If you're like me, you like well-written books but you're a little skeptical about classics. The question in your mind while reading reviews is something like: "Okay, so it's great literature, so it paints a complex portrait of mid-19th-century England, that's great and all, but is it FUN? Will I actually enjoy my time with this book?"
My answer is yes.
So I'll talk about the plot. It's not a fast-paced modern thriller, but it is fun and engaging. There are mysteries and secret identities and midnight dashes across the countryside. There are murders and suicides and spontaneous combustions (okay, one of those). There is a court case at the center of the plot, but the book is about so much more than that. It's a complicated, sprawling story, and at times you'll wonder how all this could possibly fit together, but in the end it does so remarkably well. So don't worry about being entertained.
Dickens is famous for his vivid characterization, and Bleak House is no disappointment in that regard, either; even the minor characters are colorful. About half of this book is narrated in first person by Esther Summerson, and the other half by an omniscient third-person narrator, and at first I found Esther cloying. But she gets better. Dickens keeps in mind her limitations as a narrator and often makes us read between the lines and come to our own conclusions--too bad more authors don't give readers this much credit. At any rate, in the end I found Esther convincing and more complex than she initially appears. Most of the other important characters are also excellently drawn (Sir Leicester and Inspector Bucket stand out), although a few (like Ada) are oddly flat given their prominence. My biggest reservation while reading this book was that some of the minor players are characterized almost entirely by their eccentricities, and as a result seem so bizarre that I wondered how they could function in the everyday world--but in the end, I was convinced.
Many people have criticized Dickens's female characters, and yes, he does idealize the housewifely types, while women with other preoccupations don't come across so well. But I'm just not worked up about it; although he was writing in the mid-19th-century, he has female characters with strong personalities and positive, plot-relevant relationships with each other, which puts him miles ahead of even many modern male authors.
The writing itself is very good and yet accessible by 19th-century standards; while slower going than modern novels, it's clear and non-pretentious. I also enjoyed the detailed setting and vivid descriptions, which provide a full picture of Victorian England without bringing the plot to a halt.
Finally, there's lots of social commentary in this book, addressing everything from domestic violence to self-absorbed "do-gooders" who produce more noise than results. It speaks either very well of Dickens, or very poorly of humanity (perhaps both?) that so much of this is just as relevant today as in 1853. Reading this for the first time as a law student meant I found the legal aspects especially interesting, as well. One scene in particular stands out, in which Esther observes proceedings in the Court of Chancery. She knows it's widely disparaged and that these lawsuits ruin people's lives, but what she sees is everything running smoothly and everyone getting along well, with no acknowledgement of the real-life consequences or the wider picture. It's a disconnect that's just as jarring in the modern world--definitely food for thought.
Overall, I found this book enjoyable, insightful and good literature. The Barnes & Noble Classics edition has some helpful footnotes, although its endnotes are generally useless and too frequent. The length may seem daunting, but it's absolutely worth the effort. This is definitely my favorite of the four Dickens novels I've read, and one of my favorite classics, period.