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Book Review: Bleak House, by Charles Dickens

Tom-all-alone, the Court of Chancery, spontaneous human combustion, an illegitimate birth, and a murder mystery in Dickens's big bleak honkin' epic.


Bleak House

Published in 1852, approx. 356,000 words, Available for free at Project Gutenberg.



First published in monthly parts from March 1852 to September 1853, this novel follows the fortunes of three pedestrian characters; Esther Summerson, Ada Clare, and Richard Carstone. The story they tell embodies Dickens' merciless indictment of the Court of Chancery and its bungling, morally corrupt handling of the endless case of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, giving the novel its scope and meaning.

Starting with Esther's account of her lonely, unhappy childhood, her role as protégée of the worthy John Jarndyce, Richard and Ada's guardian, the tale develops the relations between the three young people in the Jarndyce household. Numerous other characters contribute to the complex portrait of society which emerges from the novel. They include the romantic, effusive, and unworldly Harold Skimpole (based on Leigh Hunt, poet, journalist, and critic, who published The Examiner in which he introduced the public to Keats and Shelley); the boisterous, short-tempered Boythorn (based on Walter Savage Landor, poet and essayist, mentor to Robert Browning); Krook, the rag-and-bottle shopkeeper who dies a hideous death by 'spontaneous combustion'; Gridley and the crazed Miss Flite, both ruined by Chancery; Mrs. Jellyby, neglectful of domestic responsibilities in favor of 'telescope philanthropy'; the greasy Mr. Chadband, a parson 'of no particular denomination'; and Conversation Kenge and Mr. Vholes, lawyers both.

Of particular importance to the moral design of the novel is Jo, the crossing-sweeper whose brutish life and death are the instruments for one of Dickens' most savage judgments on an indifferent society.




I am a fan of Dickens, but this thousand-pager almost did me in. That reputation Dickens has for being really wordy and including a bunch of secondary characters and subplots that really aren't necessary, and writing to extend the number of installments in his story? (Bleak House was published in monthly installments from March 1842 until September 1853.) This is one of those books. It's huge and bloated. There are entire chapters that could be cut without really affecting the plot. But if you like Dickens, then how can you choose which characters and scenes he should have cut? There are characters who did not make much of an impression on me, like Caddy Jellyby and Prince Turveydrops, Mr. Chadband, and Volumnia Dedlock, but even minor characters are funny or pathetic or just a hoot when Dickens introduces them. Like Mrs. Pardiggle, who (like Mrs. Jellyby) is little more than a punchline to Dickens's joke about "telescopic philanthropists." But what a punchline!


"These, young ladies," said Mrs. Pardiggle with great volubility after the first salutations, "are my five boys. You may have seen their names in a printed subscription list (perhaps more than one) in the possession of our esteemed friend Mr. Jarndyce. Egbert, my eldest (twelve), is the boy who sent out his pocket-money, to the amount of five and threepence, to the Tockahoopo Indians. Oswald, my second (ten and a half), is the child who contributed two and nine-pence to the Great National Smithers Testimonial. Francis, my third (nine), one and sixpence halfpenny; Felix, my fourth (seven), eightpence to the Superannuated Widows; Alfred, my youngest (five), has voluntarily enrolled himself in the Infant Bonds of Joy, and is pledged never, through life, to use tobacco in any form."

We had never seen such dissatisfied children. It was not merely that they were weazened and shrivelled—though they were certainly that too—but they looked absolutely ferocious with discontent. At the mention of the Tockahoopo Indians, I could really have supposed Egbert to be one of the most baleful members of that tribe, he gave me such a savage frown. The face of each child, as the amount of his contribution was mentioned, darkened in a peculiarly vindictive manner, but his was by far the worst. I must except, however, the little recruit into the Infant Bonds of Joy, who was stolidly and evenly miserable.


(several paragraphs snipped....seriously, Dickens does go on...)


"They attend matins with me (very prettily done) at half-past six o'clock in the morning all the year round, including of course the depth of winter," said Mrs. Pardiggle rapidly, "and they are with me during the revolving duties of the day. I am a School lady, I am a Visiting lady, I am a Reading lady, I am a Distributing lady; I am on the local Linen Box Committee and many general committees; and my canvassing alone is very extensive—perhaps no one's more so. But they are my companions everywhere; and by these means they acquire that knowledge of the poor, and that capacity of doing charitable business in general—in short, that taste for the sort of thing—which will render them in after life a service to their neighbours and a satisfaction to themselves. My young family are not frivolous; they expend the entire amount of their allowance in subscriptions, under my direction; and they have attended as many public meetings and listened to as many lectures, orations, and discussions as generally fall to the lot of few grown people. Alfred (five), who, as I mentioned, has of his own election joined the Infant Bonds of Joy, was one of the very few children who manifested consciousness on that occasion after a fervid address of two hours from the chairman of the evening."

Alfred glowered at us as if he never could, or would, forgive the injury of that night.



What Bleak House is actually about is the Court of Chancery, which was England's equity court back in the 19th century. You can learn all you want to know about equity courts on Wikipedia, but basically, the Chancery settled disputes over things like wills and land deeds, and in Dickens's day, it had a reputation for being ridiculously slow, bureaucratic, inefficient, corrupt, and primarily a vehicle for lawyers to squeeze every last penny out of their clients while dragging endless cases interminably on.

Completely unlike today, of course.

Our protagonist, Esther Summerson, is the only first-person female narrator Dickens ever wrote. Bleak House is notable in that Dickens actually switched between a third-person omniscient narrator for some chapters (allowing him to show us scenes that don't involve Esther, and giving him his beloved authorial soapbox) and Esther's narration of her own tale. Esther grew up with a harsh aunt who told her nothing about her parents except that she was "her mother's disgrace." When her aunt passes away, Esther is brought to Bleak House, the home of John Jarndyce, to serve as companion for his young ward Ada Clare. Ada and her cousin Richard are both named in the case of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, which has been going on literally for generations.


Jarndyce and Jarndyce drones on. This scarecrow of a suit has, in course of time, become so complicated that no man alive knows what it means. The parties to it understand it least, but it has been observed that no two Chancery lawyers can talk about it for five minutes without coming to a total disagreement as to all the premises. Innumerable children have been born into the cause; innumerable old people have died out of it. Scores of persons have deliriously found themselves made parties in Jarndyce and Jarndyce without knowing how or why; whole families have inherited legendary hatreds with the suit. The little plaintiff or defendant who was promised a new rocking-horse when Jarndyce and Jarndyce should be settled has grown up, possessed himself of a real horse, and trotted away into the other world. Fair wards of court have faded into mothers and grandmothers; a long procession of Chancellors has come in and gone out; the legion of bills in the suit have been transformed into mere bills of mortality; there are not three Jarndyces left upon the earth perhaps since old Tom Jarndyce in despair blew his brains out at a coffee-house in Chancery Lane; but Jarndyce and Jarndyce still drags its dreary length before the court, perennially hopeless.


Someday, supposedly, the outcome will be determined and someone will inherit the Jarndyce fortune. John Jarndyce calls it "the family curse" and begs Ada and Richard to put it out of their minds and never rely on ever seeing the case settled. Naturally, his wise words go unheeded, leading to much tragedy.

Dickens was a ferocious critic of Victorian society - hardly a radical, but definitely a reformer with a humanitarian bent. His novels are credited with having pushed a fair amount of social reform in his time, and Bleak House was his broadside against the Court of Chancery and the law in general. The legal profession in his own day did not much appreciate what they considered to be an unfair mischaracterization of the practice of law, and I could not help noticing while browsing reviews on Amazon and Goodreads that there were a number of negative reviews from... lawyers.

Bleak House is not, however, a legal drama. The case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce is just a plot device and nobody actually cares about the legal issues. Instead, the novel swirls around a number of themes and subplots. We are introduced to a constantly growing cast of major and minor characters, from wealthy, bored Lady Dedlock and her paleolithic older husband Sir Leicester to John Jarndyce's "childlike" (but in actuality, selfish, opportunistic, and lazy) friend Harold Skimpole, who starts out as comical and becomes only despicable. The "villain" of the book comes in the form of Mr. Tulkinghorn, Sir Leicester's lawyer representing him in the case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce.

Describing all the notable characters and subplots would take pages in itself; this is a big book. So suffice it to say that it's half about Esther and her parentage and the eventual resolution of her life arc, and half about Jarndyce and Jarndyce and the havoc it (and by extension, the law) wreaks on countless lives, great and small. There are noble and petty and villainous characters throughout the book coming from all walks of life: the wealthy Dedlocks and Jarndyces, Jo the homeless street sweeper and Charley, the 13-year-old girl trying to singlehandedly keep herself and her younger siblings out of an orphanage, and the middle class Snagsbys and Chadbands and Jellybys and other deliciously Dickensian characters. At the end there is a murder mystery, investigated by Inspector Bucket; for this reason, Bleak House is also credited with being one of the earliest detective novels.

If you read Bleak House for the suspense, however, you will be disappointed. Most of the "mysteries," from Esther's parentage to the identity of the murderer whom Inspector Bucket seeks to the final disposition of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, to the romantic resolutions, do not come as much of a surprise. Dickens did many things well, but surprising plot twists isn't one of them. He relied a lot on coincidences, which he kind of had to in a book like this if all his dozens of characters were to be connected in some fashion, but you read Dickens for the prose and the characters and the unique, critical, often satirical observations about Victorian England. The plotting, not so much. (My opinion is that the bigger his books got, the worse the plotting.)

So numerous were the subplots and tangents in this book that to be perfectly honest, I zoned out at times. There were details I missed on my first pass, and only after watching the TV adaptations (below), did I say, "Oh, right, that's why so-and-so was there."

(This is not a usual thing for me; I read lots of big books and catch all the details fine. But Dickens can do that to you. Maybe I just wasn't in a Dickens mood.)

I haven't read a Dickens book yet that I didn't like, but although some people consider Bleak House his masterpiece, it's not my favorite. There were memorable characters, but I did not think they were as memorable (or as funny) as, say, Mr. Micawber, Uriah Heep and Betsey Trotwood, from David Copperfield, or Magwitch and Miss Havisham from Great Expectations. Also, Dickens does not write women well; not as secondary characters, and certainly not as first-person narrators. Esther Summerson is the very model of feminine perfection: throughout the novel, she does not express a single unkind or negative thought, nor does she ever react in any way other than selflessly and wisely. I'll give Dickens credit for aborting the skeevy older-dude-marries-his-young-protege storyline at the last minute, and even having said older dude realize that this was kind of skeevy, but still... Dickens tried to be fair to the fairer sex, but he just couldn't see them as anything other than the fairer sex, up on that thar pedestal.

But Dickens is an author I give a lot of slack to. Even if he also has a habit of killing characters whenever he needs to jerk some tears or deliver a moral lesson.


Dead, your Majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen. Dead, right reverends and wrong reverends of every order. Dead, men and women, born with heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us every day.


One more amusing historical factoid: Dickens kills off a character in Bleak House with spontaneous human combustion. Yup, the dude was just so wicked he bursts into flames when the plot needs him to die.

Dickens got some flack for this from skeptics, and slightly butthurt, responded in a preface to his next edition with a list of supposedly historical cases of spontaneous human combustion. But then he admitted:


In Bleak House I have purposely dwelt upon the romantic side of familiar things.


Try to fit this one in a 2-hour movie



Bleak House really needs a long miniseries to come close to telling all of Dickens's tale, and so far there have been two, both from the BBC.

Bleak House (1985)


Bleak House (1985>

This 8-episode serial starring Diana Rigg as Lady Dedlock was really, really good. I have not always been impressed by BBC adaptations of classic novels; some are good, some are bad, most are fairly faithful to the book, but few really seem to get the tone and characters right and most make unfortunate cuts from the novel. The total running time of this 1985 serial is about 7 hours, which still wasn't enough to include all of Dickens's novel, but it was enough to include most of it. The actors all came alive right off the page -- in some cases (like Esther), more alive than Dickens wrote them. And where the miniseries condensed one of Dickens's wordy scenes into a few lines of dialog, it generally did so with great judiciousness; one would hardly realize what one missed by not reading the book. It made the funny parts funny and the tragic parts tragic.

Bleak House (2005)



Bleak House (2005>

Very similar in length and format to the first series (8 episodes, 52 minutes each), the visual appearance of this 2005 miniseries is also similar to the first, but the pacing immediately distinguishes the style of 21st century television from the 1980s; everything is faster, the scenes shorter, the camera zooms around more, and there is an attempt to make it more of a gothic drama, starting in the first scene with a sinister team of screaming horses pounding through the woods as if something of great and dire consequences is about to unfold... when in fact, it's just Esther Summerson being brought to London.

These two series were so much alike that the differences became more stark. It was an instructive study in how television audiences have changed in 20 years. The 2005 miniseries uses Dickens's plot twists as blunt instruments, whereas the 1985 miniseries let the audience infer more without having it spelled out for them. 2005's Mr. Tulkinghorn is pure smirking evil, whereas 1985's Tulkinghorn was the cold and businesslike but basically honest (if heartless) predator of Dickens's novel. In the 2005 version, events happen with greater suddenness and drama, characters explain plot points for the benefit of the audience, and the director added a lot of direct confrontations between characters who mostly dealt with each other indirectly in the book. The extra exposition gives one the impression that between 1985 and 2005, television audiences became dumber and developed shorter attention spans.

This is not to say that the 2005 production was bad: it's actually pretty good, and did justice to Dickens's novel. But in my opinion, it was unnecessary; the 1985 version was better and equally complete.



Verdict: An indictment of the Victorian legal system and society's discarding of all the poor, impoverished Tom-all-alones, Bleak House is one of Dickens's longer novels and requires some stamina to get through. I would not recommend it as a "starter" Dickens, but it's a complicated epic that's got everything that makes a Dickens novel great: humor, pathos, satire, and romance. (The romance, Dickens was usually better leaving alone.) There just may be a bit too much of it. I view Charles Dickens much like Stephen King (and I consider that in no way disparaging to either author): great tale-tellers who sometimes write much more than they need to to tell the tale, and yet you can't actually point to any parts that aren't entertaining.

Also by Charles Dickens: My reviews of A Tale of Two Cities, David Copperfield, and Great Expectations.

Bleak House is on the list of 1001 novels you must read before you die, but I did not read it as part of the books1001 challenge.
Tags: books, books1001, charles dickens, literary, movies, netflix, reviews
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