Friday, May 04, 2012

I Read Books: Bleak House

1. That's what I'm talking about

Now we're getting somewhere. This may be the best novel so far in my Dickens re-read; it's at least as good as Great Expectations. There's variation in writing style, zany characters, sad characters, heartening characters, dumb characters (and some of them are all four), debts, the law, secrets, satire, and big morals about the difference between the help you want to give and the help that's needed and how obsession distorts good intentions into bad. It's like this Dickens guy's reputation is based on something! Alright, let's do this review.

2. Points of view

The novel is written from two different points of view. One is a first person narrative written by Esther Summerson, an orphan who is taken on as a companion for Ada Clare and housekeeper for John Jarndyce, the owner of the titular Bleak House. The other is an omniscient third person viewpoint that sees all and knows all.

I like to think that this mirrors the two main plots - one is the detective story as various people try to discover the secrets that surround Esther's parentage, and the other is the slow grind of the court case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce that sets everything in motion and motivates many of the characters into their various actions. Of course, these two plots wind around each other and often send off sub-plots in all directions; similarly sometimes the Esther viewpoint goes into people's hearts and homes, while the omniscient skates over the surface.

3. Satire and social justice

Dickens takes a pop at the court of Chancery, and by pop I mean the backbone of the novel is a case that has been going on for several generations and has no end in sight, has driven at least one and probably several characters mad and causes several kind and compassionate characters to become variously depressed, paranoid and bankrupt. Dickens, of course, had worked as a law clerk and had attempted to enforce copyright of his books through Chancery. One character says "Suffer any wrong that can be done you rather than come here!"

All this is well known, and was part of the ongoing effort to reform the court. Indeed, the novel must be set sometime before it was written due to the fact that some reforms had already changed the court from how it was described[1].

More interesting to me are the various charitable ladies of the novel. Mrs Jellyby pays more attention to settling people in Africa than to her own children and her main comment on her daughter getting married is to laugh and complain that she has had to hire a boy to write the letters her daughter used to[2]. Mrs Pardiggle goes to a poor house where the bricklayer is a drunk and beats his wife and reads the uplifting literature to them. Esther and Ada do more actual good  in a hour with some practical help than Mrs Pardiggle's weekly visits and reading has ever done.

As a parallel, the dancing master that Mrs Jellyby's daughter marries has a father, Mr Turveydrop, who is well respected for his Deportment, but does nothing to help his son's business, and indeed his wardrobe and lifestyle consume most of his son's income. It doesn't require a great deal of subtlety to read the lesson Dickens is trying to get across: Charity Begins At Home and Practical Help Is More Important Than Posing.

4. Bleak or happy?

In the end secrets come out, people are reconciled and the case actually comes to a conclusion that satisfies nobody. People get married, have children and the last chapter is set seven years after climax of the novel so we know how it all turns out okay. It's a happy ending, except possibly for the people who died of illness, or exposure, or opium overdose, or were murdered, or suffered spontaneous human combustion. Also it's not that happy for Sir Leicester Dedlock, but you can't have everything.

5. Who wins?

The lawyers do, of course.

Read This: For a classic Dickens tale with a huge cast, entertaining subplots and some actual insight into people.
Don't Read This: If you don't like melodramatic craziness in your novels. Also the usual caveat on longwinded Victorian prose.
Where is Bleak House: Hertfordshire, near St Albans; then later in South Yorkshire. Or you can go and see Dickens' holiday home in Broadstairs which was called Fort House at the time but has now been renamed Bleak House.
Link to Free etext: Project Gutenberg has the out of copyright novel here.

[1] Also as some railways that existed in 1852 had not yet been built.
[2] When the Borrioboola-Gha project fails she turns her attention to attempts to get women seated in parliament. What a wacky character she is!
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