Today, I am feeling extremely disappointed with myself. I have made my now-annual attempt to convert myself to the cult of Charles Dickens, and, once again, failed miserably. With “miserably” being the key word.
I don’t know what my problem is with Dickens. I read Great Expectations at school and have vague memories of enjoying it; I was young and impressionable back then, and probably so excited to be reading ‘a classic’ that I didn’t really know what I was doing. I’ve also obviously read A Christmas Carol at some point, because I know all the bits in the Muppets’ version which deviate from the original (Bob Cratchit is not actually a frog! Did you know?). At university, on the infamous misogynistic Victorians course which I have mentioned about 78 times on my blog, I read Oliver Twist and was appalled by how boring it was; it was really long and nobody sang ‘Oom Pah Pah.’ After that, I gave up on Dickens for a very long time.
Then, last year, I became obsessed with the beautiful Penguin English Library series and started accumulating these lovely books with an almost religious fervour. I had to buy a new bookcase just to house them; it is next to my bed so they are the first thing I see when I wake up. I have a strong urge to collect all these books, which will mean procuring a large number of Dickens novels – of the 100 books in the series, I think about 15 are by Dickens.
So, in 2015, I read The Old Curiosity Shop, which was a massive fail on all counts; I didn’t really enjoy the book and, having foolishly bought it on eBay, I was saddled with a ropey-looking cover. Sad times all round. I was ready to give up. But then I remembered that used to hate Hardy and, after reading most of his books last year, I now love him and want a life-size mural of his face in my lounge. So I persevered with Dickens, opting for the really cheerful and fun-sounding Hard Times this year.
There can’t be that many books with a title that accurately describes the experience of actually reading them, so, in this sense, Hard Times is a unique and impressive achievement. This book made me so sad. Not because of any Little Nell-type trauma, but just because I was so bored. I am fairly sure that nothing actually happened until about 220 pages in, by which time I had completely and wholeheartedly lost interest. None of the characters caught my attention and the story didn’t engage me. So that’s that.
But what does this say about me? As a complete nerd of English literature and devotee of the Victorian novel, why am I incapable of enjoying Dickens? I know that I put unhelpful amounts of pressure on myself to read and appreciate his work, because I worry what it means when I find myself cleaning my oven to avoid reading one of his books. I’m not put off by really long novels and it’s not like I don’t understand the language, so what is my problem? I don’t want to give up on Dickens, but, at the same time, I don’t want to keep reading long books which give me no pleasure at all. I also want more beautiful Penguin English Library books.
So, people of the internet, please help me. What Dickens should I be attempting next? Which is the one that will win me over, at least so I can say that there is one Charles Dickens novel that I like? I feel like I can only go so far in life by saying, “but I REALLY LOVE Hardy and would get all questions about him right on University Challenge.” I need you, bookish people. Don’t let me down.