Don’t Read Dickens Part I

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Or at least, don’t read only Dickens.

You may have noticed that there have been a lot of essays on the subject of adults reading middle grade and young adult fiction, many of them suggesting that everyone should read Dickens instead. This is not the essay where I tell you to read whatever you want whenever you want—there are a lot of those out there(1). This is the essay where I tell you that if what you want to read is nineteenth century English novels, there are authors other than Dickens available(2). I mean, sure, you probably could get a lifetime’s worth of reading out of Dickens alone, but can’t think why you’d stick to just the one author when so many other people were writing such good stuff. To name just a few of the best-known nineteenth century writers, there’s , Wilkie Collins, Elizabeth Gaskell, the Bronte sisters (all three), Jane Austen, George Elliot, Bram Stoker, Rudyard Kipling, and H. G. Wells. I am not going to try to list every book every one of the authors wrote, or every author who wrote, or we’d be here all day. Instead, I’m going to give a sampling, a teaser for those of you who happen to love books. I’m also sticking to the British authors. Someone will be along shortly to talk about the American side of the pond.

Woman In WhiteSay you want excitement, mystery, mistaken identities, mysterious doppelgangers, and a dash of romance. Try Wilkie Collins. The Moonstone(3) is one of the first mystery novels ever written in the English language. Collins uses multiple narrators, each telling the part of the story he or she experienced first-hand. The result is a lively, varied set of individuals, each with his or her own distinctive style of speaking. Woman in White is another mystery with Gothic overtones. Armanale and No Name are also truly delightful. It’s a toss-up between Woman in White and Armadale for the title of “best villain.” So far as I’ve read, none of Collins’ other work quite measures up to those four, but those four are among my favorite books to read and reread. And, hey, if you’re still clinging to Charles Dickens as the author, he and Collins co-wrote No Thoroughfare, so you can have it both ways.

Then there’s Charlotte Bronte. You know she wrote Jane Eyre the story of the poor orphan who became a governess, found love, realized that she couldn’t accept it on the terms offered, and set off to live independently, and then –well, read the book. Even if you’ve seen one of the movie versions (and there are good ones), you should still meet Bronte’s stubborn, opinionated plain Jane. Know what else Charlotte Bronte wrote? Villette. Lucy is another stubborn heroine, one who becomes a career woman in her own right. Villette also has a strong, strange ending, and I really, really want to read the book she was writing next (only she died before she finished it, so I never will). Her sister, Emily Bronte, write Wuthering Heights, a book which is either one of the greatest love stories ever or a crazy tale of two people too pigheaded to live. Either way, it’s got the wild moors, passion, and plenty of questions about motive and meaning. The third sister, Ann Bronte, was also a writer, producing Agnes Grey (also about a governess) and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (about a woman who has to leave her abusive husband). These two I have not read yet, but they definitely belong on the to-read list. What can I say? The Brontes were a talented bunch.

Dickens is often praised for his character portraits. Know who else developed characters? And did it well (maybe better than the big D). Jane Austen. Pride and Predjudice has plenty of both, plus village gossip, scheming, friendship, and sisters—Who can resist a good story about sisters? Emma has one of the most opinionated heroines ever. Perhaps you’re in the mood for second chances? Try Persuasion: Anne Elliot turned her true love down and hasn’t seen him in years when he shows up again. These aren’t thrillers; the stakes are seldom higher than the happiness of a few people, but that makes them all the better. They show life on the small scale and paint fine portraits of people doing their best to sort out life.

Speaking of the small scale, there’s Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford, a leisurely set of linked stories about life in a small town that has, so far, managed to be left behind by progress. The women of Cranford are clinging to the manners and mores of bygone days, and they like it that way. For a slightly larger scale, there’s Mary Barton, a novel about what happens when industrialism comes in and takes over and when the owners of the local business put profit before people. It’s also a love story. To make things better, Gaskell knows how to create a place: Both Cranford and Manchester are vividly real.

Another author to turn to for a strong sense of place is George Elliot. If you want to see an entire town created down almost to the microscopic level, she’s your go-to author. Middlemarch keeps on sprawling out, reaching into more and more households, even as it tells the story of Dorothea Brooke, the would-be intellectual and reformer who cannot figure out how to live the life she wants while being a proper nineteenth-century woman and of Rosamond Vincy, who is the proper nineteenth-century ideal lady and is therefore downright toxic. By the time it’s over, there are an incredible array of people vying for “major character” status as their lives intersect in Middlemarch. And then there’s The Mill on the Floss with poor Maggie Tolliver, the wild young girl who just can’t fit in, her brother, and, again, the entire town around them. Elliot never really does know when to stop adding details which is the beauty of her books.

Or, maybe you feel like reading nineteenth-century middle-grade and young-adult fiction, or the fiction that would have been shelved there if they’d thought to name those categories. For that, you can try Kipling’s Jungle Book, Puck of Pook’s Hill, Rewards and Fairies, or The Just So Stories. The Jungle Book is much stranger and sometimes sadder than the Disney cartoon makes it(4). Mowgli loses his parents and is raised by wolves with some help from a bear and a panther, and he has some good adventures; the thing is, he never can quite figure out where he fits in. Puck of Pook’s Hill and Rewards and Fairies are a sort of child’s history of England as Puck (yes, that Puck) teaches a brother and sister about England’s past and its present greatness. The Just So Stories are rhythmic, beautifully told origin stories—”How the Whale got His Throat,” “How the Camel Got his Hump,” and other such. They need to be read out loud to be fully appreciated.

Island of Dr. MoreauFor more science fiction and a writer who crosses between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, there’s H. G. Wells. His ideas pretty much walked straight out of their books and into popular culture with barely a pause. Even if you haven’t read anything by him, you’ve met the people and places he created. The Invisible Man is a really creepy tale of a psychopath who learns how to turn himself invisible—and then can’t get back. Then there’s The Time Machine which is a story of time travel and a critique of modern civilization and Island of Doctor Moreau which is still strange and scary and explores the question of what sets humans apart and how can science be done responsibly. Look, these are great monster tales and they ask serious questions. Read them on whatever level you wish. They’re also short, which is rare for the time period.

DraculaAnd speaking of characters who walk straight into popular culture, have you read the original Dracula? Like Collins, Stoker switches points of view. None of his characters are quite as strongly developed as Collins’ folk, but he tells one nasty monster tale. Dracula is terrifying not just because he’s a monster from outside but because he is a monster who can manipulate the modern world so well. Sure, he can summon wolves and rats and get them to do his bidding; he can also negotiate house purchases so as to have safe foothold, speak multiple languages, and hire regular folk to see to it that he’s got what he needs. You won’t know him if you see him in the streets. This’ll also give you a chance to meet the Van Helsing who isn’t an amnesiac angel who is unlucky in love(5).

Ok, I think I’m going to stop now. There are many, many more writers who wrote seriously good, highly readable books, some of whom I meant to mention, and some of whom I either plain forgot or have never read. If I’ve left a book or author out that you think should be in there, leave a note in the comments, please!
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(1) For example Erin Bow’s earlier essay Why I Write for Children and So, This Again, or Mark Medley’s “Ruth Graham doesn’t go far enough: Adults and kids should only read books aimed directly at their demographic.”

(2) This is a pet peeve of mine. These authors seem only to have ever read Charles Dickens and Harry Potter (at least, they’ve read about Harry Potter), and the world is full of wonderful books from all eras. Why don’t more people talk about them? Also, this prescribing of Dickens has the effect of making it sound like “classic literature” is some sort of dreary medicine that will cure you once and for all of loving a good story. Don’t let anyone fool you into thinking that Wilkie Collins is the opposite of Rick Riordan or that reading Elizabeth Gaskell constitutes a recovery from Sage Blackwood. It’s entirely possible to love both.

(3) About links and editions: In the article itself, I’m going to link to the Amazon copies of various books. This is because if you buy a book through the site, we get some of the money and can keep the site running which is a good thing. However, you should also know that the awesome Project Gutenberg has all of these as ebooks for free, and the equally amazing Librivox has recordings of most of them—also for free. Or, you can try your local library which probably has ebook, audiobook, and printed copies of any or all of them.

Edition-wise, it depends on what you want. If you like explanatory notes and essays with your book, the Norton Critical editions are great. They have excellent footnotes and include essays at the end with literary criticism, reviews from the time the book was first written (so you can find out what people thought of Jane Eyre when it was the new best-seller), and notes on the text itself (so you can learn what the magazine publishers made Thomas Hardy cut that he then re-inserted when the book came out). On the other hand, the printed versions tend to pack so much information in by having thin paper (it isn’t fragile, just thin), smaller type, and almost no margins, and they’re still almost too big to hold. If you don’t care for notes at all, the Dover Thrift editions are super-cheap and easy to carry, but they manage this by having courser paper and occasionally slightly slanted type (I’ve only had slanted type happen a couple of times, but it’s something to watch for). The Penguin Classics editions tend to be somewhere in the middle of the two: there are really good endnotes and often strong introductions (With spoilers, so don’t read them first if that bothers you), but no essays. They’re also easier to hold than the Norton Critical editions and have somewhat larger type. The Project Gutenberg versions are the out-of-copyright versions, so there are usually no notes or articles, but they are free. The Librivox recordings (also free) are read by volunteers from around the world; in some cases, the narrator changes every chapter. There are approximately a hundred or so editions for most of these books, so pick what you like best. If you’ve got a preference, mention it in the comments please!

(4) And I like the Disney version. It’s just telling its own story (which should surprise no one by this time), and the original takes some unexpected twists.

(5) And if you have managed not to watch the Van Helsing movie, pat yourself on the back.

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