Bleak House by Charles Dickens

I’ve read a lot of Trollope this year; indeed I think I’ve fallen in love with his writing this year. But after four big books, the first four Palliser novels, I realised that I needed a change, that I needed to read a big Victorian novel written by someone entirely different.

There were lots of reasons why I picked up ‘Bleak House.’ It was on my Classics Club list, I try to read one Dickens novel a year, it’s a book that any people seem to love ….

Now it’s the book that made me love Dickens, and the book that made me understand why he is held in such high esteem.

You see, reading Dickens after Trollope led me to compare the two – very different – authors and to appreciate what each man did.

Trollope took me by the hand and pulled me into his world, introducing me to people, telling me about them, so that I came to know all of them, all of their lives, all of their entanglements.

Dickens, on the other hand, took me into the most wonderful art gallery and he showed me glorious pictures; paintings of people and places that told me a story in a very different way.

I can’t quite find the right paintings to explain what I mean, but I know that they’re out there.

“London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ‘prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.”

Don’t those words paint such a wonderful picture?

The voice of the omniscient narrator continues to paint pictures like that. He sees everything, moving through the streets and the wastelands, looking through doors and windows, to tell  a story that is both a wonderful human drama and a clever satire of  laws and  institutions that are so caught up with themselves that the people they protect are often forgotten.

He introduces an extraordinary range of characters: from Lady Dedlock, bored to death; to Jo the crossing sweeper, trapped in poverty; to Mr Tulkinghorn, the capable and enigmatic solicitor; to Miss Flite who tends birds in her rented room as she follows events in chancery; to Mr Bucket, the detective who says little but understands much ….

437135It is said sometimes that Dickens’ characters can be flat. I can understand that because I know that there were sides to these people that I didn’t see, but in ‘Bleak House’ that didn’t matter. I was shown the aspects of their characters and their behaviour that I needed to be shown as the stories unfolded, and I found it easy to believe in these people and their lives.

I say stories, because there is another story twisted together with the story that that unnamed narrator tells.

But there’s another narrator too: Esther Summerson’s voice is quite different. It’s clear, straightforward and dutiful. I couldn’t quite like Esther but there were ties when I felt for her, times when I admired her, and in the end I realised that the Esther who told her story, some time after the events she described, was the product of everything that she had learned and everything that had happened to her.

Esther was an orphan and she had been raised not knowing who her parents were, only being told that she was her mother’s disgrace; but when her guardian died, a lawyer sent her, with two other orphans, who were wards in the unending case of Jarndyce v Jarndyce, to live with John Jarndyce, who might also be a beneficiary of the disputed wills at the centre of that case.

And there were more characters: Mr Guppy, a law clerk who became infatuated with Esther and took it upon himself to investigate her past; Mrs Jellaby who neglects her own family as she tries to help others; Mr Skimpole, who presented himself as an innocent, but who probably wasn’t ….

There were times when I found some of these characters maddening, their foibles overplayed, but there were reasons for them to be there over and above comic relief.

The stories told by the two narrator overlap and characters move between them. The story of the consequences of the chancery suit and the story of the illegitimate child, a story that had been buried but will be disinterred, work together beautifully, although they are linked only by a small number of characters who are involved in both.

I loved the diverse elements, I loved the wealth of detail; and although I can’t sum up the plot and the relationship I had no problem at all understanding all of the implications, and I was always intrigued.

There is so much more her than I can write about – including a murder mystery – but there are synopses and summaries out there, there are people who have studied this book, there are other who have written about it and pulled out quite different thoughts.

I suspect that I need to read it again – I’d love to read it again.

So, for now, just know that I loved it.

28 responses

  1. Wonderful review Jane. Bleak House is the favourite of the Dickens I’ve read so far, and I loved it when I read it many years ago. In some ways I’d be happy to spend the next year reading him – but for now I’m settling with Edwin Drood and falling in love with Dickens’ language all over again!

  2. Bleak House is one of the few I have reread, and I know you won’t be disappointed if you do decide to take it up again in the future. Its richness of construction, character motivation, and feeling provides more than enough depth for a reread. I know many people love the comic Dickens best, but I prefer his serious novels, like this one. Such a pleasure to read your appreciation of it here, and your previous essays about the Pallisers. You make me think I’d like to reread them too!

  3. I agree. It’s my favorite so far. But I’ve read so little of him that re-reading it at the moment is out of the question. David Copperfield or Dombey and Son will be next on the list though I don’t expect to love them as much.

    And definitely Trollope this year though I can’t decide between the Barsetshire or Palliser novels.

  4. I so enjoyed your review! I was planning Bleak House for this year but then it got bumped to next year, yet now I’m really looking forward to it. To be able to paint pictures with words! It’s a talent that I certainly wish I had, and Dickens can be the master of it.

  5. I loved Bleak House. It was one of those books that you know whatever you read next won’t live up to it. The reason I decided to read it in the first place is because my mother always said it was her favourite book when she was a university student. Great review of a book that has so much going on!

  6. Beautiful review! And Bleak House is just brilliant — it has EVERYTHING — satire, comedy, a love story, social commentary, and a murder mystery. I adore Trollope but I can’t think of a better Victorian novel than Bleak House.

    Have you seen the 2005 BBC adaptation? It’s just wonderful.

  7. I really like your analogy of Trollope and Dickens. I do feel more distance from Dickens’ characters – they also seem more “on stage” than Trollope’s. Bleak House is such a powerful book, and I think it’s one of his best.

  8. I read 1/3 of this back in March and never finished. I’m not sure why as I was loving it. I think it was just so daunting. But I’d like to go back and try again. It is a great story.

  9. Bleak House is my all time most revered Dickens. I too read it last year as part of my Classic Club read and I was bowled over! The entire ensemble of characters took my breathe away and like you until the very end I could not quite comprehend Esther Summerfield until I realized that the events made her what she is. Though the title suggests something dreary and sad, it ends is such a hopeful note!!

  10. Wonderful review! Bleak House is definitely one of my favourite Dickens. The construction of the stories is brilliant and the minute details just wowed me. I agree that in a way Dickens paints his scenes and his characters instead of creating them. I loved the description of the fog, so beautiful!

  11. I’ve been meaning to re-read Bleak House for years but it’s so big. I confess I didn’t love Dickens when I read him in my teens, (read all his novels) but of all the novels Great Expectations which I have read a couple of times and Bleak House stood out.

  12. I’m glad you’ve found a Dickens book that you love. This isn’t one of my favourites of those I’ve read (I preferred Our Mutual Friend and A Tale of Two Cities) but I did enjoy it. I want to read more of both Dickens and Trollope in 2015.

  13. I really enjoyed reading about him last year (the Claire Tomalin biography and the book that inspired The Invisible Woman, which is on my holiday To Be Watched” list. 🙂 But I confess that I’m still looking for the Dickens that will make me love reading his work, so I’m inspired by your finding it! He may have to wait, though, because I’m gearing up for a lot of Trollope.

  14. Always glad to hear when someone loves Bleak House, since it’s my favourite book and has been for decades. And it definitely stands up to re-reading – every time I read it, I take something different away from it. The murder scene and the spontaneous combustion scenes are two of the finest bits of writing I can think of.

  15. I love Dickens and love your art gallery analogy. I tried to read Bleak House years ago when I had small children and only made it half-way through, but I plan to try again one day. I’m reading David Copperfield right now and just finished my first read of A Christmas Carol.

  16. I love your review Fleur and the distinction you make with Trollope.
    Dickens is my writing hero and Bleak House is my second favourite of his novels. I have to give first place to Great Expectations.
    The opening description of the mud and the fog is masterly. (I quote part of the very same passage in my second novel!)
    The way Dickens manages his large cast of characters is also brilliant.
    I try to read one Dickens a year and have just finished Our Mutual Friend which is not his greatest work but which still worked its magic on me by the end. He is one of our greatest writers.

  17. I’ve read quite a lot of Dickens but Bleak House, I find, is always overlooked by readers (mainly due to its length). The extracts you have chosen are so beautiful – this novel is going into my ‘To Read’ list 🙂

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  20. I started reading, read about 1/3 and stopped. It seems to be a trend, but I think that if I finish it will be one of my favourit books out there. It has just seem hard to jugle Dickens big cast of characters with everything else I have to do. XD But wonderful review. Bleak House I will read you.

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