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.
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?