Brad Leithauser is reading all of Dickens, which seems to me an admirable thing to do. He has a clear idea of what Dickens’s greatest achievement is:
Finally, there’s “David Copperfield.” It was Dickens’s own favorite among his novels and remains for me an achievement beyond the rest. Surely no other novel, ever, has offered a richer cast. Had “Copperfield” introduced no memorable character besides Mr. Micawber, it would still be a book of lasting worth. But in addition we have the oozily unctuous Uriah Heep; the flighty yet staunch-souled Aunt Betsey; the doomed, callow, beautiful Dora, who, before her premature death, comes piercingly to understand her callowness; the justice-obsessed and yet unbearably vicious stepfather, Edward Murdstone…. The list goes on and on.
David Copperfield is unquestionably a major achievement, and it’s understandable why Dickens was so fond of it: it is perhaps his most autobiographical novel, and David is Dickens’s self-idealization. But his greatest novel, and one of the two or three greatest novels in English, is Bleak House.
Bleak House has everything: a cast of characters not discernibly less comprehensive than that of Copperfield; a great mystery story at its heart, featuring one of the first detectives in English fiction, Inspector Bucket; a brilliant and vicious satire on the law; coverage of the whole range of English society, from its height (Sir Leicester Dedlock) to its depths (Jo the crossing-sweeper), with a demonstration of their inevitable intertwining; spontaneous human combustion; characters of exceptionally vivid eccentricity, including, to cite but one example, Mis Flite (who “expects a judgment shortly” from the Court of Chancery) and her collection of pet birds, whom she has named “Hope, Joy, Youth, Peace, Rest, Life, Dust, Ashes, Waste, Want, Ruin, Despair, Madness, Death, Cunning, Folly, Words, Wigs, Rags, Sheepskin, Plunder, Precedent, Jargon, Gammon, and Spinach.”
And most remarkable of all: Dickens’s decision to divide the telling of this vast story between two radically contrasting narrators, an unnamed, sardonic, cynical, and knowing one and the simple and innocent Esther Summerson. Here is the former describing Lady Dedlock:
She has beauty still, and if it be not in its heyday, it is not yet in its autumn. She has a fine face — originally of a character that would be rather called very pretty than handsome, but improved into classicality by the acquired expression of her fashionable state. Her figure is elegant and has the effect of being tall. Not that she is so, but that “the most is made,” as the Honourable Bob Stables has frequently asserted upon oath, “of all her points.” The same authority observes that she is perfectly got up and remarks in commendation of her hair especially that she is the best-groomed woman in the whole stud.
This is all we learn of the Honourable Bob Stables, though his opinions are similarly cited at several points. And here is Esther as she explains to the “militantly charitable” Mrs. Pardiggle why she is not inclined to accompany that formidable lady on her “rounds” among the poor:
At first I tried to excuse myself for the present on the general ground of having occupations to attend to which I must not neglect. But as this was an ineffectual protest, I then said, more particularly, that I was not sure of my qualifications. That I was inexperienced in the art of adapting my mind to minds very differently situated, and addressing them from suitable points of view. That I had not that delicate knowledge of the heart which must be essential to such a work. That I had much to learn, myself, before I could teach others, and that I could not confide in my good intentions alone. For these reasons I thought it best to be as useful as I could, and to render what kind services I could to those immediately about me, and to try to let that circle of duty gradually and naturally expand itself. All this I said with anything but confidence, because Mrs. Pardiggle was much older than I, and had great experience, and was so very military in her manners.
The shifting of narrative perspective between these two is one of the wonders of novelistic storytelling. Indeed it is simply a wondrous book. Please read it.