Three Charles Dickens audio books

June 30, 2014

three dickens audio books_5880

In late 2013 I started looking at the audio book sections of my local libraries for stuff to listen to in the car. I’d never really bothered with this section in the past, being someone who reads a lot of books I thought that listening to someone reading aloud would be second best. Perhaps listening to podcasts in the car brought me around to what an efficient use of time it can be. At first I caught up with a few of the classics – The Aeneid, The Odyssey and the Iliad, as recounted here. Early in 2014 I decided to work through all of Charles Dickens’ novels, realising that although he is regarded as one of the great novelists I had only read one of his novels – Great Expectations, and even that was decades ago. Here is a brief summary of my thoughts regarding both the story and the readings of the first three I listened to.

Hard Times – was written in 1854 and like all Dickens’ novels was published in serial form. It was his tenth novel and also the shortest, being about one quarter the length of his major works. The brevity is a weakness as it doesn’t allow for much character development, which is generally one of his strong points. The characters are a bit one-dimensional and when a couple of them undergo major changes in character it does not feel justified (e.g. when the stern, utilitarian father Thomas Gradgrind becomes kind and empathetic towards his daughter.) The plot is also formulaic and predictable – there were no surprises. An enjoyable enough story but far from a great Dickens. Another aspect that Dickens is known for is having outlandish character names that also describe the characters. Hard Times has some excellent names, such as Josiah Bounderby the swaggering industrialist; Mrs Sparsit the unpleasant snob; and Mr. McChoakumchild the teacher at the utilitarian school. The reading by Martin Jarvis is excellent, he has a warm, rich tone that is suited to Dickens, and comes up with a good range of character voices.

Little Dorrit – was Dickens’ eleventh novel, serialised between 1855 and ’57. My library has it as 28 traditional audio CDs with a playing time of 35 hours; I spend about one hour a day in my car so it took about one month to listen to the complete story. It’s an excellent novel with lots of good characters, complex plotting and character development. The storyline is unpredictable, although the ending is somewhat neat and simple. The main theme is money and how people behave in relation to wealth or the lack of it, and how most people want more, even those who are already well off. In a later reversal we see character changes in poor people who come into wealth, and wealthy people who suffer losses and become poor. One of the great plot devices is the family who live in a debtors prison, with the father so hopeless that they stay there for decades, including a daughter who is born in the prison, the Little Dorrit of the title. Compared to Hard Times, the length of the novel allows Dickens to create believable, three dimensional characters whose changes, both subtle and major are credible and well explained. This book has some of his most interesting characters, such as Miss Wade, the bitter and mysterious woman who lures the proud maid Tattycoram away from her employers; Mr Pancks the superficially hard nosed debt collector who reveals his kinder and more complex nature as the story proceeds; and Arthur Clennam the main character who comes from a wealthy background but is conflicted due to his strict religious upbringing and knowledge that the family fortune was built on money lending that often ruined the borrowers. He is in conflict with his tyrannical mother who despises his empathy towards others as a weakness. The reading by Anton Lesser is superb.

Our Mutual Friend – serialised from 1864 to ’65 was Dickens’ last completed novel. The main theme is identity, with many characters pretending to be someone other than they are. In some cases this is part of a confidence trick to swindle money, in others it is done by wealthy characters to see how others will treat them. The novel is also concerned with social standing and how the different levels of society view themselves and others. Unfortunately the book struggles because the two major characters are dull and annoying, while the main plot line is clunky and predictable. Even on first publication the novel was not hugely popular with readers, with sales figures declining over the course of the serialisation. The best characters and storylines are the minor ones, such as Silas Wegg the street hustler with a wooden leg – barely literate, he hires himself out as a book reader to the even more illiterate Noddy Boffin; Bradley Headstone the schoolteacher who simultaneously lusts after and looks down upon Lizzie Hexam, the beautiful daughter of a Thames boatman. The best scene in the book is when he declares his desire for her in the city one night, and his disbelieving rage and despair when she emphatically rejects him. This is far more interesting than the main romance between the vapid John Harmon and the annoying Bella Wilfer. Another superb reading by Anton Lesser.


One Response to “Three Charles Dickens audio books”

  1. […] covered the first six audio books that I listened to here and […]

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