by Charles Dickens
published serially 1852-1853
I don't think you can spend too much time on Charles Dickens. There is a good argument that he is the second best English language Author of all time (1: Shakespeare.) There is also a good argument that his Novels represent the high point of the Novel as an Art Form, unsurpassed by all that is to follow.
Within his major works, David Copperfield and Bleak House stand out. David Copperfield because it was the Authors "favorite" and contained a mass of semi-biographical material, Bleak House because it is his Artistic masterpiece, his Super Bowl season, as it were, where he sweeps all before him with a command of the form and content of his art.
If you compare the relative popularity of David Copperfield, Bleak House, Great Expectations and Our Mutual Friend, you can see some trends in Audience size that cut cross all the works from the date of publication until 2000. (1) First, all of Dickens major works were popular upon publication. There is a steady rise in the size of the Audience between the mid 19th century and the early 20th century. There was a noticeable dip between 1910 and 1920. After 1920 there is a more recognizable wave form, with Audience size always rising up until today. (2) Historically, David Copperfield has been the most popular Dickens titles, but all the books except Our Mutual Friend are moving jointly within a close band of popularity.(3)
However what is interesting about the Audience reception of David Copperfield and Bleak House is the lack of appreciation, by critics, of Bleak House (and David Copperfield) as a "serious" work of Art. (4) Today, Bleak House is widely regarded as the most interesting of Dickens books by critics & scholars, but a real breakthrough wasn't achieved until the 1950s and 60s, when a huge marketplace in books analyzing Charles Dickens arose.(5)
Dickens wasn't fully "approved" for canonical status until the mid 20th century, but he demonstrated his staying power by maintaining popular appeal that entire time. The BBC has made Bleak House into a mini series on three separate occasions: 1959, 1985 and 2005.
|Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock|
Bleak House is, "structured with a daring double narrative and centered on institutional satire, it is technically his most ambitious novel." The two narrators are an omniscient third party narrator and Esther Summerson, the "hero" of Bleak House. Esther is the unacknowledged daughter of the imperious Lady Dedlock (played by X-Files star Gillian Anderson in the 2005 adaptation by the BBC.) The machinations and sub plots consume 800 pages plus in paperback, but there isn't a dull moment along the way. No wonder it has remained so popular with readers and critics alike.
The story is centered around the Chancery suit of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, a contest over a will that is on the verge of consuming the resources of the entire estate being litigated in Chancery Court. Chancery Court was a special kind of Court they had in England that decided questions "in Equity," as supposed to questions that were settled at law- a will vs. a murder. Chancery Court had a bad rap, and Dickens mercilessly destroys Chancery Court as an institution during the course of Bleak House.
|Gillian Anderson as Miss Havisham in Great Expectations.|
This darkness gives Bleak House a modern edge that his earlier novels, including David Copperfield, lack. The wicked portrayal of "man-child" Harold Skimpole is still relevant to the bro/lad culture of today, and Skimpole is but one of fifty richly drawn characters.
(1) Google Ngram David Copperfield, Bleak House, Great Expectations and Our Mutual Friend
(4) Contemporary reviews of Dickens books, "illustrate a widespread assumption about the inferiority of the Novel [as an Art form.]" p. 154, Victorian Noon: English Literature in 1850 by Carl Dawson, published by The Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore 1979.)
(5) "The book's critical fortunes remained low with, for example, both George Gissing and G.K. Chesterton unimpressed, until Humphry House (1941) celebrated its vision of Victorain soceity, Lionel Stevenson identified Bleak House as the first of Dickens "dark" novels (1943), and John Butt and Kathleen Tillotson (1957) documented the topicality of the books concerns. Since then Bleak House has attracted more critical attention than any other of Dickens works." Oxford Reader's Companion to Dickens edited by Paul Schlicke, published by Oxford University Press (London 1999)