Book Review: Bleak House by Charles Dickens

I started this book in December 2012 knowing full well that it would last me part of the winter, and it has.  Lovely.  A little bit of reading each night is so comforting–especially between the covers of Dickens!  Some nights I would  read 10 pages, sometimes I read 22 pages–I let it flow the way it wanted each evening.

Bleak House was published in 1853 and Dickens was not yet forty years old.   But he was an established writer with the success of Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist and David Copperfield already.  In this novel, Dickens blasts the mockery and skullduggery of the court system in England.   The cases of wills and estates and trusts that drag through the “Chancery Court” exhaust the parties of the hopeful while the attorneys and clerks and assorted aides produce much paperwork, little accomplishment.  Often the costs of the cases brought to court used up any gain the estate might have left for heirs.  So, with that background in mind, we proceed to read the 989 pages of text to see how it turns out!

The main characters are Sir Leicester and Lady Honoria Dedlock; Esther Summerson; Ada Clare; Richard Carstone; Mr. Jarndyce and perhaps the first detective in a novel, Mr. Bucket.

And then there are the other 100 characters!  Gosh, you’ll love them all.  I’m lucky enough to have a handy reference book that I bought secondhand in Missouri—“Who’s Who in Dickens”.

click to enlarge

click to enlarge

And boy, is that a godsend when a character is brought back in whom you haven’t read about in 300 pages.  One little drawback is that sometimes they say “Mr. Hooeyup marries Harriet” or something—bit of a spoiler alert.

Favorite characters, you ask?   Well, I going to give the honors to the Smallweeds.  They are an old couple—old and frail—who never leave their chairs–can’t.  She’s just about left this earth and is often dottering “near and into the fire”.  She mainly is interested in clicking the trivets on the hearth, but will become alert when someone mentions a number.  Then she rants on and on with a string of her own numbers . . .  When Mr. Smallweed gets especially annoyed with her, he throws a pillow at her–he can’t get up–to stifle her and calls her a “brimstone chatterer, jade of a magpie, jackdaw, and poll-parrot”, and so on.  Then he’s exhausted and must be “shaken up” to redistribute himself in his chair.

the Smallweeds in Bleak House; illustrator Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz) (click to enlarge)

the Smallweeds in Bleak House; illustrator Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz) (click to enlarge)

That’s just some of the general silliness Dickens includes even when he’s writing about a serious subject.

Another amusing character is Phil Squod, who is a servant.  He has the odd habit of walking around the SIDES of the room, leaning and bumping as he goes.  And so, if he is
in the midst of serving breakfast for instance, it takes quite a while making the trips back and forth to the table when he needs to go all around the sides of the room to the kitchen and then back again to serve at the dining table.  Fun and nonsense.

The other serious theme in Bleak House is the condition of the poor of London.  Little Jo is a sweeper who is an orphan–and has no one to care for him.  He is always being thought of as a nuisance and the constables tell him to “move on”.  But where to? wonders Little Jo, for he has no where to go.

In Bleak House Little Jo lives in an unspeakably poor area— known as Tom-all-Alone’s—-(nearly the title chosen for the book.)  Dickens points out that although many of those in power profess to want to do something about the poor and downtrodden and their slumlike areas, nothing is done in practice.  But the poor have their revenge–upper classes may keep them held low, but their revenge is illness/smallpox spread to rich and poor alike.   The winds are the messengers.    For in London, “when the East End sneezes, the West End catches a cold”, if not worse.  We infect each other.  There is more than a touch of self-interest in the notion that if we don’t help the destitute, they may well prove to be the death of us.  In Bleak House, Little Jo unknowingly “gives” smallpox to Esther Summerson who is being kind to him.

Well, the story in a nutshell (impossible) is that Esther and Ada and Richard are wards of the court and Mr. Jarndyce is their guardian.    Esther was brought up by a godmother, she thought, a strict woman who was so good herself that Esther knew she herself was an unworthy child.  There, that’s a great beginning for a child, hm?

Ada and Richard are distant cousins and fall in love.  They are due to come into a fortune when a will is processed.
Trouble is, it’s being processed through Chancery Court.  Richard never finds footing in a profession and spends all his time following the case with his slack attorney Mr. Vholes: “My health is not good, my digestion being much impaired.”  (not of general interest!)

Esther finds out who her real mother is—-scandal is in the wings . . .then there is a murder.  Our Mr. Bucket may be the first detective to appear in a Victorian novel.  I like the part that Mr. Bucket has thinning hair “after his life of severe study.”

One of the nicest parts of Bleak House is when Sir Leicester defends his love for Lady Dedlock, proving himself a most honorable man and gentleman.

There is a quiet love storyline with Esther and several proposals, but I won’t be the one to tell you what happens there.   There are several parts of the book that are “Esther’s narrative” and that’s a new twist for Dickens–handing over some of the storytelling to a female character.  I didn’t find it particularly strong or moving, but it did make the story move along well.

And I will tell you that after 989 pages, Richard’s case –well, I think I won’t tell you how it turns out—   But I thought it was ridiculous–  and that’s what Dickens wanted me to think.

Penguin Classics Edition; cover art is a detail fromWaterloo Lake, Roundhay Park, Leeds by Atkinson Grimshaw c. 1829

Penguin Classics Edition; cover art is a detail fromWaterloo Lake, Roundhay Park, Leeds by Atkinson Grimshaw c. 1829

I can’t finish this review without mentioning the opening paragraph of the book–describing the fog of London.  When you read it, you are immediately brought into the book and the whole atmosphere—-brilliant.  The lonely solitude of the fog—yet it’s the fog that unifies all of London.

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2 Responses to Book Review: Bleak House by Charles Dickens

  1. Alex says:

    I love this book, it’s one of my three favourite Dickens’ novels (the others being ‘Little Dorrit’ and ‘Our Mutual Friend’). I’m so glad you enjoyed it and also glad you mentioned the fog passage, which is one of the most incredibly crafted pieces of writing I know made up almost entirely of non-finite clauses, clauses which have no clear boundaries, just like the fog.

  2. Thanks for your comment. I appreciate your input and viewpoints.

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