That's it. FINISHED!! We have finally Done Dickens. Over the past year-and-a-bit the tireless trio of Becky, Sam and I (with a few other hardy readers joining us occasionally) have braved 16 novels, countless late nights and over 10,000 pages to finish our mammoth quest to read all his novels. To be honest, I'm exhausted. It's just magazines until Christmas now. Or maybe just drooling in front of the television.
Our final novel was The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which Dickens died halfway through writing - leaving its mystery (who caused the disappearance of Edwin one stormy Christmas Eve?) unsolved. I was relieved to discover, however, that the culprit is so obvious a claxon almost sounds every time he appears, and that Dickens told practically everyone he knew the ending anyway. Phew. The joys in this book come from it feeling both reassuringly like Dickens's earlier novels in its pastoral setting and manageable number of characters, yet also rather experimental and modern with its Agatha Christie-like structure, its racy opening scene in a drug den, and the respectable choirmaster-slash-sexually obsessed, opium-addicted maniac, John Jasper.
We were very satisfied by Edwin Drood, but also left very, very sad that Dickens was cut short in his prime. There's no sign of a dropping off in talent. Instead his novels seemed to be getting darker, weirder and more experimental every time, and each one was utterly different from every other. He could have gone on to write a dozen more masterpieces. But we'll never know what came next.
I remember saying when I read our first novel, The Pickwick Papers, that I felt I was going to make a friend for life, and I did. Dickens is like the loudest, funniest person in the room at a party. True, he might get drunk and maudlin and go on a bit, but he's really the only one you want to talk to. I'd defend him to anyone.
Why? Firstly he is HILARIOUS. I genuinely didn't realise how funny his writing would be. Whether it's Betsey Trotwood and her donkey fixation, the Fat Boy in Pickwick storing food in his mouth overnight or, of course, cheeky cockney Sam Weller, Dickens creates characters of comic genius. Secondly, no-one does dialogue like Dickens. Apparently he used to practice his characters' verbal tics in front of a mirror, and you can always tell. Whenever I read a piece of dialogue by another writer now, it just blends into one voice. Thirdly, there is no such thing as a bad Dickens novel. Even the ones we liked less (step forward, Oliver Twist), had a hundred times more invention, imagination, memorable characters, scenes, descriptions, speeches and pure fun than most other books of the time - and today. I could go on all day but you might fall asleep, so instead I'll finish with the novels in order of our favourites.
Behold, our festive Dickens hit parade!
1. David Copperfield is our top book. Moving, memorable, hilarious perfection, with more great characters than most other writers could create in their whole career.
2. Dombey and Son. We can't understand why this gripping, heartbreaking story of a dysfunctional family isn't more loved or popular.
3. Great Expectations. I wanted this at number 2, but Becky and Sam overruled me. Still, we all loved its elegiac, grown-up sadness and fairytale beauty.
4. A Christmas Carol. A story so perfect it feels as though it's always existed, and couldn't possibly have popped out of one person's head.
5. A Tale of Two Cities. A rollicking, blood-soaked weep-fest.
6. Nicholas Nickleby. We'd put this above the Big Beasts for its theatrical exuberance.
7. Little Dorrit. Now on to the serious ones. Best last line ever.
8. Our Mutual Friend. Perplexing, murky, haunting, utterly dark.
9. Bleak House. Also grimly brilliant, but I didn't take it to my heart as much as some others.
10. The Pickwick Papers. Such a drunken joy that I nearly put it above the big famous novels, but then remembered that it doesn't really have a story.
11. The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Such promising weirdness.
12. Hard Times. Too short! (but still has some great baddies).
13. Barnaby Rudge. The thrilling mob violence almost makes up for the parts where not much happens.
14. Martin Chuzzlewit. Frustratingly excellent in parts.
15. Oliver Twist. Becky wanted this at the bottom, but I thought Nancy's murder saved it.
16. The Old Curiosity Shop. Thank goodness for Quilp.
Thanks Dickens, it's been a blast.
Louise Willder, Copywriter