Awhile back I made a resolution to read everything Charles Dickens ever wrote. Recently a literary agent said to me, “The Sopranos is the new Dickens.” Since Dickens used to write for magazines in installments, he had a loyal following who would wait for the next chapter in the next magazine, like many people today wait for the next episode of a beloved television show.
When I was a graduate student in American literature I spent a lot of time reading old newspapers on microfilm in the basement of the library. In 19th century papers in America I came across small ads or whole articles about when the next installment of Little Dorrit would be arriving by ship from England. Readers were so keen on the story that when the next chapter finally came they would swarm the shipyard docks to get their copies.
My mother, Lynn Margulis, is teaching at Balliol College at Oxford University and living in the Eastman House, right near the center of town. There are many lovely things about her set-up this year but the best–to me–was that the house has the complete works of Charles Dickens in these gorgeous 19th century volumes. I started reading A Christmas Carol to the kids and we actually had to cut some of the pages as the book was uncut. We didn’t finish it but they are hooked and I just checked out a much less romantic copy from the library.
In Oxford I finished Great Expectations (which we’re reading for my book club) and started Bleak House. But I left the gorgeous 19th century edition behind in the Eastman House and am waiting for the local library to get a copy in. In the meantime I keep thinking about Great Expectations. I’m haunted by Pip’s early experiences helping a rogue convict and being abused by his sister. That book, like so much of Dickens, is so filled with heart and suffering and kindness and wisdom. He is such a master at his craft. He weaves his stories together so seamlessly that it’s hard to believe so many of them were written in installments.
The nice thing about reading Dickens is, unlike another of my favorite authors, Raymond Chandler, who only wrote a handful of novels in his lifetime, there is still so much to look forward to.