Learning to appreciate Dickens, Hardy, and Austen

Upon entering High School, countless ninth graders will be asked to set aside novels written by Collins, Roth, and Green in order to dive into the world of Dickens, Hardy, Bradbury, Steinbeck, et al. In light of that, I have been revisiting the classics of old–exploring ways to engage the reluctant reader.  little dorrit

Here are my tips for helping wade through, begin to embrace, and finally appreciate the writing style of these icons of literature.

Preface: allow plenty of time. My most recent reread is Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens. We are not introduced to the title character until chapter seven. The first six chapters are spent introducing characters whose connection will not be made clear until well into the story –frequently after you have invested your time exploring the first forty of the seventy-two chapter saga.

Step one: familiarize yourself with the story before picking up the book. Realizing that my English teachers will probably shift in their repose, I set out to find quality cinematic versions of some of my favorite stories. Many libraries provide these titles in DVD format. (With the proliferation of subscriptions to Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu Plus–these reenactments are readily available to the general public at no cost.) Titles published in mini-series format such as the BBC Masterpiece Classic Little Dorrit are surprisingly accurate.

Step two: grab a partner and read aloud. It is amazing how reading these classics aloud in an affected British accent will help one get into the book. Try on different voices for each character, using a droll narrator voice for the lengthy  and endless descriptions of each character. (Many of these authors published their works via weekly serials and were paid by the word.) Absent a partner, download the audio book from Librivox.org and listen to a volunteer read it aloud as you follow along in your own copy.

Step three: after reading a particularly difficult passage, try to find the kernel of understanding. For example: “. . . a fair man, with curls of flaxen hair on each side of his smooth face, and with eyes of such a very undecided blue that they seemed to have somehow got mixed with their own whites. He was a mild, good-natured, sweet-tempered, easy-going, foolish, dear fellow,—a sort of Hercules in strength, and also in weakness.” Dickens’ description of Joe Gargery from Pip’s point of view (Great Expectations) tells us that Joe was a strong, kind, fair-skinned, blonde man with pale blue eyes.

The final step is to relax about the book. Realize that you don’t need to understand every nuance to appreciate the style. Imagine you are designing a set for a play. These authors leave absolutely nothing to the imagination when it comes to gathering props. Walk through the descriptions as if you were picking and choosing stage pieces, wigs, and makeup to set the tone. Use the endless lists of descriptors and revel in the creativity of mind that crafted the often disconnected lists.

Following my first semester of college, after wading through Jane Austen’s Emma and not understanding or enjoying one moment of the read, my classmates and I held a bonfire. Who knew that years later, as I revisited these classics, that I would look back on the tale, smile, and understand the human condition a little better having gotten acquainted with Austen’s quirky meddlesome creature!

It is your turn. Sit back, curl up, fire up the gas logs, make a spot of tea, and settle in.  It may be a long ride, but in the end–you will be glad you persevered.

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