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A Dickens of a Challenge: a Little Light Relief

Posted on the 21 March 2012 by Chris Mills @landing_tales

A Dickens of a Challenge: a little light reliefMy book challenge has just taken a useful turn, as the members of my book club (all four of us) have decided to read Charles Dickens this month as a contribution towards the centenary year. This means that I can read a book for my challenge and tackle the latest book group book at the same time. I am rather pleased about it, though unfortunately I cannot claim credit for the book club’s good idea.

I ran through a mental list of the Dickens titles that I have not yet read and I thought of choosing Hard Times. My rationale was that Dickens based the story upon his experiences of Preston (re-naming it Coketown), and as I have lived in that very city it seemed a good reason to choose the book. Although, as I retain a great fondness for the Lancashire city, this may not prove to be wise move on my part. I have metaphorically crossed swords before now with authors who portray my favourite places in a bad light.

Finally, I have settled on a compilation volume that I have had on the shelf for some time, The Humour of Dickens edited by R.J. Cruikshank. I have read this volume before but for sheer pleasure, it deserves a re-read especially in view of the brilliant illustrations it contains. The book was published in 1952 (my copy has an inscription saying ‘Xmas 1953, from Mairi’) by the News Chronicle, London. The original price of the volume was a princely three shillings and sixpence. I did a quick out of print book search and discovered that copies of the book can now fetch up to around thirty pounds depending on the condition. You can also pay as little as sixty three pence plus postage, which would be more like my price. I can only hazard a guess that I probably paid a pound or so for my copy several years ago in (I think) Birmingham.

The collection has excerpts from fifteen of Dickens’ novels including Oliver Twist, Our Mutual Friend, Hard Times and The Pickwick Papers. I mentioned the illustrations above; there are twenty of these by well-known contemporary (and by now highly collectible) illustrators. One of my all time favourites is Edward Ardizzone (remember the Tim stories?) whose frontispiece drawing of ‘Dinner at the Veneerings’ endows the dinner party guests with more charm than they probably deserve. Other great cartoon artists represented in the collection regularly featured in the newspapers of the time: Horner of the News Chronicle, Low of the Daily Herald and Giles of the Daily Express to name but three. All are different in style but equally vivid in their interpretation of Dickens’ characters.   

I shall be in the right mindset to tackle Dickens since I am reading David Lodge’s novel about HG Wells, A Man of Parts at present. After rubbing shoulders with HG, Henry James and Edith Nesbit I shall slide back into Dickens quite smoothly I think. Apart from seasonal re-reading of A Christmas Carol it must be a long time since I have read any of Dickens novels. I was all prepared to take the plunge again after our book group had an outing last year to hear Claire Tomalin speaking about her Dickens biography. That plan fell by the wayside (until now), along with the intention of reading said biography. Dickens is still on my ‘to read’ list as I have previously very much enjoyed Claire Tomalin’s books.

In the meantime, I will be content with the funny bits….


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