Monday, 5 October 2015

Bleak House by Charles Dickens (1851-3)

Originally Written in 2008

If David Copperfield is the greatest of Dickens' works, then Bleak House is a very close second. Oh, hell, perhaps they even tie for joint first place.

As Dickens matures as a writer, so his comedy becomes more noticeably savage and his social criticism much more barbed and radical - and nowhere are these trends more evident than in Bleak House, establishing the righteous anger of the man who goes on to write Hard Times and Little Dorrit, dealing as they do with similar themes. Here he paints a canvas that is perhaps broader and more encompassing than any other - ranging from Sir Leicester Dedlock, Baronet and member of the aristocracy (which Dickens generally deals with rarely) right down to the wretched little sweeping-boy Jo. It's an exceedingly complex story, bringing people of all backgrounds together into direct conflict, and sharply honing in on the ethical rottenness of a decaying society.

There could be no more apposite word than "bleak" to form the story's title: from that opening description of foggy London to the dull, flat, stale grounds in Lincolnshire to the ennui of many of the characters, there is a kind of tired and world-weary fatalism at the heart of Bleak House that feels new to Dickens. The story's bleakness is mostly clearly tied up with Jarndyce and Jarndyce, the interminable suit at Chancery perpetually dragging on throughout the novel, forming as it does something of a metaphor for the corrupt, bleak society of mid-19th century England, doomed to endless repetition. Then there's Mrs Jellyby, the "telescopic philanthropist", and her obsession with foreign aid whilst neglecting those closest to home. There's Dickens' hilarious slew of silly politicians referred to earlier in the book (Coodle, Doodle, Foodle, Goodle and Buffy, Cuffy, Duffy, Fuffy), later letting them crop up as real characters. There's one of my favourite scenes in Dickens, after he has let us fall for Jo, by using him as a template for all such plighted people in his death scene. By taking one such boy and letting us getting to know him before his untimely end, Dickens manages to win us over to the fact that he is merely one among thousands. It does not matter how many decent people are surrounding him at that moment, doing their best to save him, because everybody is fallible in Bleak House. You can almost hear Dickens' pen shaking with rage as he finishes his tirade against the fancy lords and ladies for whom such a death would mean nothing in this manner: "and dying thus around us every day".

The narrative style is highly sophisticated and unusual, in that it is split between Esther Summerson's first-person perspective and an unknown omniscient narrator. The former writes in past tense and the latter in present tense, but what makes it particularly work is the fact that Esther's narrative allows Dickens to stay focussed and contained, centred as it is on individuals, whilst the other's ranges everywhere, picking up on all sorts of wider events. Esther is a good heroine - not too obviously saintly - although she's rather upstaged in my view by her dear friend Ada Clare, whose unfortunate marriage to the tragic Richard is one of the most affecting parts of the novel. Richard is a good man who becomes obsessed by the hope of making his fortune from the Jarndyce and Jarndyce suit, eventually becoming pale and ill as a result of having slaved over it far too laboriously. He dies in Ada's arms, shortly after the never-ending suit finally ends, having gained little or nothing from it. As Dickens tells us mournfully, "there is a ruin of youth that is not like age".

As previously mentioned, Bleak House concerns itself more with the aristocracy than Dickens usually does, extensive sections of the plot being located in the Chesney Wold mansion in Lincolnshire, owned by the dignified Sir Leicester and Lady Dedlock. They are far from snooty stereotypes, of course, but are in fact among the most interesting in the entire novel. Unknown to most, Lady Dedlock is Esther's mother, and she is thus gifted with a wonderfully written yet painfully tragic character arc. Fearing as she does that her secrets will be exposed by the Machiavellian lawyer Mr Tulkinghorn, and believing that her husband will divorce her on learning of the daughter she had before marriage, she murders Tulkinghorn and flees before ending her own life, so as not to bring pain to her husband. As usually emerges in such stories, Sir Leicester would in fact have utterly forgiven his wife for her earlier affair, and the events send him into a state of mental breakdown.

Mr Tulkinghorn is the latest unpleasant creation, oozing slime every time he speaks. His treatment of Lady Dedlock is especially awful, all the more so because it remains hidden beneath his charming and formal exterior. His death, shot through the heart by Lady Dedlock, is among the most exciting scenes Dickens ever wrote. Lawyers, in fact, get a terrible rep throughout Bleak House - it is not hard to believe that the character who exclaims regarding lawyers, "I object to the breed!" is the mouthpiece of Dickens himself - and there are few worse than Mr Vholes, a cold, pale man who vampirically feeds off poor Richard when it comes to the Chancery suit.

While it never quite lurches from its social realism into outright fantasy in the manner of A Christmas Carol, there are a number of bizarre imaginative leaps in Bleak House, and nowhere is this more evident than in the fate of Krook, a wizened old man who owns a boarding-house in one of the grimiest parts of London. Quite without warning, he suddenly and inexplicably suffers from that most mythical of Victorian deaths, Spontaneous Combustion. It's known as being completely impossible today, naturally, but such a demise was widely feared in the 1850s. The way Dickens builds an atmosphere of terror in the chapters leading up to his death, Guppy and Jobling advancing upstairs and smelling the reek of charred flesh, is worthy of a horror film. Also on the more bizarre end of the spectrum is Miss Flite, an old woman driven mad by the never-ending lawsuit, sitting alone with flocks and flocks of birds.

Bleak House is a novel full of passages that stay with you - that evocative opening describing London in the fog, the grimiest and poorest parts of the capital, the dull summer days at Chesney Wold. This isn't just a novel of profound social critique, but it's a well-written pageturner, a great mystery story, and a tearjerker all at once. One to read and read and read again.

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