I was recently having a chat with an author about our mutual Dickens obsession. We exchanged stories about the first Dickens novel we ever read. My first Dickens novel was Great Expectations. I read it when I was around thirteen or fourteen and it left quite an impression. I recently lent my original sticky-note tabbed, margin-noted copy to a friend, and I believe she was a little put off by how protective I was of it. It had been such an important book to me, you see, that I had a hard time putting it in someone else’s hands.
After my conversation, I stumbled across a question on Goodreads left by a young woman who had just begun reading what we call “the classics.” She was curious about how people had come to Dickens. Were his novels recommended to us or given as a reading assignment for school? And that got me thinking. Always a dangerous thing, I know. Honestly, I do not know how I first heard about Dickens so let me ponder awhile.
My Marmy (that’s what I call my mother — it is a reference to Little Women if you didn’t know) read to me from a very young age. We covered all of the Little House on the Prairie books by Laura Ingalls Wilder and C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia (I have a really awesome Marmy), but she didn’t introduce me to the classics. Now, I was basically a piece of furniture at my public library so it is possible that I got my first taste of the classics there, but I have a sneaking suspicion that it all began with Black Beauty. Not a Dickens novel, I know. Thank you for pointing that out.
Bear with me here, I’m going to go back in time a little. When I was in fifth grade at Vandergriff Elementary I had a teacher that encouraged us to read. Gasp! What is this reading you speak of? Anyway, we were rewarded somehow or other for reading books. This wasn’t your general you get a sticker because you read ten pages kind of system either. She was a strict teacher. I was rather afraid of her really, but I wanted to impress her. Approval from her felt like sunshine. So, to impress this taskmistress, I decided I would read a really big book with a hard cover and LOTS of pages. *Keep in mind I was around nine years old.* I chose a copy of Black Beauty to be the crowning glory of my book list. It was by far the best one on my list. It had the most pages, it had a fancy, glossy hard-back cover, and it told me right there on that glossy cover that it was a “classic.” Picture: I walk up to her desk, and I hand her that list with that great big book on it, and she looks back at me with these eyes like, “And?” I was confused at first, and as the smile turned to a grimace on my face I realized she didn’t care that I had read a big, fancy classic. Well, “Why not?” is what I asked her, but probably with a very meek and squeaky voice. Well, the book I had read wasn’t really Black Beauty the classic. It was an abridged version you see. Nine-year-old me didn’t know what the word abridged meant. After that day though, you bet your bottom dollar that I did! That moment made such an impression on my kid-self that I still consider the word abridged to be a dirty word. It is less than. It is all the hopes and dreams of an ambitious fifth grader crushed like a bug under the shoe of that exacting teacher. (Side note. *What you do and say to children does have an incredible impact whether they show that to you or not.* But that is, perhaps, the topic for another post.)
After having my confidence bruised I did what most kids would do. I tried even harder. Oh wait, no. Most kids would give up after something like that. I, however, have always been a bit of a weirdo, and I have always loved books. No one could take that away from me. So, with my new vocabulary word in tow, I went in search of the real classics — not the abridged (ew, dirty) ones. I read Little Women and Little Men by Louisa May Alcott, I bought and adored two beautiful leather-bound copies of Jane Austen novels (that I would not touch for several years — I just wanted to look at them).
Then, somehow, probably while browsing in the classics section at a bookstore, I made my way to Dickens, and I’ve never looked back. I have never encountered another author — and I have read widely — that can write one sentence that takes up an ENTIRE page while still having that sentence be perfectly understandable. There is an eloquence to Dickens’ verbosity that I will never grow weary of. I frequently have to remind myself that I cannot and should not try to emulate him in my own writing. There is only one person who can write like Dickens and he is, unfortunately, no longer with us.
I would be delighted to hear your own Dickens stories. How did you first encounter him? What was your first Dickens novel and what kind of impression did it leave on you?