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Dickens at his greatest.
on January 3, 2006
Nothing in Dickens prepares us for the greatness of Bleak House, asserts Norrie Epstein in the superb Penguin book, The Friendly Dickens. I couldn't agree with Epstein more. That writer even goes on, amazingly, to describe this novel as "the jewel in the crown of 19th century English literature." Wow! I guess that's liking something!
My own opinion is that, if Dickens had never written anything else, he would still have deserved his final resting place beneath the floor of Westminster Abbey. I returned to Dickens at a stage in my life when I have time now to do so, having read nothing by him since the three required novels of my high-school days. It's an understatement to say that I enjoyed it hugely.
Bleak House, while not a very well-known Dickens novel, is frequently described as his greatest. Now in his early 40s, he seems to me to have reached the height of his creative genius, the peak of his writing and imaginative power. Time and again throughout Bleak House, I found myself stopping, backing up, and re-reading a sentence or a paragraph, and reveling in delight at the almost miraculous language, the imagery and the command and the brilliance of a first-class craftsman.
In a book of almost 1000 pages, we meet a large number of characters, from the pathetic to the unbearable, to the elevated and the admirable. As elsewhere, Dickens has characters' names do much of his work for him--names such as Lady Dedlock, Mr Smallweed and Mr Krook are a treat. The Penguin Classics version I bought from Amazon is clean and readable, with notes at the back for difficult or unusual references. This edition includes the original 1852/53 sketches as illustrations throughout the text, and we are even shown where Dickens started and ended the installments to be mailed to those lucky subscribers each month. Pages of Dickens's working and planning notes are thrown in at the back for good measure.
So read it and enjoy it; the 19th Century novel doesn't come any better than this--rank heresy, I know, from someone who grew up only two miles from Haworth Parsonage. As expected from Dickens, we are treated to a social and economic history lesson as part of the ride--again a treat for someone who specialized in economic history at the London School of Economics--in a novel apparently set in the late 1830s, and mostly in London (but only mostly).
(If the book isn't enough for you, a DVD version of the Bleak House serial that has just run on BBC television in the UK will be available after Feb28/06 at an attractive Amazon price, and can be pre-ordered already--I know it because I've done it.)