book and I don't mean to suggest they are right or valid, but they make sense to me.

Copperfield starts with much melodrama and is thickly peopled with Dickens' quintessential caricatures for about the first 300 pages or so. This first third is entirely super and I can;t find much fault. The young Copperfield, albeit rather 'vanilla' (as Dickens' lead characters tend to be), is a pleasant and interesting little lad to spend time with. His aunt when first encountered is wonderful, and his step father is a great villain in the best Dickensian tradition.

Then Copperfield grows up. At this stage, its almost as though Dickens, in writing a work that was so autobiographical, couldn't maintain melodramatic treatment of himself and father in the usual way. In addition, he had taken the step in Dombey and Son previously to write more realistically, and he obviously decided if Copperfield to move toward realism and farther away from his older style. The result of these two inclinations taken together was perhaps that the melodrama and caricatures of the first part of the book transmuted into drama and character about a third of the way through. That may not sound bad, but I read Dickens for the high drama and caricatures. It's not the case that these have to disappear to provide the realism Dickens was after - in later books such as Our Mutual Friend, Great Expectations and Bleak House, he manages to couple his more serious realistic approach with melodrama and caricature - we get to have our cake and eat it too.

The result here is that the middle third of the book is frankly rather dull. The best part of the plot (Steerforth and the Peggotty family) is left hanging for about 300 pages, as the plot as a whole loses direction and focus, the caricatures thin out, and we spend the best part of 150 pages following a very staid Copperfield win over his child wife, Dora, and subsequently spend considerable time in their saccharine company. This is not good a good section to my mind, as Dora must be the single most annoying character I've read in Dickens. One hopes she drops dead with each inane comment she makes, and I really wanted to slap Copperfield upside the head for falling for such a dolt. I imagine these chapters were supposed to be romantic, but I didn't find them so, and Dickens deals with romance much better elsewhere.

When we finally return to the main aspects of the plot, which rather drifted in the middle section, I found I'd lost interest a little in the goings on. He also introduces interesting seeming characters in this novel and fails to follow up on them much - they just drop out and I found that unsatisfying. In addition, the final plot of emigration seems to take an age. Dickens can write with good pace when he want to, but I rather got the impression that he was nearing conclusion to the plot thinking he had to fill only one more issue of Household Words, to find to his dismay that it was actually two issues, and had to spread it out accordingly.

Now, I appreciate all if that might seem rather negative, and who am I to criticise the great man? I should point out that I'm trying to compare the books merits alongside other Dickens classic novels, not Mills and Boon. I did enjoy the book and there are certainly aspects to it that are terrific of course. Some of the characters are truly great (Micawber, Murdstone, the early Betsy Trotwood) and the scenes with Uriah Heep are all very good, as Dickens seems to remember to write with melodrama when the awful Heep takes stage. I expect I'll read the novel again one day - but if I do, I suspect I may give the middle 200 pages a miss.

So where does it sit in ranking, now that I've read it as a more discerning adult (I think I read it as teen about 35 years ago)? Interestingly, Dickens said it was his favourite - but then it was in large part based on him and his father, so he would say that. It is routinely put toward the top of ranking lists of Dickens books too. So, I'm asking for trouble in saying so, but I place it lower. There is a good case for analysing Dickens books in depth and drawing literary conclusions, which are beyond my education and knowledge. However, I'm ranking purely on how much I enjoyed reading the whole book, and on that basis, its low on the list for me:

Updated Rank of Dickens books I've read, favourite top:
1. Bleak House
2. Our Mutual Friend
3. Great Expectations
4. Dombey and Son
5. Hard Times
6. David Copperfield
7. Oliver Twist

Yes - I enjoyed Dombey more than Copperfield and rate it higher - I'm a maverick I guess!
 

Extollager

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Thoughtful comments, Bick. FWIW I pretty much agree; the magic of David Copperfield seems to be concentrated in the first third or so of the novel., though all of it is worth reading.

It probably is a transitional work. Dickens's view of it as his favorite doesn't necessarily mean he thought it was his best.

What did you think of the Dr. Strong-Annie material?
 

Bick

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What did you think of the Dr. Strong-Annie material?
Interesting question. Not a lot is the short answer.

Spoilers below...

The longer answer is that this plot strand seems to me to be a good example to show the split that occurs in the book between early melodrama, and later adult realism. Dickens sets up a nice situation, by suggesting untoward love between Jack Maldon and Annie and thus has him sent away to India by Wickfield. His life in India was awful and he didn't want to go, and we are invited to give poor Maldon our sympathy over his treatment. One hopes he will return and introduce some melodramatic passages when he gets back from his exile, and Annie will realise how Dr Strong and Wickfield have misused the man and doubted her. However, after about 300 pages of not mentioning Maldon at all, he comes back, doesn't say a word in reproach, is presented as a different character (a real baddie), and Annie comes over all, oh I always loved only you, Dr Strong. Yet I didn't find Annie and the doctors' perfect relationship so credible, given was so much older and it was effectively an arranged marriage in which she had little say, and he was an old fool. Also, Annie is so distressed at Maldon leaving, she swoons when his coach leaves for the docks - she clearly loved him! I thought Dickens missed an opportunity to develop the problem of extramarital, unrequited, love in a genuine way - it's a book where he considers extra-marital relationships so much, after all. It's as if he felt that with Martha and Emily he'd dealt with the 'fallen woman' question so much and with some sympathy, that he better pull back and make Annie pious and perfect and Maldon all bad, against his initial plan to treat the situation with more subtlety.
 
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Extollager

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Yes. There's something about the Dr. Strong - Annie material that, as you say, suggests that Dickens wasn't in full command of his material.


I wonder about the illustration, which I suppose Dickens saw before publication, although I don't know that to be so. Strong looks the picture of benign, declining late middle age (or older), while the artist has rendered Annie in such a way as to emphasize her left leg under her dress, her loosened hair, and her bosom, and thereby suggest her robust femininity. It's as if the artist brings out a little more than Dickens, perhaps, tends to do, the peculiarity of the marriage. I reject the inevitable 21C reading that would want to make this all about a sexy young woman with physical needs the old duffer will never satisfy and how unjust society is to blah blah blah, which seems to me a trite, predictable distortion of possibilities in Dickens -- which, however, he himself perhaps doesn't know what to do with.
 

Bick

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I agree with your thoughts here, Extollager. That's the same Phiz illustration in my Everyman edition, and she is made to look very feminine and it does accentuate the age gap - I felt this illustrated the impression one had of the relationship early on, but it doesn't seem to fit to the latter impression we're given so well.

Was your reading that Annie gave her red ribbon to Jack, or that he took it from her? I thought he was given it as a love token by her as he left and then she pretended to have mislaid it for appearances sake.
 

Bick

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No worries! Page 244 of my volume, if you wanted to refresh your memory ;-)
 

Extollager

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That's about the end of Chapter 16, which seems to be as far as I got on an attempted second reading; I did read the novel again (2006), and for a third time as recently as 2015, but I don't remember now having a strong sense that Annie gave the ribbon to Muldoon willingly or that she didn't. But I think it's interesting that it was at that point that, it seems, my first attempt to read the novel for a second time bogged down.
 

Extollager

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I didn't care to attempt to rank each novel individually, but I figured I could make two lists, what I regard as greater Dickens (seven) and lesser Dickens (seven), or my favorite seven and my less favorite seven -- something like that. The novels below are listed in chronological order, not personal preference order. The dating is drawn from A. O. J. Cockshut's little book The Imagination of Charles Dickens.

Greater Seven:
Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-1844)
David Copperfield (1849-1850)
Bleak House (1852-1853)
Little Dorrit (1855-1857)
Great Expectations (1860-1861)
Our Mutual Friend (1864-1865)
Edwin Drood (1870)

Lesser Seven:

Pickwick Papers (1836-1837)
Oliver Twist (1837-1839)
Nicholas Nickleby (1838-1839)
The Old Curiosity Shop (1840-1841)
Barnaby Rudge (1841)
Hard Times (1854)
A Tale of Two Cities (1859)

I hasten to add that I like them all ....
I'm feeling like rereading one of the two from my "greater" list that I've read only once -- Little Dorrit. (I've also given Martin Chuzzlewit just the once reading.) I expect to start a thread on it soon, perhaps later today.
 

Guillermo Stitch

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Littel Dorrit sometimes nudges itself into pole position as my favourite.

Finished The Uncommercial Traveller and it did not disappoint. Sketches by Boz now.
 

Bick

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I have read The Old Curiosity Shop.

This is a fairly early novel - his fourth novel I think, written in 1841 - and its does lack some of the verve and plotting you find in later novels. I also suspect that it is one of the books that has helped generate the widely held view that Dickens can be overly sentimental (in his treatment of little Nell, here). I wasn't too affected by over-sentimentality myself though as its not such an overt influence on the book that it spoiled it for me. In many ways the strengths and weaknesses of this novel are the same as in his other books. On the plus side of the equation, his villains are terrific (good grief, Quilp is quite the invention, he's the most evil of all Dickens' villains and its great whenever he enters the stage) and many of this minor characters are also very good value. Its interesting how Dick Swiveller develops as a character for instance. London comes across well in this novel, and the travel scenes and diversions of Nell and her Grandfather are entertaining. On the relatively negative side of things, I didn't feel the story arc was top notch - the two strands of the story (London versus the journey) are too discreet and do not intersect enough. This makes the central theme rather muddled - what is it exactly? As usual, the central character (Nell) is somewhat uninteresting and rather characterless. This is typical of Dickens though - his protagonists are the rather 'vanilla' real people around who he weaves his extraordinary caricatures. There is also an extraordinary coincidence in the plot - a device Dickens used in early books (e.g. also in Oliver Twist) but which I have not seen in his novels from Dombey & Son onward. I'm not a fan of such coincidences, but its a minor point.

Overall, I would say I enjoyed the book, particularly certain chapters and characters, but that it probably fair to say its one of his weaker novels. That places it in the highly worthwhile pile, rather than the essential reading pile, perhaps.
 

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