John Sutherland: The Dickens Dictionary (2012)

Although I’m one of those who has been tiptoeing around Dickens’ work for a while now without reading anything else but A Christmas Carol and part I of David Copperfield, I’m still interested in the author and the work. I also have a feeling I’m familiar with his novels without having read them because I saw the one or the other movie based on his books and because creations of great artists seem to acquire a life of their own and seem to go on living outside of the confined space of the book covers. People mention them, talk about them as if they were real people.

When I discovered The Dickens Dictionary on Mel U’s blog (here is the post) I knew I had to get it right away and since it arrived yesterday afternoon I spent many moments with it.

The author John Sutherland is a recently retired professor who has taught and published on Victorian novels. Browsing his book and reading the one and the other of the 100 collected entries, you discover not only a world of information but a book written by someone who is passionate about the subject and knows how to write about it in a way that will make you feel the urge to grab the next Dickens novel at hand. Sutherland’s aim was

When I think of Dickens I do not see a literary monument but an Old Curiosity Shop, stuffed with surprising things: what the Germans call a Wunderkammer – a chamber of wonders.

This book, taking as it’s starting point 100 words with a particular Dickensian flavour and relevance, is a tour round the curiosities, from the persistent smudged fingerprint picked up in the blacking factory in which Dickens suffered as a little boy to the nightmares he suffered from his unwise visit at feeding time to the snake-room of London Zoo.

The 100 entries cover such different subjects as Bastards, Blue Death, Candles, Cats, Child Abuse, Dead Babies, Dogs, Fog, Hands, Incest, Merrikins, Onions, Pies, Pubs, Smells, Thames…. They are all entirely fascinating.

What certainly adds to the appeal of this book are the many illustrations.  There is one on almost every other page.

I also liked the many quotes Sutherland included which give a good feeling for the work. Since I have still not decided which will finally be my first Dickens, this book will help me make up my mind.

To give you an idea of the entries I chose the one called Blue Death.The title refers to the Cholera epidemic of 1848-49 during which 52,000 Londoners died. The entry explains where it came from – India 1817 – and how Dickens and most people thought it was miasmic. He referred to it in Bleak House in his description of Tom-All-Alones’s. His rival Thackeray contracted the Cholera and might have died if Dickens hadn’t sent his own physician.

The Dickens Dictionary is a great introduction to Dickens, it contains quotes and references of the various novels, anecdotes from Dickens life, historical facts of Victorian London and a whole range of other “curiosities”.

As I said, I still don’t know which should be my first Dickens. Which one would you recommend?

71 thoughts on “John Sutherland: The Dickens Dictionary (2012)

  1. Dickens is one of the most distinctive stylists in literary history. Film adaptations cannot hope to capture more than a hint of this defining and particularly literary aspect of his art.

    Try the first paragraph of Bleak House and see if you are interested in more. Bleak House has become the consensus Best Dickens in recent years, as critics have gotten more interested in “dark” Dickens. Any book anyone else mentions will also be a good choice. The scene in the illustration comes late in the book – it is a doozy!

    The Wunderkammer metaphor is perfect for Dickens. The variety of life he packs into a single novel can be amazing – in 14+ novels almost unrivaled.

    Also – if it not too much trouble, read an illustrated edition – or look for the illustrations online. In some of the novels, the pictures add a lot to the effect. Admittedly in some cases the illustrations are duds.

    • That’s a great suggestion, thanks. I’ll try to find one with illustrations. I already know I cannot read him in a free kindle version. That just won’t do. I realize more and more that I must have understimated him for whatever reason. This dictionary is huge fun and really put me in the mood to read him now. I just never know which one. If it’s like with Balzac the wrong start can put you off.

      • Hey, Caroline, about Balzac–something I just discovered recently: there’s Balzac, and then there’s Balzac. I mean, if you feel alienated by some of the novels and essays he wrote, try some of his hilarious short stories. Some of them are fabliaux (you know, literary dirty jokes and risque stories), and he’s really almost as good as (or better than) Boccaccio was in “The Decameron” with these. If you want to access quick reads of Balzac on the Internet, you can find his works easily on If you don’t go for dirty jokes, excuse me for mentioning it–it was just such a contrast from the Balzac I had previously known!

        • Balzac has an incredibly wide range. I’m actually not the one being alienated by Balzac but people often ask whith which Balzac to start and I think most people who have read him extensively would recommend another one. While Les illusions perdues/Los Illusions is my favourite I always suggest Père Goriot as a start. Thanks for reminding me of his Decameron sytle collection. I own it but always posponed it. I think Balzac is one of those writers who is usually better in the longer form. Might go and find it, and read the one of the other, just for a taste.

          • “Lost Illusions” sounds good. Maybe because the title reminds me in part of “Remembrance of Things Past,” Who knows how these literary hares get started in the underbrush of the mind? I’ll have a look at that one. (What I’m referring to is that now “Remembrance of Things Past” has been recently re-translated as “In Search of Lost Time.” Lost time, lost illusions, they seem to go together somehow.)

            • Yes, it does sound similar. The titles are similar in French A la recherche du temps perdu and Les illusions perdues. The new translation is closer to the original.
              The Lost Illusions is one of my favourite books. I loved it but from the point of view of style Proust is far superior. Balzac is a story teller not so much a stylist, I would say. his charcater portraits are great.

  2. Hi, Caroline. “Dombey and Son” is great, though not happy. Or maybe “Great Expectations,” with its innovative (for the time) two different endings. You may have started with the best of all already. Did you know that Dickens said of “David Copperfield”: “Every parent in his heart of hearts has a favorite child, and my favorite child is ‘David Copperfield’?” Your instinct for Dickens, apparently already in development, led you truly!

    • I know nothing about Dombey and Son. Isn’t that one of the longer ones even? I’m always tempted to return to David Copperfield (long as well) . I think it’s darker than Oliver Twist which appeals more to me. Thanks for the suggestions in any case.

  3. Bleak House looks long when you heft the book in your hand, but it doesn’t feel long when you become immersed in it. The TV mini-series a couple of years ago was moderately faithful to the plot and characters, but did not give you the benefits of Dickens’ style.

    If your preference is for short, then try Hard Times.

    • I must admit that one of my shallow reasons for not reading him is the length. I tend to cave in after 400 pages. It’s good to know that there is at least one shorter one, thanks. The temptation to read Bleak House is great at the moment.

  4. What a beautiful book! I read A Tale of Two Cities in high school and could not put it down. Oliver Twist and David Copperfield were much slower going, but I loved them as well. Haven’t read Bleak House, but will in the future.

    • Yes, it’s beautiful, and really interesting. Everybody seems to like another Dickens. I had forgotten about A Tale of Two Cities. That is one to consider as well.

  5. Sounds like a really interesting book! The only Dickens I’ve read is Bleak House, which I read for a read-along. I really like it and am looking forward to reading more of his work. It would definitely be fun to read this ‘dictionary!’

    • I’m sure this dictionary would appeal to many people. Those who know him already and those like me who can’t make up their mind which one to pick. I’m sure he’s a great readalong or book club choice. A lot to disucss.

  6. Hi, Caroline,
    Ken and I both love Dickens.

    Ken’s favorites have always been A Tale of Two Cities and David Copperfield. I made him read Great Expectations and he enjoyed it, but the other two are still his Dickens faves.

    My favorite Dickens read is The Christmas Carol, purely for the language, the adjectives, the descriptive language–whew!.I luxuriate in the writing of that novella. But my favorite novels have always been Great Expectations and David Copperfield. I have tried to read others, but I haven’t succeeded in finishing them, I’m very embarrassed to say.

    I do enjoy annotated editions of Dickens’ titles and the Biographical Companions, and the A-Z Encyclopedias of other classic writers. They so expand the reader’s experience of these authors.


    Judith (Reader in the Wilderness)

    • Thanks, Judith. I will enjoy it. It’s a wonderful book. You comment confirms what I stated in another comment, hardly two people like the same books. I really loved A Christmas Carol. And the beginning of David Copperfield but something distracted me and I abandoned. Great Expectations is the only other one I own but I’m so tempted by Bleak House now as I’d like to read Lynn Shepherd’s crime novel “Tom-All-Alone’s” which, obviously is inspired by Bleak House and said to be very good. Decisions…

  7. I have only read a limited amount of Dickens, only read Hard Times and Great Expectations, so I will not make a recommendation. I must admit that I was a little disappointed in those works.

    I really love these Guide/Dictionary like books. I have the Oxford Dictionary to Shakespeare and it is very well worn.

    • I can imagine that…. Shakespeare’s world is alos vast.
      I’ve always been afraid I would be disappointed in Dickens as I don’t do well with chunky books, not only because of the amount of pages but many 19th century novels seem a bit wordy.
      We will see. Thnks for the input.

  8. I am so glad you enjoyed this book. To a total Dickens neophyte I would suggest Oliver Twist, not too long or join the consensus and say try Bleak House. It is kind of long for a starter novel.

    • I really did, I think it’s well worth reading.
      I was afraid to start with Belak House because of the length… I could read it in small portions. The essential with long books is to keep going. Once you put it aside for too long it’s doomed.

  9. You’re thinking of reading Dickens! So far my faves are Nicholas Nickleby, David Copperfield, Bleak House, and Great Expectations. I would recommend either David or Bleak House for you. I still have four left on my list and there are a few others that I haven’t read, but hope to in the next couple of years. I wouldn’t suggest Hard Times or Oliver Twist. Both are decent, but I don’t think they are the best examples of his writing. Hard Times is more of a social novel than his others and it gets a little too much at times. I enjoyed it as an experimental novel but if you want a real taste of his character development, unfortunately I have to recommend one of his longer ones.

    • I see what you mean, thanks for the input. I suppose charcater development is one of his strengths, so I will have to choose a longer one. I think once the nigths get longer, it will be the perfect read.

  10. Sounds like a book worth tracking down. But what I’d really like is a compendium of characters (and their relationships), since I’m coming to an age where I’m starting to forget who was who from one page to the next. Since I live in one of those other cities famous for its fog, the stunning fog prose-poem that opens Bleak House stays in my head like a mantra. That, at least, I can remember.

    • I think it’s a very intersting book but it has no character lists. When I looked at the e-book version of Beak House I realized how many charcaters there are just in one novel. And the fact that he chose names with a meaning doesn’t make it easier, I suppose. If Tom saw you comment, I’m sure he knows a place where all the characters are listed.
      I know how foggy it is where you live. When I was there I didn’t even see the bridge. I knew it was there but it was hidden in a dense fog, only when we drove over it we saw some of it.

    • I got the eagle eyes!

      So when a Dickens novel was released as an actual book, after serialization, there was usually an annotated list of characters in the front of the book. Some modern editions include the list of characters, some stupidly do not.

  11. Interesting read.
    I also havent read anything by Dickens, I know his works mostly from movie.
    I tried reading Oliver Twist once but the languange was too difficult to understand.

  12. I like this book, and it has pictures too, even better! Whatever Dickens novel you read you should definitely not miss Great Expectations. It’s beautiful and sad and romantic. Hard Times was rather bleak; I have Our Mutual Friend on my TBR pile. We should do a “Dickens in December” reading event. 🙂 And if you’re interested in a book about Dickens and Wilkie Collins, Drood by Dan Simmons is an excellent one.

    • I really like the pictures and the book as such is very beautiful as well. I didn’t know Icon Press but I will watch out for their publications now.
      Dickens in December, now that sounds great. Hmmm… We could create a badge and post about it beginning of November and see how many will join in? How about that.

  13. What a wonderful way to celebrate Dickens’ 200th birthday year. I liked Bleak House, I enjoyed The Old Curiousity Shop, but the novel which will be my favorite of his is A Tale of Two Cities. It had a shocking, to me, ending; one which I will never forget.

    This book, bought at Mel’s suggestion, is such a lovely addition to one’s library!

    • What is great is that in this case the content and the book as an object are wonderful. It’s a book to own.
      It’s one of the more interesting books that came out this year. And as you see, it inspired me and Delia for an end of year event. 🙂

  14. Nice review, Caroline! I have a book by John Sutherland called ‘How to read a novel’ 🙂 I am hoping to read that sometime. I think Dickens is one of the greats but because he wrote such huge works, each of which is a chunkster, we probably find it easier to watch the movie versions 🙂 I have read ‘A Christmas Carol’, ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ (it is a family favourite), ‘Great Expectations’, ‘David Copperfield’, ‘Oliver Twist’ and ‘Nicholas and Nickleby’. I have also read parts of ‘The Pickwick Papers’. I think it is his most comic novel. I would love to read ‘Bleak House’ sometime (I have an edition which says it is a crime book :)), though its size intimidates to me. Have you seen the movie ‘Hereafter’? Matt Damon comes as a character who loves Dickens and during his highs and lows in life, he reads the appropriate lines from Dickens. ‘Dickens in December’ sounds wonderful! Looking forward to hearing more details about it. Sorry for rambling! I couldn’t resist it. Hope you enjoy reading your first Dickens! And thanks for the review of this wonderful book!

    • Thanks, Vishy, you would enjoy this book very much I’m sure. And you were already familiar with John Sutherland. i didn’t know him before. You’ve read quite a lot of his books. I really must get to him soon. Delia’s idea sounds really good. We should work on it a bit and end the year in style. 🙂 I watched Polanski’s Oliver Twist not long ago but didn’t like it that much. The length of his books is my major issue. At least I have narrowed the choices down to two: Bealk House or Great Expectations.

  15. I dont know why I cant click reply 😦
    Yeah I know bout Christmas Carol, I have seen it so many times in many version. It reminds me when Dr.Who met Dickens 😉
    I think my main problem is in the old English, still find it difficult to enjoy.. I know it’s not as difficult as shakespear but still not easy

    • It’s a good companion book to What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens knew. I would really like to read Bleak House but it is soo long. I might start wirth Great expectations after all. They are the two people like best.

  16. Having enjoyed listening to Great Expectations (and it was a much better experience than just reading it), I’m definitely going to try Dickens again. My only whine is that John Sutherland is SO prolific that he has the market for academic crossover books in the UK pretty much sewn up. No one can keep up with his output. I would be happy to read a book about literature that was not by him! 🙂

    • I suppose since I don’t live in the UK I wasn’t aware of him and therefore didn’t mind but I get your point. I haven’t thought of listening to Dickens. I could imagine with the right reader that could be quite the experience.

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  18. I’ve only read A Christmas Carol and David Copperfield. I made it through about a third of Bleak House, but I hit a slow section and got distracted. Now I think too much time has passed and I would have to go back and start from the beginning (though I loved the film adaptation). He is another writer I mean to read–this year has not been my year for classics. This book sounds like fun and yes, a good place to start with his work.

    • I’m glad I bought this, every time I pick it up and browse it I learn something more and am in the mood to start reading his novels right away. Maybe you can join me and Delia in December, when we do a Dickens in December. I will go for Great Expectations as it’s not as long as Bleak House. That’s such an awful thing with chunky classics. When you stop, you cannot just pick them up and go on reading and to start all over again feels daunting.

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