Bleak House. Charles Dickens.

Dickens, Charles. Bleak House. Bradbury and Evans, London, 1853 (serialized 1852-1853).

After I read War and Peace and Middlemarch it started to look like 19th century novels were going to be wonderful treats that I had missed. This one convinced me otherwise. Where Tolstoy’s deep emotional truth and Eliot’s precise moral insight were always clear, I found Charles Dickens more into narcissistic melodrama and, underneath, stuffy Victorian ethics. I heard vitriolic irony and a crazy plot that rivaled the TV serial Homeland, but I ended with prissiness and moral simplicity left ringing in my ears.

(Plot alerts ahead for anybody who hasn’t read it and still wants to.) Esther Summerson, part-time narrator, is raised by a stern aunt but leaves in adolescence to live in Bleak House with other family members: John Jarndyce (her older guardian), and young cousins lovely Ada Clare and Ada’s eventual husband Richard Carstone. An interminable court case over a will (Jarndyce vs Jarndyce) is introduced early along with another household of very rich fashionistas, Lady Honoria Dedlock and her husband Sir Leicester, in their magnificent mansion full of more family members, servants, etc. Richard becomes helplessly embroiled in and is eventually ruined by the lawsuit, poor Esther is facially disfigured by smallpox but, losing none of her inner ideal character, finally marries equally morally spotless Dr. Allan Woodcourt. But not before Esther discovers that the reason she was brought up by that strait-laced aunt was Lady Dedlock’s affair (shame on her for all eternity) with a soldier resulting in a pregnancy with Esther, the baby publicly believed to have died.

Lawyers, destitute poverty-stricken urchins and babies, a Colombo-like detective, faithful servants and their families, soldiers, vicious misers, obsessives, psychotics, blowhards, parasites, and others abound, Dickens weaving their lives, loves, avarice, and other often obscure motives among those of the main characters. Dickens famously accurately pictures smallpox, seizure, and stroke, but his having one character spontaneously combust wouldn’t be found in any pathology textbook. Consistent with the soap-opera publication of the original there are many questions temporarily left unanswered and hairpin plot reversals.

All this could be quite fun, but there is a twee archness to so much of it that where we want to get on with what’s next or find out more about some character’s big trouble, Mr. Dickens is teasing us with clever aptronyms like Flite, Snagsby, Bucket, even Krook. Or indulging in floral overstatements:

At feasts and festivals also, in firmaments she has often graced, and among constellations she outshone but yesterday, she is still the prevalent subject. What is it? Who is it? When was it? Where was it? How was it? She is discussed by her dear friends with all the genteelest slang in vogue, with the last new word, the last new manner, the last new drawl, and the perfection of polite indifference.

I wondered a couple of times whether some sly osmosis of style was going on, probably legitimate but arguably derivative. “…the doors and windows (in London) hold a gloomy state of their own in black paint and dust, and the echoing mews behind have a dry and massive appearance… (and) (c)omplicated garnish of iron-work entwines itself over the flights of steps in this awful street… ” Does that ring with William Blake’s mind-forg’d manacles and terror of his black’ning Church(es), or is it my overheated imagination? Dickens is known to have spent some time with Edgar Allen Poe in Philadelphia, where he might’ve picked up “Howls the shrill wind round Chesney Wold; the sharp rain beats, the windows rattle, and the chimneys growl. Mists hide in the avenues, veil the points of view, and move in funeral-wise across the rising grounds.” Quoth the echo…

Dickens is melodramatic for sure but he’s also mysterious, delving around dark filthy places and hinting at vague but meaningful significance in people’s glances. And there in fairness a lot of style issues he and others shared among themselves in the late 1800s as romantic writing segued into Victorian-influenced novels in England.

I’m not sure why Victorian morality focusing on high- or low-birth and the literally fatal shame of illegitimacy seemed more on characters’ minds, and also more fundamental to the plot and their fates in Bleak House than it did in other great contemporary novels. And there’s a tendency for Dickens’s characters in this story to be flawlessly good (Esther, Alan, John Jarndyce, Mrs Bagnet: sorry, nobody is really like that). Or completely dreadful to the core (Mr. Smallweed, Mrs. Pardiggle, Tulkinghorn the lawyer). Others are heavily ironic cartoons pure and simple: Mr. Krook, Mr Turveydrop, Mrs Jellyby).

I guess for me this famous story is more fixed in the superficial style and behavioural mores of its time than are other somehow more universal great novels. I want to feel changed, at least a bit, by the people and situations of authors’ imaginations. Sadly most of us won’t be around a hundred years from now to gauge the staying power of what Nabokov, Kafka, Wallace, Alice Munro, Faulkner or Woolf have done for us who lived through part of the 20th century. I get the sense from “best of all time” lists online that DH Lawrence for example who will remain a favourite of mine has fallen victim to political correctness. Here’s hoping that that influence doesn’t last. But I’m suggesting Dickens’s shouldn’t either.

Superficially happy though it ends up, this House for me ended up Bleak. 9.0/8.5

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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