Walking into the wrong lecture theatre at the University of York in the spring of 1974, I found myself listening to a dramatised reading of Dickens's 'Bleak House' by a bearded lecturer who took the parts of Mr Chadband and Little Jo the crossing sweeper. Having "done" 'Oliver Twist' and 'David Copperfield' at school, I had no idea that later Dickens novels were masterpieces of attacks on hypocrisy, religion and the charitable classes. I went straight home and read the novel, which came with an introduction by the American academic J Hillis Miller.
It begins with fog and mud, surely the greatest description of London in the English language as climate turns into metaphor, the Circumlocution Office. 'Bleak House' is in my view the 19th-century's first 20th-century novel, playing with unreliable narrators, point of view, introducing fiction's first detective, Mr Bucket. For Hillis Miller it is one of the first texts to reward a semiotic analysis.
When I was at York, Dickens was out of fashion. FR Leavis's 'Great Tradition' had declared that only his minor work, 'Hard Times', was fit to enter the canon. Henry James was praised for his psychological realism, Dickens condemned for his cardboard caricatures who danced towards you demanding attention with their physical traits, their noses and foreheads and hatpins. But the New Criticism argued that signs are all we have to go on, that we are all unknowable, and the interior life of another is never accessible to us.
These arguments in critical theory which gave way to full-blown structuralism and destroyed any pleasure in imaginative fiction - as far as I was concerned - still left me with a lifetime's re-reading of what I still adamantly insist is the greatest novel of the Victorian age - and the greatest novel of the city, any city. It teems with lives both hopeful and thwarted in all aspects of society. Melodramatic at times, sometimes raising its voice in anger to berate the cruelty of the age, it still remains the most vivid act of storytelling.
A couple of years later, embarking on an MA, I decided to write a thesis on Dickens's cinematic techniques. He is the most visual of novelists and the film director Eisenstein would note how much DW Griffith had borrowed from him in laying down the language of the new medium. I read and re-read the late novels, the achievements of his career: 'Bleak House', 'Dombey and Son' and 'Little Dorritt'. They remind me of the late blooming of Philip Roth in his own quintet of large novels, 'Sabbath's Theater', 'American Pastoral', 'The Human Stain', 'I Married a Communist' and 'The Plot Against America'. Both authors have a whole society in their viewfinder. Did Dickens, the former hack, know what he was doing? Would he have understood Hillis Miller's introduction? I don't know. But the complex pleasures of 'Bleak House' go on and on revealing themselves.
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