It’s hard to summarize in a line or two what Bleak House by Charles Dickens is about, as there are several story lines going on at the same time. In fact, it is a little hard to get into at first because, like A Tale of Two Cities, different strands of the whole are mentioned individually at first and not woven together until several chapters in (as opposed to David Copperfield, which starts at the beginning with David’s birth and progresses from there.) SparkNotes helped a lot with the early chapters, although I’d advise against reading the character list or overview until after you are well into the story due to spoilers (ditto with the Wikipedia article on the book). I followed the individual chapter discussions and analysis on Sparknotes.
The point of view switches back and forth from a third person present tense narrator to a first person past tense narrative of Esther, one of the main characters. From what little I’ve read Dickens was praised by some and criticized by others for this. The two viewpoints do give us the advantage of two perspectives and I enjoyed hearing both.
One strand of the story is the case of Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce which has been languishing in the Court of Chancery for years. Dickens based the Chancery on the real-life one, and the opening foggy scenes are symbolic of it. One note said the Jarndyce case was based on a real one that went on for 53 years. We’re not really told what the case is about except that the inheritance of some of the characters are tied up in it. John Jarndyce himself has given up on it and wants no more to do with it.
Another strand of the story involves bored, cold, haughty Lady Dedlock, whose demeanor, we discover, hides a secret sorrow and then a secret fear.
Another involves Esther Summerson, an orphaned girl who was raised by her aunt until the aunt dies, then sent to school, then asked by John Jarndyce to become a companion to his niece, Ada, who had become his ward as well as a nephew, Richard. Esther shares the narrative at points, and one of the interesting things about the writing is how her voice seems faltering at first (she claims she is not clever) and then gains confidence as she goes on.
Ada and Richard fall in love, which pleases Mr. Jarndyce, but he urges Richard to choose a profession before the relationship goes any further. Richard is affable and likable but doesn’t have any clear interests. He tries apprenticing at a few different professions before ending up in the military. However, after visiting the Chancery one day, he gets caught up in the Jarndyce case, and it becomes the focus of his life, despite his guardian’s warnings against pinning his hopes on the outcome of a case that could go on for years.
Another strand involves the poor of the town, particularly a mother, Jenny, whose baby dies, and a boy named Jo who is apparently homeless and constantly being told to “move on.” Others involve a somewhat flighty lady named Miss Flite who has been waiting for years for her own settlement and the noble soldier George Rouncewell.
One of Dickens’ skills is creating memorable characters, and there are some four dozen in this book. There is Mrs. Jellyby, caught up in the cause of Borrioboola-Gha in Africa while severely neglecting her own family. Inspector Bucket was based upon a real Scotland Yard detective and is reputed to be one of the first detectives in English literature. Mr Skimpole, whom I did not like, was also based on a real person (who evidently did not take kindly to the portrayal.) He calls himself “a child,” especially in business or money matters, but something about him seemed not quite right to me, which proved to be the case. He did not have the same endearing qualities as the feeble-minded Mr. Dick of David Copperfield.
There are different kinds of love portrayed – romantic, familial, friendship. If I can say this without giving away a major plot point, the Dedlocks certainly don’t seem the epitome of a warm and loving couple, but his response late in the novel showed he loved her deeply. I particularly loved the Bagnets and his calling her “the old girl” and asking her to tell his opinions. One of my favorite scenes was her birthday when the family was making her dinner while she tried to subtly signal to her daughters to add more of this, less of that, and nothing was done the way she would have done it herself, but she endured with grace out of love for them and their efforts. There are a couple of mysteries, including a murder. There is a case of spontaneous combustion, which Dickens was severely criticized for including, but he countered that at the time he wrote it was thought to be a real phenomenon. There are different people affected by the Chancery, mostly negatively. There are observations of social injustice. There is sadness and joy and humor. There are a lot of secrets causing varying degrees of sorrow to those involved. There are a variety of reconciliations, a couple of them sorely delayed due to pride and shame, and the most heartbreaking is the one that did not occur but could have.
Esther’s story did end up where I hoped it would. One of the oddest things in the story (minor spoiler alert) was when her guardian proposed. That seemed a little creepy to me, but he releases her from the engagement later on. Another favorite scene is after he proposes, when Esther is in her room brushing her hair, determining to make him very happy, but crying, for reasons which she doesn’t quite know – or at least doesn’t tell the reader, but the reader guesses. It’s not a favorite scene because she is crying but because of Dickens’ way of showing what was going on in her heart without spelling it out.
I have heard the 2005 BBC production is really good and would like to see it some time. Here is a trailer for it:
But as it is over 8 hours long, I might have to wait for a heap of ironing or some sick days or summer break when there is nothing else on.
I listened to the audiobook narrated by Peter Batchelor but dipped into the hard copy at points and read its introduction and afterword as well.
Some say this is Dickens’ best; some disagree. I think it is masterfully written and I enjoyed it a lot (especially the last third or so of it), but I liked A Tale of Two Cities and David Copperfield much better. Dickens’ books usually improve upon rereading, though, so next time I visit Bleak House I might enjoy it even more.
(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)
This also completes one of my requirements for the Back to the Classics Challenge hosted by Karen at Books and Chocolate.