The mathematician in me believes that there is an inverse relationship between the number of pages a book has and the ease with which I can write a review. With Bleak House
clocking in at over 800 pages, you can be sure that post has been a long time in the making. There is so much in this book that I fear I cannot do it all justice! I really do love Charles Dickens, and this may my favorite of his, even more than A Tale of Two Cities.
I’ve given up hope on presenting a coherent and comprehensive summary, so here are the bare bones. The case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, a financial dispute, has been in progress in the High Court of Chancery for so long that it is practically treated as a joke. The bachelor Mr. John Jarndyce takes into his home at Bleak House the two young adult wards of the case, Richard Carstone and Ada Clare. He also engages orphaned Esther Summerson to be a companion for Ada, and it is through her interspersed narrative that we see some of the action of the book.
The group has a lot of friends and acquaintances: Harold Skimpole, a middle-aged man with a wife and three daughters who is intentionally childlike because it makes his life easier; Caddy Jellyby, whose younger siblings run amok because her mother is too concerned with the plights of those in Africa; and Miss Flite, a muddled old woman whose entire life revolves around futile hopes for a small case in Chancery.
There is another entire cast of characters in the legal sector, including the odd Guppy who assists sometimes on the Jarndyce case. When a mysterious boarder dies alone in an apartment above a copy shop, he takes it upon himself to investigate with the help of his friends. After other events later in the story (including a spontaneous combustion!) the case is handed in a more official manner by Inspector Bucket. In another part of London we learn of the beautiful and celebrated Lady Deadlock, who has everything a woman could want and yet remains restless and unhappy. For some reason her husband’s solicitor Mr. Tulkinghorn is making her uneasy. Finally, we see glimpses of the poorer side of town through Jo, the sweeper boy who knows nothing about himself or any other subject.
Richard and Ada have fallen in love, but John advises them to wait until the case is resolved and they hopefully come into a little money. Unfortunately, this path is not an easy one to take. Esther, meanwhile, does her best to make everyone around her happy, and ease the prevailing gloom….I’m really failing at describing this plot, but you’ll have to take my word for it that it is excellent.If I had written more frequent reviews throughout (the book has sixty-seven chapters divided into nineteen sections), maybe I would have done a better job conveying this. I just love literature than has the potential to be dissected.
Charles Dickens is an absolute master as world building; I feel like I intimately know 1850s London because of him. The book has a monstrous cast of at least 100 characters, and yet each of them is distinctly defined, so that I could easily keep track of who was who over the long span in which I read this. Everyone has a name and identity, down to the women who comment in the streets of the law neighborhood after each shocking turn of events. I also absolutely loved how all of the characters are connected somehow in the wide web has created. Pick any two characters, and there are at most three degrees of separation. It’s remarkable, really, especially considering that the novel was originally serialized. Did Dickens write it all in advance, or just do an awful lot of planning?
There are two main branches of the story, as sprawling as the cast and plot may sound, and though Esther only narrates what she has first-hand knowledge of, she still stands out to me in this book. She is such a sweetheart! She reminds me of Beth from Little Women, who is actually my favorite March sister. For some reason she is more palatable than Fanny Price in terms of goodness, or Little Dorrit. Perhaps the difference is that we get to see Esther through first person, so she honestly tries to downplay her actions, and she has a believable motive for being so selfless. Esther knows nothing about her parents except that her mother was a sinner because she was born out of wedlock. Beginning at an early age, she was told by the woman who raised her that she could never be a good person, so she did her best to try. It’s also nice that the other characters appreciate her, even the other characters who are themselves emblems of kindness and generosity.
Dickens uses the book for a lot of social commentary, some of which are themes carried over from other works. He seems to have a confirmed distaste for institutions; in Little Dorrit it was big business, and here it is Chancery and the high court system. He also exposes the plight of poor, especially children like Jo who had no say over a situation they were born into. He ridicules those who are oblivious to the duties or sufferings around them, while praising those who are industrious and compassionate (like the marvelous Mrs. Bagnet). He is also able to pack an emotional punch, though. The chapter where Sir Leicester Deadlock is waiting on his deathbed for certain news was simultaneously one of the most moving and suspenseful scenes in the book.
“Now Miss Summerson,” said he, beating his finger on the apron, don’t you be disappointed at what I’m a-going to do. You know me. I’m Inspector Bucket, and you can trust me.”
As an additional element, Bleak House is also considered the first appearance of a detective in an English detective novel. I saw that website shortly before beginning the book and was surprised, even with the mention of a trio of sleuths on the back of my edition. As the mystery element developed and Mr. Bucket grew in importance, I realized that he really is a wonder. There is nothing of the cynic about this inspector! He is meticulously thorough in his quest for justice, but has a remarkable instinct for truth and uncanny ability to put good people at ease and nasty people in their place. Plus, he occasionally enlists his wife’s help on cases. I was surprised at how suspenseful the mystery was, even by today’s standards, though it did have a decidedly sensationalist bent. I wonder if Dickens wrote this before or after he became friends with Wilkie Collins?
I kept this book in my car over the summer, so that whenever I was on a lunch break or had time to kill I could squeeze a a little bit in. Though not a fast read, it’s definitely very readable (other than the Chancery chapters), and every little bit helps. I was surprised to be almost a little sad to reach the ending and bit Esther and her friends goodbye, even though it felt like it was time.
I make myself wait until after I’ve written a review to look at any literary criticism. I’m off now to finally read the introduction. I’m sure there is plenty of information online about the book, too. I could easily see myself reading this again someday.
Bleak House is on the 1001 Books List, and also the Guardian List (State of the Nation).