**This review contains SPOILERS!!**
Title: Bleak House
Author: Charles Dickens
As the interminable case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce grinds its way through the Court of Chancery, it draws together a disparate group of people; Ada and Richard Clare, whose inheritance is gradually being devoured by legal costs; Esther Summerson, a ward of the court, whose parentage is a source of deepening mystery; the menacing lawyer Tulkinghorn; the determined sleuth Inspector Bucket; and even Jo, a destitute little crossing-sweeper. A savage, but often comic indictment of a society that is rotten to the core, Bleak House is one of Dickens’ most ambitious novels, with a range that extends from the drawing rooms of the aristocracy to the poorest of London slums. (from the back cover)
Thoughts: I read this book as the February selection for the 2013 “I’ve Always Meant to Read that Book” Challenge. This book is also one of the books on my Classics Club List, so this is the first book I have completed from my list! This was a great way to begin my Classics Club challenge- I adored this book! I was so intimidated about not only reading this entire (huge!) book in one month but also that I was afraid that I wouldn’t like it or that it would be over my head. The only other book by Dickens’ I have read is Great Expectations; I read it as a freshman in high school and it didn’t really make much of an impression on me as I recall. So I was pleasantly surprised by how much I loved this book!
The book’s ‘main’ character is a young orphan girl named Esther Summerson. Raised by her godmother, she knows nothing of her parentage. When her godmother dies, John Jarndyce becomes her guardian and puts her through school. After she has completed her schooling she moves in with Jarndyce as his housekeeper along with Ada and Richard, two orphaned cousin wards of Jarndyce who are also involved in the Jarndyce and Jarndyce case. From there the story takes off, with their interactions and relationships with each other, along with the progress (or lack thereof) being made in the Jarndyce lawsuit which began decades ago, and the quest of Esther to find out the truth about her parentage, whether she wishes it or not.
But the story isn’t just about Esther and her world; there are about 8 or 10 different narrators who tell their own story, and have their own plots, throughout the novel. Off the top of my head, there are chapters with the following POVs: Lady and Lord Dedlock, distant relations of John Jarndyce; Tulkinghorn, Lord Dedlock’s lawyer, Mr. Snagsby, owner of a law stationer business who gets caught up in Tulkinghorn’s manipulations, much to the distress of his ‘little woman,’ his wife; Mr. Guppy, a young law clerk and a fool who fancies himself in love with Esther for a time; Mr. George, a former soldier who runs a shooting-gallery; the Smallweed family, headed by Grandfather Smallweed, a grasping, insect-like creature obsessed with money; Jo, a poor crossing-sweeper who gets involved in the investigation of the death of an opium addict; Inspector Bucket, in charge of solving a murder and, later, helping Lord Dedlock in a matter of life and death urgency; and Mr. Vohles, Richard’s lawyer, a shadowy bloodless figure who dresses all in black and may not have Richard’s best interests at heart.
Along with each POV we meet other characters: Caddy Jellby and her mother and poor father; Prince and Mr. Turveydrop; crazed old Krook who owns a rag and bone shop; Miss Flite, his mad tenant; Mrs. Rouncewell, the Dedlocks housekeeper, the Bagnet family, great friends of Mr. George, and Harold Skimploe, a childlike friend of John Jarndyce, to name a few.
One of the thing I liked best about this novel was how all the characters were related to one another. For the first 150-200 pages it is not clear how all the different narratives fit together. But once the connections are made the story begins to clip along and becomes a whole lot more engrossing (at least in my opinion). At first it was a little difficult to keep all the characters straight- a few of them are shown briefly and then don’t reappear for hundreds of pages- but after a while I sorted them out easily enough.
I had several favorite charcters: Miss Flite, for all her insanity, was endearing. I also enjoyed Mr. and Mrs. Bagnet and their relationship with each other, and I also lied Mr. and Mrs. Snagsby, although by the end I was sorry for Mr. Snagsby being stuck with such a suspecting and jealous woman. Mr. Jellby, with his head against the wall, also touched my heart.
Some characters I was not as found of: Mr. Turveydrop was so completely selfish that his own son became lame from overwork. Inspector Bucket I have mixed feelings about: although he does not harm to anyone, and indeed helps Esther and Lord Dedlock to the best of his ability, I still couldn’t quite believe that he was doing these things from the goodness of his heart. Something about him felt shady to me, although I am not sure why. Maybe all his sneaking around, even if it was for a case, rubbed me the wrong way and colored by impression of him. And Harold Skimpole was no child, despite what everyone seemed to believe. I think he knew what he was doing and manipulated people to his advantage, all under the guise of his childlike countenance. There are a few hints in the book that this might be the case but it is never said outright but I think I am right in this.
I also had problems with John Jarndyce; he seems to have no faults, to be loved by everybody, to not be capable doing any wrong against anyone. Some of my dislike might have steamed from Esther’s constant praises for her guardian: O my guardian! How noble he was! How kind! How unable was he to even think ill of Richard! How perfect was his character, how without flaws! and the like. It got annoying. I also didn’t like how he dealt with the relationship with Allen and Esther. Why couldn’t he just tell her his plan, why did he have to leave her in misery for so long? So that he could reveal his big surprise at the end and receive all the credit for his thoughtfulness? Allen and Esther didn’t seem to think so, but I couldn’t keep these thoughts from my mind. But at least Allen and Esther got married; if she had ended up marrying Jarndyce like she thought I would have been very upset!
I also thought the comparison between Richard and Miss Flite was interesting. They are only directly compared once in the novel by Esther and yet there are both similar in many ways. Both are obsessed with their respective Chancery cases to an unhealthy degree. Miss Flite is certainly mad; insisting on calling Esther Fitz-Jarndyce, she keeps cages full of songbirds that she intends to let go when her case is concluded. But her case has been going for so long that all her songbirds have died and she has had to replace them more than once. Although she is mad, she is harmless. Richard is mad in a more dangerous and troublesome way. His obsession with Jarndyce and Jarndyce has completely taken over his life. When he marries Ada, he uses what little money she brings into the marriage to pay Mr. Vohles to further his interests in the case, his own money long gone and debt mounting. He becomes erratic: one minute hopeful of the case coming to a close, the next depressed and lethargic. Even Ada’s pregnancy is not enough to make him see reason. When he hears the news of the dismissal of the his case he collapses and, after a confession of all his wrongs and receiving forgiveness, he (improbably in my opinion)dies, supposedly of tuberculosis, although up to this point we were not aware that he was sick with anything other than his obsession of the Chancery. Upon Richard’s death Miss Flite releases her birds and it assumed that she gives up her waiting for her suite to be decided and continues on with her life. For all Miss. Flite’s strange ways it is Richard, not her, who fully succumbs to the madness of the Chancery.
One character I was not as found of as I suspect I should have been was Jo, the crossing-sweeper. I liked him fine, but I was not moved by his plight to the extent I think Dickens’ hoped. This maybe because of the alluding to his death when we are first introduced to him. One of the things I found curious was that several times in Jo’s narrative Dickens’ seems to be speaking to the reader. When Jo’s narrative at last ends, with his death, his addressing of the reader it explicit:
“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, everyday.”
Clearly Jo is supposed to represent the nameless children who lived on the streets and worked for a living, uneducated and hungry, in untold numbers in the cities and towns of England during this time. What’s interesting about this book is Dickens’ critique of English society, Jo representing just a part of his denunciation of a society he felt was sliding towards ruin in its quest for wealth and its focus on personal vanity. In this the Chancery is clearly his biggest target. The Court of Chancery exists for itself and for the making of money, not for the services it provides for clients. If you are a suitor in a case you cannot drop out- you must see it through to the end. The Jarndyce and Jarndyce case is, in the novel, the longest on-going case in the Chancery’s books. Its main contention is the topic of contested wills but the case has gone on for so long that nobody in the original suit is still alive; John Jarndyce, Ada, and Richard are suitors in the case from the day they were born. The costs of the suit have piled up and are now being taken from the estate in contention, slowly but surely reducing Ada’s and Richard’s inheritances. The case only comes to a close not because a verdict is reached, but because the entire estate has been subsumed by court costs! Slow, meandering, fueled by greed and the sorrows of others, the Court of Chancery represents to Dickens the worst of English society. In the words of Esther upon her first visit to the Chancery:
To see everything go on so smoothly, and to think of the roughness of the suitors’ lives and deaths; to see all that full dress and ceremony, and to think of the waste, and want, and beggared misery it represented; to consider that, while the sickness of hope deferred was raging in so many hearts, this polite show went calmly on from day to day, and year to year,in such good order and composure; to behold the Lord Chancellor, and the whole array of practitioners under him, looking at one another and at the spectators, as if nobody had ever heard that all over England the name in which they were assembled was a bitter jest; was held in universal horror, contempt, and indignation; was known for something so flagrant and bad, that little short of a miracle could bring any good out of it to any one: this was so curious and self-contradictory to me, who had no experience of it, that it was at first incredible, and I could not comprehend it. I was where Richard put me, and tried to listen, and looked about me; but there seemed to be no reality in the whole scene, except poor little Miss Flite, the mad woman, standing on a bench, and nodding at it.
Dickens couldn’t be any clearer in his opinion of the Chancery.
I won’t say anything about the writing itself except that it is gorgeous and wonderful. Dickens is a master in evoking mood and the first scene of the book, with the fog and cold, and a scene a little later on when he describes a rainy day at Chesney Wold and dips into the minds of the horses, dogs, and birds are probably my two favorite in the book.
This book went above and beyond my expectations (which admittedly weren’t much). The only other book by Dickens I have is Oliver Twist and, although I won’t be starting it immediately, I do hope to read it in the near future. If you’re avoiding Dickens because you think we will be boring or difficult please give him a chance! I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed reading this book. I want to reread without a time limit and going at my own pace so that I can really savor it.
In conclusion: I loved this book! Buy it! Read it! Love it!
What work by Dickens would you recommend to me to read next?