What to Read When You Love Charles Dickens

There will come a point in the life of a Dickens fan when they reach the worst of times: the moment when, despite is vast bibliography, they will run out of things to read by him. Or perhaps you’re in the mood for something Dickensian, but you just don’t feel like actually reading Dickens (this is a mood I find myself in often). Either way, I have you covered. Here are some books that I think Charles Dickens fans will enjoy

Victorian Social Issues

Social critique is a major aspect of most Dickens novels. If you enjoyed those parts of Hard Times, Bleak House, and Oliver Twist, you may want to check out Elizabeth’s Gaskell’s North and South. I recently recommended this for fans of Jane Austen as well because Gaskell’s novel is what would happen if Austen and Dickens collaborated. Set in a mill city based on Manchester, North and South explores the various plights of the working class, including poor conditions, poverty, illness, strikes, and the fight to form a union. It also has one of my favorite romances ever and the happy ending that we always long for with Victorian novels.

Many have called Israel Zangwill the “Jewish Dickens,” and that’s a fair assessment. His Children of the Ghetto focuses on a community of Jewish immigrants in London trying to maintain their culture in a foreign place. Zangwill paints a harrowing image of the poverty many of the ghetto residents live in. Like Dickens, he has a huge cast of characters and many different plot threads, featuring both comedy and tragedy throughout the book.

19th-Century Bricks From Other Countries

And I call these bricks in the most loving way possible. I adore a good, giant novel. And England wasn’t the only country putting them out in the 19th century. The rest of Europe got in on it too. Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina has a similar vast scope to many of Dickens’ finest novels. The book is set in Imperial Russia and tells the parallel stories of Anna Karenina’s affair with Count Vronsky and Konstantin Levin’s spiritual journey of struggling with his faith, falling in love with Kitty, and managing his estate. Like Dickens, Tolstoy explores themes of social class, politics, morality, and gender roles, with a particular focus on the fallen woman, all with a slightly more melancholy view.

Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks was actually published in 1901. But that’s practically the 19th century, and it otherwise fits perfectly in this category. Spanning from 1835 to 1877, the novel portrays four generations of the Buddenbrook family. Like Dickens, Mann focuses on how industrialization effects the people of Germany, featuring romance, tragedy, politics, and discussions of social class. As with Tolstoy, the overall mood of the book is far more melancholy than Dickens. I guess the rest of Europe went the route of depressing endings rather than the English’s happy ending with everything neatly tied up with a bow.

Sarah Waters

Have you ever been reading a 19th-century novel and said, “This would be better with some women loving women”? Of course you have. And Sarah Waters has thankfully blessed us with several novels that fulfill that need. Fingersmith is the story of Sue Trinder and Maud Lilly. Sue is an orphan living with a group of thieves, and a con artist called Gentleman enlists her to help him swindle Maud out of her fortune. But as she acts as Maud’s maid, Sue finds herself developing feelings for the other girl. Filled with unexpected twists at every turn, this book is part Oliver Twist and part Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White with an added dose of beautifully written lesbian romance.

If you’re a fan of Dickens’ bildungsromans, you may enjoy Tipping the Velvet. Waters takes us on a tour of queer Victorian London as we follow Nan King’s coming-of-age story. Starting as a working-class girl in Kent, Nan rises to fame as a cross-dressing music hall star, but her adventures certainly don’t end there. Waters introduces characters from all walks of life, high class and low class, as Nan experiences her sexual awakening and searches both for someone to love and somewhere to belong. My one word of advice with this book is to not read it out in public. It has some highly detailed–and incredibly hot–sex scenes, far more than Fingersmith. I made the mistake of bringing it work with me and spent my whole lunch break blushing and hoping no one would look over my shoulder to see what I was reading.

Modern Bildungsromans

If you’re in the mood for a more contemporary coming-of-age story, check out Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Goldfinch, which has been compared to David Copperfield and Great Expectations. 13-year-old Theo Decker is inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art when terrorists bomb it. He makes it out with the Carel Fabritius painting The Goldfinch, which he proceeds to keep instead of turning it to the authorities. Theo is shuffled from home to home, experiencing both the splendors of Park Avenue and the squalor of his father’s home in Las Vegas. All the while, he deals with the trauma of the attack and guilt over the stolen painting, which eventually comes back to haunt him.

For a more female-focused modern bildungsroman, try Meg Wolitzer’s The Female Persuasion. Greer Kadetsky begins college as a shy and studious girl. Meeting Faith Frank, a feminist icon, awakens Greer’s ambition and political voice and ultimately jumpstarts her career. But as she makes her way up in the professional world, she realizes that Faith may not be exactly the person she thought she was. This is a story of love, betrayal, female mentorship, and what it means to be a feminist.

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