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Evening Standard
Evening Standard

Best Charles Dickens books to get into one of Britain's greatest novelists

Revered for his ability to craft intimate windows into life in London during the Victorian period in all its desperate squalor and utter glory, Charles Dickens’ novels remain some of the most iconic pieces of literature in British history.

Much like the many adored characters which feature in his oeuvre, Dickens’ own story is one of rags to riches. After his father was arrested in 1824, 12-year-old Charles was forced to work at Warren’s Blacking Factory to provide for his family. Just nine years later, his first story, A Dinner at Poplar Walk, was published in The Monthly Magazine.

However, it wasn’t until the literary prodigy began publishing his first novel in instalments that he was to gain widespread national attention. The Pickwick Papers, serialised in 1836 and published as a novel in 1837, saw sales increase from 500 copies for the first instalment, to over 40,000 for the final one.

We can certainly credit Dickens’ experience as a journalist in his early twenties as a primary source for his later material. In 1833, he was hired as a parliamentary reporter for The Morning Chronicle. Throughout his role, he published various ‘Sketches by “Boz”’ – Boz being a pen name that he briefly adopted.

(British Library)

A collection of ‘scenes’ which offered a first glimpse into Dickens’ impressive ability to capture quotidian life with sharp wit, intellect, humour, truth, and unwavering emotion – his sketches were a hit, and were later published as a book in 1836.

After the birth of his first son in 1837 (whom he named Boz, naturally), Dickens began writing Oliver Twist. Perhaps the most significant example worth employing when discussing Dickens’ nationwide appeal, the beloved story of the young orphan boy was adored by factory workers across the country and Queen Victoria alike.

The monarch was said to have described his work as “excessively interesting”, with Oliver Twist in particular being “wonderfully written”. Yet for 22 of her 63 reigning years, Dickens declined to meet with her.

(First Edition Oliver Twist)

As is reflected in his entire body of work, Dickens resented the nation’s class systems and the consequential neglect of young, impoverished citizens. When the author eventually agreed to meet with the Queen, the interaction was said to be more than slightly awkward – though historical accounts tend to differ.

Dickens held an uncanny ability to produce novels which simultaneously served as instantly classic childhood stories and tales that would make even the most stoic of adults weep. He captured the Victorian zeitgeist with his hyper-realistic, revelatory work which encompassed the pendulous nature of the period, as it oscillated forth with an unsettling rhythm between the best and worst of times.

Dickens wrote 15 novels, five novellas and hundreds of stories and non-fiction articles in his lifetime, many of which continue to have widespread appeal almost 200 years later. We’ve curated a selection of Dickens’ best novels for first-time readers and veritable Dickens lovers to explore.

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A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

One of the first novels to feature an interwoven narrative, Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities follows the lives of one exiled aristocrat, Charles Darnay, and a lawyer named Sydney Carton. The two men become irrevocably intertwined in a battle for the affection of Lucie Manette, the daughter of a political prisoner. A work of historical fiction set in the years before and during the French Revolution, Dickens’ iconic novel revolves around the concept of duality, and it’s where you’ll find those infamous lines, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”

Buy now £4.49, Amazon

Bleak House

Often considered one of Dickens’ most ambitious novels, Bleak House tells the story of a family named Jarndyce. The book begins in the High Court of Chancery, where the Jarndyces anxiously await the settlement of money from a disputed fortune. We soon learn that the case has dragged on for such a time, that members of the family no longer understand its origins or purpose.

The novel serves as a criticism for the lengthy and unjust equity cases which would often drag on for years at the Chancery, made longer by legal side-stepping and corruption. Featuring a broad spectrum of characters from the morally dubious to the kind-hearted and clever, Bleak House contains murder, mystery, affairs, romance, corruption and so much more.

Buy now £9.19, Amazon

Hard Times

One of the first authors to write of the dangers of materialism in contemporary society, Dickens’ Hard Times extols the power of the human spirit amidst the rise of shallowness, corruption and selfishness. Though the clear-cut moral didacticism of Hard Times can deter some readers, the powerful interwoven narrative and wonderfully rounded characters instantly pull others in.

The story follows a group of people in a fictional 19th-century industrial town named Coketown who are all inextricably linked. A cautionary tale that serves to warn readers of the moral dangers of industrialisation and the fear of man being tuned into machine, Dickens writes of the power of the human imagination, creative spirit and capacity for goodness.

Buy now £5.03, Amazon

Great Expectations

Arguably one of the most beloved Dickens novels, particularly among children and young adults, Great Expectations features iconic characters including Young Pip, Magwitch, Miss Havisham and Estella. Narrated by Pip himself, we learn the story of his coming-of-age. In his journey to becoming a wealthy gentleman, we encounter themes of social class, the power of memory in constructing and re-constructing identity, and the importance of maintaining a sense of morality in order to be truly prosperous in life.

Buy now £5.99, Amazon

David Copperfield

It is said that Dickens described his eighth and deeply biographical novel as his “favourite child”. Indeed, it is the tale of a young boy’s journey into manhood and his eventual career as a beloved writer. The retroactive narrative sees a middle-aged Copperfield looking back on his life. A favourite of Sigmund Freund, and the novel which inspired the anonymising of his most famous case study through the character of Dora, David Copperfield explores themes of class, gender and – you guessed it – morality.

Buy now £9.19, Amazon

A Christmas Carol

The story that saw Dickens become synonymous with December festivities; A Christmas Carol is yet another morally didactic tale which follows the bad-tempered skinflint Ebenezer Scrooge. Visited by four spectral spirits of Christmas, Scrooge is sent on a mystical, comical and emotionally raw journey of moral reformation which once again deals with themes of class, inner struggle and the power of generosity.

Buy now £6.98, Amazon

Little Dorrit

Amy Dorrit, otherwise referred to as Little Dorrit – for being the littlest in the family, of course – spends the majority of her childhood at Marshalsea Prison, where her father is incarcerated for debt. Yet another novel which draws on the hardships of Dickens’ own life, as his father was imprisoned at the very same prison for the very same crime, Little Dorrit encompasses themes including poverty, bureaucracy, pride and morality.

Buy now £9.19, Amazon

Our Mutual Friend

It appears Dickens is perpetually concerned with the moral ramifications of richness, and Our Mutual Friend certainly deals with themes including the allure and eventual peril of having money in excess. Our protagonist John Harmon is the son of a wealthy dust contractor who is due to inherit a hefty fortune if he marries a veritable stranger named Bella Wilfer. With one case of mistaken identity, another of false identity, attempted murder, romance and more, Our Mutual Friend is a shining example of Dickens’ ability to bring together a fascinatingly socially diverse cast of characters with a brilliant plot to boot.

Buy now £9.19, Amazon

The Old Curiosity Shop

An instant best-seller in the 19th century and the modern day, The Old Curiosity Shop is the story of a girl named Nell Trent who is barely shy of 14 years old. Raised by her maternal grandfather, Nell’s only friend is a fellow shop boy named Kit. Fearful of leaving his granddaughter without a fortune, her grandfather secretly gambles at nightfall, borrowing from an evil moneylender to do so. What ensues is yet another cautionary tale of placing the pursuit of money above all else.

Buy now £6.99, Amazon

Oliver Twist

A book that needs no introduction, and a story which likely would’ve been your first grown-up school play, Oliver Twist is a worldwide classic.

Buy now £7.35, Amazon

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