The Rivals of Charles Dickens

London, Reading & Writing

Okay, the Olympics are almost over (with the Paralympics just to come) and we can all get down to some reading again. Notably absent from the opening and closing ceremonies; Charles Dickens – perhaps because he is almost as ubiquitous in London now as he was in his lifetime. This tirelessly energetic man was so committed to his work that it sometimes feels as if non-one else was writing in the Victorian era. But here are a few that were;

William Thackeray
Dickens’ best known and greatest rival had little of his counterpart’s generosity of spirit. Most remembered now for ‘Vanity Fair’ and ‘The Luck of Barry Lyndon’, he was more satirical, sharper-tongued and more appealing to the burgeoning middle classes than Dickens, but most of his novels have completely disappeared from bookshelves.

Richard Harding Davis
For the true flavor of a damp, foggy Victorian London every bit as atmospheric as Dickens’s scenes, the handsome but detested US journalist Davis gave us ‘In The Fog’, an energetic, eerie pre-pulp read with multiple solutions to its puzzle. The book is better in its descriptive passages than in its almost-impossible-to-follow plotline.

Elizabeth Gaskell
Mrs Gaskell sympathetically depicted the plight of working class women and prostitutes, but much of her shorter fiction is now out of print. Dickens’ wrote several conjoined novels including ‘Mugby Junction’ and ‘The Haunted House’, to which contemporary women added their voices, including Gaskell, as well as Hesba Stretton, Adelaide Anne Procter and Amelia Edwards.

Wilkie Collins
The credit for the first detective story belongs to Collins, not Poe. He and Dickens were contemporaries whose concerns (crime, social commentary) often intersected, but only two novels, ‘The Moonstone’ and ‘The Woman In White’, are easily recalled. With characters like Inspector Bucket and ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’, Dickens was going where Collins had been.

Robert Louis Stevenson
Many authors tend to get lost behind the roseate glow of Big Chuck. We think of Stevenson as a fantastical writer of children’s stories, forgetting that he was only 44 when he died, and was still developing his talents with satires like ‘The Wrong Box’, which tapped into the Victorian obsession with tontines, the insurance policies you could pay into and collect only when the last member remained alive. ‘The Wrong Box’ was made into a Really Not Very Good Film by Bryan Forbes.

5 comments on “The Rivals of Charles Dickens”

  1. Paul Graham says:

    Mostly forgotten now is Dickens contemporary and friend William Harrison Ainsworth. Ainsworth wrote a huge number of Historical novels often being published in the same magazines as Dickens.
    I only know of him thanks to my Grandad’s obsession with his works. Ainsworth’s stories have not aged as well as Dickens, there is more than a whiff of Bulwer Lytton about him, but at the time they were published they were amazingly popular.

  2. Dan Terrell says:

    “…the Olympics are almost over…” with that fraction of a line opening the door, let me say for a final time: That was a wonderful Olympics you Londoners put on. From opening through closing, so well done. And congratulations on using a light touch. You have set the bar quite high for Brazil and all others.
    Several writers to look up, but I’m done with Thackeray. I’ve made my peace with him.
    (Anyone else have a hard time getting into the blog today? And an even harder time typing all the letters?)

  3. Sam Tomaino says:

    I spent the first 4 1/2 months of this year reading all the novels of Dickens and enjoying most of them, ‘Dombey and Son’ being the exception. If I have one recommendation to make of a lesser-known Dickens novel, it’s Barnaby Rudge. It’s his only other historical novel and actually makes a good companion piece to ‘Tale of Two Cities.’
    I followed that with reading ‘The Woman in White’ and ‘The Moonstone’, which I, also, thoroughly enjoyed. He has a very strong woman character in the former who is more interesting than the pretty heroine. I found ‘The Moonstone’ a great read as what is frequently called the first detective novel. It’s also quite funny!
    One of the most startling Dickensian characters I encountered was Inspector Bucket in ‘Bleak House.’ This was published decades (1852-1853) before Sherlock Holmes, but we see Bucket using what Holmes would claim as “his methods.” It also predates ‘The Moonstone’ and Sergeant Cuff, so Dickens is not going where Collins had been, but actually got there first.

  4. Helen Martin says:

    Yes, but what about the writer with the strange name (French?) whom I can neither remember no discover. And there are the original Judge Dee stories, although if you’re talking about accessible to English language readers….

  5. Helen Martin says:

    Aha! Got him! Sheridan LeFanu. Actually Joseph Thomas Sheridan LeFanu. (His father had pretensions.) Why didn’t I realise he was Irish and related to half the world? It was a Huguenot family so that may be why I thought French. He sounds interesting and slightly strange so may be worth reading. By the way, on one of my alphabetical forays I read some Ainsworth and rather enjoyed it, but I don’t know whether I would now and I don’t remember the title.
    (Yes, Dan, we got the Thackeray joke.)

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