I read Charles Dickens because I know I will love his characters; it's been weeks since I finished Bleak House and whenever I see the cover of the book, or my mind slips for a moment into thoughts of reading, Esther, Mr. Jarndyce, and Jo force their way into my life and make themselves comfortable.
I've not read everything Dickens wrote, though I intend to try, and choosing what to try next is a painful process. I suppose the reasons are obvious; the main one is that the books are thick and take large amounts of brain power to digest (I hate that word in regard to books - digest. As though I could consume even one page containing someone like Lady Dedlock. So I'll say his books take large amounts of brain power to engage. Better). The point is I have to choose what I read carefully.
And so, when I chose to read Bleak House, I chose it because I first read some criticism on the book by an author I admire: G.K. Chesterton. It only took one sentence, and in that sentence Chesterton said he believed Bleak House to be Dickens's best novel.
So I read it. Eight weeks later, approximately one week per one hundred pages, I'm not sure it is the best Dickens novel - but deciding that wasn't my objective in reading the book. As I said, I read Dickens to live with his characters, to invite them into my daily life as I invade theirs.
When I was done with Bleak House, I read Chesterton's full introduction to it, the same one that inspired my choice. And mostly, I have to disagree. The novel may very well be the best Dickens wrote; the fog of Chancery may seep into every crevice of every setting, and indeed, it does. However, the emphasis Chesterton puts on Richard and his development, or rather his falling apart, seems lacking. Richard occupies an important part of the story, but it's not the essence, the fullness of the story.
And, to give Chesterton a break, who can capture the fullness of a Dickens novel in ten pages? Nor will I in one post.
My point is this: how can I judge a whole novel on one character - not to mention a densely populated Dickens novel? The other characters cry out, "What about us?"
What about the Lady Dedlock and her pride? One dislikes the very room she's in, her distaste for everyone is so appalling. Yet, there she is, later in the book, taking my attention and making me see her cold nature for what it is: shame, honor, and love.
What about the Lord of the Dedlock house? Dickens creates the ass of a man simply to turn us once again when the events surrounding his fleeing wife only evoke pain in his proud heart - pain that is deepened because of his blindness and ignorance toward her. Forgiveness becomes his namesake.
And what about Sir George? The law-writer with no name? Esther? What about Caddy and her long-suffering?
Books could be written about the depths of human nature scraped from each and every character, and it's doubtful I'll forget any of them. The best novel of Charles Dickens? I don't know, but I do know this: Dickens didn't just write novels, he created an artful copy of humanity that no one should miss.