Review of Bleak House by Charles Dickens
by Charles Dickens
Second review: October 2019
It has been many a year since I first read Bleak House! So much has happened. I moved, then came back, from the very country whence Dickens hails. I bought a house, which I still have. I did not get involved in protracted Chancery suits.
For the past year I've had The Pickwick Papers on my shelf, and I keep picking it up and then putting it down after a few pages. Eventually I realized the problem was more that I wanted to re-read Bleak House, yet I stubbornly refused to give myself permission to do that until I’d read The Pickwick Papers. Which is absurd. So I just re-read Bleak House and I’m all the happier for it.
I agree with most of my first review, so rather than repeat myself, I’ll just add a few more thoughts.
I can’t believe I only vaguely alluded to Esther’s marriage in the first review (I must have been trying to avoid spoilers). OMFG. What a strange, messed up situation—first being proposed to by your guardian, and then what he does at the end and the way Esther just kind of … goes with it? I realize matchmaking was different in Dickens’ day, but by my standards it’s weird and uncomfortable.
I did very much enjoy my re-read, although sometimes Dickens’ diversionary descriptions were a bit much for me. The core of the story, though, Esther’s narrative and the machinations surrounding Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, remains compelling. Dickens captures the essential unhappiness that can arise from focusing too much on potentialities and too little on what one currently has, as exemplified by Richard and foiled by Esther.
First review: May 2012
My physical pile of to-read books has a surfeit of non-fiction at the moment. So prior to setting off to a charity quiz night with my dad, I grabbed this book and Tess of the d'Urbervilles from the pile and told my dad to choose. (In fact, my massive market paperback version of Bleak House properly is my dad’s, but it’s mine now because I rescued it from almost-certain water damage in the dormer closet.)
Bleak House is confusing at first, because neither the house nor the book is all that bleak. I kept waiting for something bad to happen to Esther, but it doesn’t get heavy until around page 400. Also it took me five days to read this behemoth, which is a lot for me. I was enjoying the book, but Dickens’ plot and prose are just so damn convoluted that every time I picked up the heavy, small-print-infested edition I read, I wanted to put it back down and read something more comprehensible, like War and Peace. (Yeah, I went there.) Dickens is probably a poet at heart and can’t describe anything so banal as a doorknob without going into detail about the life of the servant who polishes it every Saturday, and there are times when it’s beautiful and times when it turns the book into a laborious slog. I totally understand why some people can’t finish this book, and that’s OK. I’m going to say some very favourable things about Bleak House, and I certainly feel better for having read it. But if you feel like you’re putting yourself through a particularly English form of literary torture trying to consume this, then it’s not going to be worth your while.
Wikipedia has a robust plot summary available, but I will try my best to highlight the elements that were important to me. Bleak House is not just long but sprawling. The central character, and at times the narrator, is Esther Summerson. She’s an orphan of mysterious heritage who finds a benefactor in Mr. John Jarndyce of Bleak House. He brings her to live with him and his two wards, cousins Ada and Richard. They get along famously and everything goes well for them, except that Richard can’t decide on a profession and instead becomes obsessed with Jarndynce v. Jarndyce. This Chancery case, a dispute over wills, is a metaphor for all that is wrong with the English legal system. It is so tangled that none of the lawyers involved—and there are many—understand it in the smallest part; it has dragged on for years and seems bound to drag on for many more. So of course Richard decides he will put it aright and then live off the income. Yeah. Great plan, right?
Jarndyce v. Jarndyce grabs all the attention from critics, and I know it’s kind of the core of Bleak House, but it’s more of a background element (and its resolution is painfully obvious from the beginning to anyone remotely familiar with law and lawyers). What matters about this book are the many and sundry characters who make its pages come to life. There are the lawyers, like Mr. Tulkinghorn (whom I kind of liked despite his being a manipulative bastard) and Mr. Vholes (whom I didn’t like nearly so well). There are the nobility and the gentility: the Dedlocks, Sir Leicester and his wife, the mysterious Lady Dedlock; and the Jellybys and Turveydrops and Woodcourts, companions and foils for Esther, Ada, and Richard. There are the working men and women, the professionals, the soldiers, and the criminals: the Snagsbys, Sergeant George, the Bagnets, Mr. Bucket, the Smallweeds, etc. If I were to go back and read this differently, it would be with a notepad by my side so I could keep track of every character and his or her relationship with the other characters. They all seem extraneous at times, and then suddenly they become indispensable. Seriously, if Dickens hadn’t been busy churning out impressive novels, then I’m convinced he would have become a Moriarty-like criminal mastermind. The plot structure of Bleak House is a metafictional Xanataos Gambit (TVTropes).
The scary and wonderful thing is, all these characters feel very real. Dickens creates more lifelike personalities in Bleak House than some authors create in their entire careers. Not all of them are incredibly three-dimensional—some, like Mrs. Snagsby, are rather wretched excuses for plot devices, if that. But they all have their unique attributes and pasts and desires: Dickens is an expert and characterization through exposition. Aside from the chapters Esther narrates, however, Dickens hands the reins over to a third-person narrator, who chronicles the schemes and escapades of the Smallweeds and the Dedlocks, of George and Mr. Bucket. There’s such a diverse range of people in Bleak House. Mr. Smallweed is about as crafty and crooked as they come, aiming to cheat, swindle, and extort whenever possible. George is an honourable trooper who has fallen on hard times and finds himself in a bit of a bind. Poor Jo, a street-sweeper who “knows nothink”, finds himself shuffled from house to house, hand to hand, caught up as a bit player in a larger mystery. This mystery concerns, naturally, the identity of Esther’s parents.
Bleak House is as wonderful as it is long, and I have struggled with deciding whether to give it four or five stars. If there is one impediment to a perfect score, it is Esther Summerson, Mary Sue Extraordinaire (TVTropes). She is friendlly, stalwart, honest, loyal … I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point. Worse still, everyone is constantly commenting on all of her virtues, either to her face or to other characters. Esther isn’t just some saint toiling in obscurity; she is practically worshipped by everyone she meets. Caddy Jellyby considers her a best friend after a single afternoon together. Esther seems to have no actual skills other than cleaning and being nice to people, but somehow that’s enough to get by.
Of course, as the protagonist in a novel as fiendishly complex as Bleak House, Esther is far from that simple. I confess I kind of liked her. I hate Dickens for doing this, because I don’t want to like a Mary Sue, but Esther is a good person. She stands up for Richard and Ada and wants what’s best for them. Like the reader, she anticipates that Richard’s obsession with Jarndyce v. Jarndyce can come to no good and tries, in vain, to divert his course. That she is ultimately unsuccessful subverts, in part, her Mary Suedom—but the rest of the plot more than makes up for that.
For you see, when the identity of Esther’s mother becomes clear to her (Dickens does not exactly conceal it from the reader for quite so long), there are no recriminations. Esther goes for what seems like an innocuous walk with her mom, and her mom is all, “By the way, I’m your mom. I had you out of wedlock, so my sister told me you died and then raised you secretly. Sorry.” And Esther is all, “Oh, what is this sudden blooming of joy upon my breast, that I should finally know my mother?” And then her mom says, “Oh, but never speak of this again. Or talk to me. Or come near me. Because if anyone finds out, it could ruin my family’s reputation.” And Esther’s cool with that.
I’m being slightly disingenuous here, of course. Dickens is trying to make a point about the absurdity of nineteenth-century English mores, particularly when it comes to marriage and childbirth. Esther’s mother is ashamed of Esther’s existence and what it implies about her morals and her conduct. This shame is powerful enough to compel her to flee rather than face her husband when she learns that Mr. Tulkinghorn knows her secret. On the level of social commentary, these plot points work fine. Unfortunately, they do very little for Esther’s characterization. I find it hard to believe that anyone could react as calmly or joyously to the news Esther receives. These types of reveals don’t go well no matter how you slice them, because it essentially involves tearing down someone’s worldview (TVTropes). It’s not something one takes in stride—unless one is Esther Summerson, who also nonchalantly acts this way when it comes to proposals of marriage, notifications of courtship, or the need to buy a dress.
This reveal happens towards the middle of the book, and the remainder of Bleak House follows the consequences of various characters learning the secret and trying to use it for their own gain. This gets one of the characters murdered, and then the novel metamorphoses into a detective story, with Mr. Bucket taking centre stage and explaining his various methods of deducing the identity of the murderer. My interest was starting to wane prior to this twist, because I was wondering where Dickens was going with all of this. I should have known someone would end up dead!
This is probably Bleak House’s most redeeming quality: it is changeable. Despite its length, it changes its mood so many times that it doesn’t feel like one story so much as a package of many inseparable stories. I quite enjoyed the chapters that followed Mr. Bucket on the case and went all the way up to his dramatic trap laid for the killer—and unlike the other “mysteries” in this book, Dickens successfully diverted me from the true identity of the killer, much to my delight. This change of gears reinvigorated my interest in the book for the last two hundred pages. After this mystery is solved, Dickens quickly wraps everything up, marrying Esther off and resolving Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, and telling us what happened to the rest of the characters in a matter of twenty or thirty pages. This denouement is very rushed and practically brief compared to the rest of the book!
I am not quite willing to call Bleak House “the finest literary work of the nineteenth century produced in England”, the bold assertion with which George Tillotson opens his afterword to this edition. He reveals himself as a Dickens fangirl by continuing, “If that claim can be questioned, it can only be on behalf of one of the other big novels of Dickens…. For Dickens was the supreme literary genius of his time….” I’m all for the Dickens praise, but I could do without the hyperbole of, “OMG. BEST. 19th CENTURY. BOOK. EVER.” There are plenty of reasons people aren’t going to like this book, not the least of which is because it is so very long. And that’s fine.
That being said, Bleak House is an excellent book. I didn’t think so when I started reading it, but along the way Dickens managed to captivate me with his characters and the lives they lead. Much like Middlemarch, another nineteenth-century novel I adore, Bleak House provides a microcosm of nineteenth-century England, complete with the social stratification, scheming, and family drama that we expect and love. Tillotson is correct in one respect: Dickens is, if not the supreme literary genius of his time, a literary genius of his time. And if Bleak House belabours his poetic style, it also demonstrates his mastery of plot and subtext that make the novel rise above the idiosyncrasies of style. Best nineteenth-century English novel? Up to you. Awesome nineteenth-century English novel? Most definitely.