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10 Best Dickens Characters

Amanda Nelson

Staff Writer

Amanda Nelson is an Executive Director of Book Riot. She lives in Richmond, VA.

This post is sponsored by What the Dickens?! by Bryan Kozlowski

Layout 1Dickens penned close to five million words in his lifetime and possessed a vocabulary as wide and whimsical as his imagination. Culled from his fifteen classic novels and hundreds of short stories, What the Dickens?! is a literary romp through the twisty alleyways of the Victorian vernacular. Following the etymological trail of “fogle-hunters” in Oliver Twist, dining at a “slap-bang” in Bleak House, or taking care not to get “burked” in The Pickwick Papers, readers will be escorted through a linguistic tour of Dickens’s beloved world. The book will include 200 words alongside pithy commentary, and 30 duo-toned illustrations throughout.

Dickens’s characters make his books. They’re strange and complicated, villainous and angelic and heartbreaking. They’re sometimes offensive or clichéd (like most geniuses, he could badly miss the mark), sometimes so complex and perfect I can’t understand why anyone bothers writing at all anymore. So here, in no particular order because it’s impossible, are 10 of Dickens’s best characters:

mrs-havisham1. Miss Havisham, Great Expectations. Humiliated and heartbroken after being swindled and left at the altar, Miss Havisham holes herself up in a decaying mansion, never removing her wedding dress, and raises an adopted daughter to destroy the hearts of men. Hell hath no fury and whatnot, but her fury is both a slow and malicious burn, and a black hole that sucks in everyone around her.

2. Betsy Trotwood, David CopperfieldThe titular character’s great aunt, who takes him in after he runs away from an abusive stepfather, despite the fact that she entirely lost interest in him at his birth when he proved to not be a girl. Betsy is stubborn, resourceful, independent (and, if I remember correctly, the only woman in the book who runs her house herself), generous, and crotchety. Basically, I want to be her when I grow up. And also now. “Janet! Donkeys!”

3. Rosa Dartle, David CopperfieldThe companion to Mrs. Steerforth and lover of James Steerforth (as in, she loves him, not as in, they make love). James doesn’t love her back but that doesn’t stop him from flirting mercilessly with her–this unrequited and lifelong love combined with the back-and-forth of James’s flirtations has warped Rosa into a bitter, sarcastic, ice cold woman. She’s fascinating and awful and hilarious and the worst.

It’s the Gillian Anderson show!

4. The Dedlocks, Bleak House. One of my favorite marriages in literature. Lady Dedlock is bored and haughty but kind; Sir Dedlock is grumpy and conservative but deeply loving toward his wife. There are secrets on secrets on secrets, but the couple’s true regard for one another is a pleasure to read.

5. Madame Defarge, A Tale of Two Cities. Dickens’s Reign of Terror in the form of a lady who knits a lot. A villain who pursues the deaths of innocent people in order to work through her own (justified) grief and rage.

ralph-nickleby6. Ralph Nickleby, Nicholas NicklebyThe opposite of Betsy Trotwood: a greedy, sarcastic, selfish uncle of the title character who works at every turn to basically ruin the lives of his family. He’s a Dickens villain so you know he gets what’s coming to him, and watching it happen is very satisfying, though it does involve the lovely and helpless…

7. Smike, Nicholas Nickleby. A companion and friend of Nicholas, who he meets at a “school” where both are starved and beaten. Smike is disabled physically and mentally, and I honestly spent the rest of the book after the boys’ escape from the school just wanting him to be happy. Alas, this is Dickens, and the totally innocent often suffer the worst fates.

artful-dodger8. The Artful Dodger, Oliver Twist. SCAMP, what a scamp, and a character I’ve come to appreciate more since having my own scamps. Jack is a pickpocket who takes Oliver under his wing and soon realizes Oliver hasn’t criminal talent. Jack is smart and kind, and though he dresses and acts like an adult, his best moments are when the little boy shines through.

9. Mrs. Edith Granger Dombey, Dombey and SonsA shallow and proud woman who marries Dombey for his money and hates herself for it. Their marriage is a disaster, as Dombey is unable to control her and she is unable to stand him. Eventually, even her love for her step-daughter can’t hold her, and Edith runs off. She is such an interesting contrast to Dombey: flawed, but totally self-aware.

10. Old Krook, Bleak House. HE SPONTANEOUSLY COMBUSTS.