The best Charles Dickens books, and why you should read them – selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
When he died aged 58 in 1870, Charles Dickens left behind fifteen novels, five Christmas books, several volumes of travel writing, and dozens of journalistic pieces and short stories. But what are the ten books that best exemplify Dickens’s genius, his unique comic achievement, and those qualities which we tend to think of when we hear the word ‘Dickensian’? Undoubtedly a fool’s errand. But we’ll give it a go anyway, if nothing else because it’s an excuse to share some great trivia about Dickens’s finest books.
10. A Tale of Two Cities (1859). Reckoned to be one of the bestselling novels in English ever written, with an estimated 200 million copies sold worldwide, this is, in many ways, an oddly uncharacteristic Dickens novel. It’s shorter than most of his novels, and the humour and caricature are both used more sparingly. Perhaps this is due to the historical events Dickens is depicting – the novel is set during the French Revolution. Still, it’s beautifully told, right down to the famous last statement from Sydney Carton – but to say more than that would be to offer a spoiler… Recommended edition: A Tale of Two Cities (Oxford World’s Classics).
9. Little Dorrit (1857). For this novel, Dickens drew on his own childhood experiences, which were blighted by his father’s imprisonment for debt (and Charles being put to work in a blacking factory aged 12). In this doorstop of a novel, Dickens casts a satirical eye over bureaucracy: Dickens coined the phrase ‘red tapeworm’ to describe a bureaucratic official, not exactly Dickens’s favourite sort of person. The Circumlocution Office with its ‘motto’, How Not to Do It, has become shorthand for feckless red tape and ineffectual government departments. Recommended edition: Little Dorrit (Wordsworth Classics).
8. Dombey and Son (1848). One of our favourite pieces of Dickens trivia pertaining to this underrated novel is that it provides the earliest known use of the word ‘dustbin’. But that’s probably not going to send many people to this 800-page beast of a novel. Nor should it be read for Dickens’s somewhat overblown and sentimental treatment of the titular character’s neglect of his daughter, Florence (perhaps the first person to be called Florence in all fiction). No, it should be read instead for the marvellous descriptions of the emerging railway network and its effect upon the English landscape, and for the panoply of comic characters; our favourite is Major ‘Joe’ Bagstock, with his purple face and repeated assurances that he is ‘tough – and devil-ish sly’. Readers are bound to find echoes of their grandparents in some of the other more senior characters, too, among them Miss Tox, whom the Major has his eye on. Recommended edition: Dombey and Son (Penguin Classics) by Dickens, Charles published by Penguin Classics (2002).
7. Our Mutual Friend (1865). Dickens’s last completed novel, Our Mutual Friend is, like many of his novels, a huge beast with various subplots, a large cast of characters, and a mystery at its centre. The novel’s unifying theme is money and its power to corrupt. T. S. Eliot’s working title for his poem The Waste Land was ‘He Do the Police in Different Voices’, which he took from Our Mutual Friend – the character Sloppy reads out newspaper reports to Betty Higden and puts on different voices for the various people mentioned in the report. Recommended edition: Our Mutual Friend (Oxford World’s Classics).
6. The Pickwick Papers (1837). Dickens’s very first novel, The Pickwick Papers demonstrates his indebtedness to the eighteenth-century picaresque novels about journeys and tours, notably those by Smollett and Fielding. As such, it is less a ‘novel’ than a series of loosely linked adventures and episodes, with some inset tales (including Dickens’s first ever Christmas ghost story). After a rocky start, it soon became a huge success, after Dickens created a valet for his title character, the crafty cockney Sam Weller, whose comic turns of phrase earned him a dedicated following. (We’ve discussed the origins of Sam Weller in our post on Dickens and catchphrases.) The tie-ins and spin-offs for the novel included ‘Pickwick pastries’ and ‘Fat Boy sweets’, and a medical condition, Pickwickian Syndrome – describing the difficulties in breathing that obese people experience – was even named in honour of the title character. Recommended edition: The Pickwick Papers (Oxford World’s Classics).
5. Oliver Twist (1839). This novel is perhaps most famous for the early scenes involving the parish workhouse, in which the young Oliver – egged on by his fellow half-starved waifs – politely asks for more gruel. These scenes, though, occupy only the first third of the book, which then sees Oliver transported from his local parish to London. (The subtitle of the book is ‘The Parish Boy’s Progress’.) There, of course, he meets the Artful Dodger, Charley Bates (referred to by Dickens mischievously as ‘Master Bates’ throughout), and the rest of the gang of pickpockets, led by Fagin (who himself is under the thrall of the criminal mastermind, Bill Sikes). Recommended edition: Oliver Twist (Original World’s Classics).
4. Great Expectations (1861). This is one of Dickens’s greatest novels, and certainly one of the most popular among film directors and TV executives. It’s been adapted a number of times for both the big and small screen. One of the most remarkable things about Great Expectations is how quickly Dickens conceived and executed the idea for the novel: it was, essentially, the result of an editorial crisis. Dickens’s new periodical, All the Year Round, was suffering from poor sales: the publication’s novel serialisation, Charles Lever’s A Day’s Ride, A Life’s Romance was not exactly a big hit with readers. In order to fix the problem, Dickens quickly replaced Lever’s novel with a new offering from the biggest name in the business, Charles Dickens. The tale of the young boy who becomes a gentleman thanks to a mysterious benefactor has been enchanting readers – and many, many film directors – since. Recommended edition: Great Expectations (Penguin Classics).
3. A Christmas Carol (1843). Technically this isn’t a ‘novel’ but a novella, but it’s one of Dickens’s finest books and certainly one of his most influential. Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in six weeks, and it was published just six days before Christmas Day in 1843. Dickens’s rival, the author of Vanity Fair William Makepeace Thackeray, called the book ‘a national benefit’, while fellow novelist Margaret Oliphant said that although it was ‘the apotheosis of turkey and plum pudding’, it ‘moved us all in those days as if it had been a new gospel’. The book was more or less single-handedly responsible for the tradition of the Christmas Eve ghost story, which remains with us to this day. For these and other reasons, which we’ve outlined in a previous post, this Dickens book – although not a full-length novel – earns its place on this list. Recommended edition: A Christmas Carol and Other Christmas Books n/e (Oxford World’s Classics).
2. David Copperfield (1850). Dickens’s most autobiographical novel, David Copperfield is, like Great Expectations, a great Bildungsroman of a novel told from the perspective of the protagonist. Dickens himself can be glimpsed in numerous aspects of the book, from the title character and narrator (whose initials are the author’s reversed) to the eccentric Mr Dick, who lives with David’s aunt Betsey Trotwood and is afflicted by the ‘trouble’ of King Charles I, who won’t get out of poor Mr Dick’s head. Other memorable characters include Wilkins Micawber, who is always in dire financial straits but remains optimistic that ‘something will turn up’ (this character was another inspired by Dickens’s father). Recommended edition: David Copperfield (Oxford World’s Classics).
1. Bleak House (1853). This novel, written when Charles Dickens was at the height of his powers and following the Jarndyce v Jarndyce court case, is – for our money – the best of the lot. It has all of the most recognisably ‘Dickensian’ qualities: indictment of poverty and the conditions of the poor, a cast of colourful characters from all walks of life, and vivid descriptions of London (from the very first chapter’s depiction of that ‘London particular’, fog and the suggestion that it wouldn’t be unusual to see a Megalosaurus coming down Holborn Hill), Bleak House is by turns comic and profound, panoptic and microscopic in equal measure. Recommended edition: Bleak House (Oxford World’s Classics).
You may quibble over the order – should Bleak House be first, in your list? – but we’d say that most of the above would find a place on the majority of Dickens fans’ lists of his best novels. What would you put at the number 1 spot?
Continue to explore the world of Dickensiana with our discussion of his forgotten history book for children, this blog post about Dickens and London, and our pick of the best biographies and critical studies of Dickens’s work. For more book recommendations, see our selection of the best classic Gothic horror novels.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.