Considered one of the greatest novelists of the Victorian era, Charles Dickens is a household name in literature and his continues to live on.
Owing to his success, Dickens's books have been adapted many times over – from Oliver! the musical to the more recent David Copperfield starring Dev Patel.
Unlike many authors writing at the time, the novels written by Dickens provided a social commentary by delving into issues close to his heart, including the class system, child labour and the British judiciary, as well as providing a voice to those who had to fight for their place in society.
By drawing on these themes and through his strong characterisation – many which based on real people and their lives – his stories work to encourage people to reflect on different aspects of society as well as what Britain was like at that time.
But what makes Dickens, and his work, so relevant today is how his novels provide a message that resonates today, noting how poverty and charity transcend time.
He also continues to be influential for other authors, such as Donna Tartt, equipping them with the knowledge to form the basis of their own novels.
In celebration of the author’s continued legacy and his birthday – 7 February – we take a look at some of his most seminal work.
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‘David Copperfield’ by Charles Dickens, published by Penguin Classics
Said to be one of Dickens’s favourites and one of his most autobiographical, it’s told from the perspective of an adult David Copperfield who looks back on his life. Reflecting on his journey from an unhappy impoverished child to a successful writer, it’s known for its fantastic characterisation.
‘A Tale of Two Cities’ by Charles Dickens, published by Arcturus Publishing Ltd
Set in London and Paris prior to and after the French Revolution, this historical novel follows the life of a French doctor who moves to London to live with his daughter he’s never met. Best known for its first line: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”, Dickens ability to create pace and darkness means this one has earnt itself a reputation of being a captivating read.
‘Great Expectations’ by Charles Dickens
Widely regarded as one of his most popular novels, Great Expectations tells the story of a humble orphan, nicknamed Pip. Chronicling his journey from childhood to adulthood, we follow him from orphan to gentleman where he finds true love and happiness. With a myriad of characters, it’s considered a flawless masterpiece that makes for uncomfortable reading.
‘Bleak House’ by Charles Dickens, published by Penguin Classics
Considered one of his most complex novels, this is a page-turner that highlights the unpleasantries of the nineteenth century. Told partly by an all-knowing narrator, as well as from the perspective of protagonist Esther Summerson, the story centres around a legal case and is loosely based on Dickens’s own experiences of working from within law. Shedding light on the deep-rooted issues within the British judiciary, it acted as a catalyst for legal reform in 1870.
‘Oliver Twist’ by Charles Dickens, published by Puffin Classics
A seminal portrayal of the treatment of orphaned children during the nineteenth century. Building on his own experiences of working in a workhouse, the novel focuses on the life of orphan Oliver Twist. Tracing his childhood in a workhouse to his escape to London where he becomes a pickpocket after being acquainted with the Artful Dodger, Oliver Twist is a social analysis and lays bare Dickens’s opinions of child labour.
‘A Christmas Carol’ by Charles Dickens, published by Penguin Random House Children’s UK
While synonymous with the festive season, A Christmas Carol deserves a place on everyone’s bookshelf. This novella tells the story of a mean-spirited, old man, Ebenezer Scrooge, who hates everything to do with the cursed day. Through following Scrooge’s moral journey, where he is haunted by three spirits and learns the true meaning of Christmas, Dickens touches on themes of personal transformation and the grotesquery of greed.
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