How many have you read? Image: Alicia Fernandes/Penguin
Charles Dickens enjoyed a great deal of popularity in his own time. With many of his works first published as serialised novels, he struck a chord then with his exploration of the human condition, of poverty and injustice, and his sharp character studies that managed to be both witty and perceptive. And what people loved then, we still love now. Many of his themes remain relevant and resonant, and his characters still feel familiar, offering that same mirror to readers to see ourselves more truly.
But he was a prolific writer; and authored at least 19 novels and short stories. If you’ve never tried one, or you’re not sure which to read next, here’s a quick guide to eight that make a good starting point.
(1843) A Christmas Carol
Arguably Dickens’ most famous book, and as long as you’re appropriately close to Christmas this is a great place to start for several reasons. Firstly, it’s short – only just over 100 pages in most editions, which would only take a couple of hours curled up in front of a fire with a glass of mulled wine. Secondly, the actual plot of Scrooge and the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, are so well-known that you can settle in and enjoy the details, festive spirit, and Dickens’ storytelling.
Read more: Moral outrage and the need for 'a hit': the real story of why Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol
(1849) David Copperfield
Part of the reason
David Copperfield features so highly is that it was Dickens’ own favourite, and his most autobiographical. The novel follows the titular character from a childhood of poverty to middle age where Copperfield becomes a successful author. It features some of Dickens’ most iconic, appealing characters but also a brilliant antagonist in the villainous Uriah Heep.
(1960) Great Expectations
Great Expectations was voted the UK’s favourite Dickens by readers of the Guardian, and it’s probably my personal favourite as well. I had never read Charles Dickens until I did an English elective at university and this was on the syllabus. I had thought he wasn’t for me, but I fell for this coming-of-age story of fortunes lost and found, partly because of the character of Miss Havisham, the jilted bride rotting away in her wedding dress. A relatively small (for Dickens) cast of key and charismatic characters makes Great Expectations easy to get – and stay – emotionally invested in.
(1837) Oliver Twist
You may think you know the story of
Oliver Twist due to the iconic 1968 film, Oliver!, but if you don't mind the lack of musical numbers, then there is so much to gain from reading the novel. The book includes some of Dickens' most complex, and endearing, characters from the strangely loveable rogue Fagin, to the heart-breaking bravery of Nancy, as Oliver tries to find a home of his own.
(1852) Bleak House
Often referred to as his masterpiece,
Bleak House may be a time and concentration commitment, but it’s worth it. The book revolves around a legal case, and much of the book is inspired by the author’s own experiences as a law clerk which had left him very cynical about the profession, which comes in for some pretty savage satire in the novel. And as a bonus, there’s also an award-winning BBC adaptation to watch either before or after, depending on your preference.
(1859) A Tale of Two Cities
Known for one of the most famous first lines in literature (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of time…”) this is one of Dickens’ only two ventures into historical fiction, and as close as he gets to writing a thriller. Set in London and Paris during the French Revolution, it follows a French doctor who goes to live with the daughter he’s never met in London, after eighteen years imprisoned in the Bastille. It’s pacy, dark, and short (for Dickens) making it a speedy, engrossing read.
(1836) The Pickwick Papers
While its episodic nature means that it doesn’t quite read as a novel in the traditional sense, it’s one of Dickens’ most enjoyable, fun reads. This was Dickens’ first book, and the one that made his name. It was initially serialised in monthly instalments following the adventures, disasters and exploits of a group of well-to-do London gentlemen. Although there are many more serious, and sad, episodes, there’s a real sense of goodwill that pervades the book making it a hugely entertaining read.
(1854) Hard Times
Once, and perhaps only once, you deem yourself a fully signed-up Dickens fan, it’s time for
Hard Times. Although it is one of his shorter novels, it is – as the title suggests – one of his harder reads, although not without its fans. Exploring issues around trade unions, worker conditions, and the impact of the Industrial Revolution, it tackles big social questions head on, and prioritises the social issues Dickens’ cared deeply about over plot or character. While not necessarily his most enjoyable or accessible read, it’s a key part of Dickens’ work and philosophy.