Thursday, October 29, 2020

"Bleak House"

Bleak House, serialized 1852,
published 1853.
Bleak House, the third novel by Charles Dickens I've read this month, has been my entertainment for the last several days. At 921 pages in the Kindle edition, it's by far the longest book I've read in quite a while. The cast of characters is huge and represents almost every social class and personality type in Dickens' England. The highest are Lord and Lady Dedlock "whose family greatness seems to consist in their never having done anything to distinguish themselves for seven hundred years."(p. 104). The poorest is a street urchin who lives in the ruined area of London called "Tom-all-Alone's." 

Dickens loves word play. An example I enjoyed was the word play in which he makes fun of the politicians of his day: 

"Lord Coodle and Sir Thomas Doodle— supposing it to be impossible for the Duke of Foodle to act with Goodle, which may be assumed to be the case in consequence of the breach arising out of that affair with Hoodle. Then, giving the Home Department and the leadership of the House of Commons to Joodle, the Exchequer to Koodle, the Colonies to Loodle, and the Foreign Office to Moodle, what are you to do with Noodle?" (p. 175).

OR played with words in the names of a flock of pet birds called "“Hope, Joy, Youth, Peace, Rest, Life, Dust, Ashes, Waste, Want, Ruin, Despair, Madness, Death, Cunning, Folly, Words, Wigs, Rags, Sheepskin, Plunder, Precedent, Jargon, Gammon, and Spinach." (p. 217). 

Much of Bleak House takes place in London, where Dickens memorably uses the creeping fog from the Thames as a key descriptive point, and "at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery."(p. 14). The lawsuit at this court titled "Jarndyce and Jarndyce" is drawn out in pointless legal wrangling for generations, ruining many lives. Its terrible impact on some of the characters is at the heart of the story -- and is probably the most famous element of this very complex and quite famous novel. 

Perhaps the second-most famous invention in Bleak House is a character, in fact a minor character. She's a middle-class woman named Mrs. Jellyby, who engages in a campaign on behalf of the natives of a far-off African country: "Borrioboola-Gha, on the left bank of the Niger.” As she dictates letters attempting to raise funds for these natives, her children are neglected, her servants are drunk and incompetent, and her husband desperate. For example, at a dinner at her home, 

"A fine cod-fish, a piece of roast beef, a dish of cutlets, and a pudding; an excellent dinner, if it had had any cooking to speak of, but it was almost raw. ... All through dinner— which was long, in consequence of such accidents as the dish of potatoes being mislaid in the coal skuttle and the handle of the corkscrew coming off and striking the young woman in the chin— Mrs. Jellyby preserved the evenness of her disposition. She told us a great deal that was interesting about Borrioboola-Gha and the natives, and received so many letters that Richard, who sat by her, saw four envelopes in the gravy at once. Some of the letters were proceedings of ladies’ committees or resolutions of ladies’ meetings, which she read to us; others were applications from people excited in various ways about the cultivation of coffee, and natives; others required answers." (p. 50-53).

Dickens' descriptions often start with something pleasant and then suddenly turn against the character in question. For example, he could describe a delightful meal and then use it to show something about the diner, as he did with two separate characters in the two following quotes:

"The best tea-service is set forth, and there is excellent provision made of dainty new bread, crusty twists, cool fresh butter, thin slices of ham, tongue, and German sausage, and delicate little rows of anchovies nestling in parsley, not to mention new-laid eggs, to be brought up warm in a napkin, and hot buttered toast. For Chadband is rather a consuming vessel— the persecutors say a gorging vessel— and can wield such weapons of the flesh as a knife and fork remarkably well." (pp. 279-280). 

"When he dines alone in chambers, as he has dined to-day, and has his bit of fish and his steak or chicken brought in from the coffee-house, he descends with a candle to the echoing regions below the deserted mansion, and heralded by a remote reverberation of thundering doors, comes gravely back encircled by an earthy atmosphere and carrying a bottle from which he pours a radiant nectar, two score and ten years old, that blushes in the glass to find itself so famous and fills the whole room with the fragrance of southern grapes." (p. 324). 

Dickens depicts a wide range of moral values in his characters, above all the nearly-saintly Esther Summerson, who narrates many of the novel's chapters, and whose life from childhood onward is central to the plot. Beyond this ideal, though, Bleak House is especially notable for ruthless or opportunistic characters who take advantage of other people, either cynically or by pretense of naivety. Several of these are lawyers, who contribute to the mania of the potential heirs of the lawsuit Jarndyce and Jarndyce

“Are you arrested for much, sir?” I inquired of Mr. Skimpole.
“My dear Miss Summerson,” said he, shaking his head pleasantly,
“I don’t know. Some pounds, odd shillings, and halfpence,
I think, were mentioned.” (p. 89)
There are also the claimed innocents -- who take advantage by being or claiming to be naive. The most vivid of them is Harold Skimpole, who professed to know nothing about money, but took it from many people, who often bailed him out of a variety of pecuniary difficulties. 

Also an impressive creation is the elder Mr. Turveydrop whose pretense to be a model of "deportment" enabled him to take advantage of his son and daughter-in-law. These two worked hard and lived badly so that he could have all the luxuries he claimed to deserve. 

"He was a fat old gentleman with a false complexion, false teeth, false whiskers, and a wig. He had a fur collar, and he had a padded breast to his coat, which only wanted a star or a broad blue ribbon to be complete. He was pinched in, and swelled out, and got up, and strapped down, as much as he could possibly bear. ... He had under his arm a hat of great size and weight, shelving downward from the crown to the brim, and in his hand a pair of white gloves with which he flapped it as he stood poised on one leg in a high-shouldered, round-elbowed state of elegance not to be surpassed. He had a cane, he had an eye-glass, he had a snuff-box, he had rings, he had wristbands, he had everything but any touch of nature; he was not like youth, he was not like age, he was not like anything in the world but a model of deportment." (p. 207). 

I realize that trying to go through the most memorable characters in this book is impossible in a review of manageable length. The subplots have subplots -- and every one has its own vivid individuals. What's amazing is the extent to which all these subplots intertwine with each other, and contribute to the overall advancement of the novel, which is really quite unified despite length and constant switching of actions.

Just one more observation. One subplot involves a dramatic murder: a conniving and manipulative lawyer is shot to death. Several suspects have been at the scene of the crime. A police detective investigates. Interested parties are brought together in a fine room of a fine house, and the detective leads them through a series of observations, and then reveals the perpetrator. He describes the perp's actions, including getting rid of the gun that was used — which he retrieved from a little lake. The officer takes the perp into custody, leading them off in handcuffs. This sounds like a pretty standard scene in many murder mysteries that we've all read -- but Bleak House was written in 1852. None of these conventions for detective fiction existed yet. Dickens was far ahead of his time. Even Wilkie Collins, whose novels are credited with inventing the genre didn't publish until the 1860s.

As I mentioned when I wrote about the other Dickens novels I have read recently, it’s a bit ridiculous to write about a book that has been in print for nearly two centuries, and about which so much criticism has been produced, but I’ve done it anyway!

Blog post © 2020 mae sander.


ashok said...

Thanks for the excellent review

Claudia said...

OMG, 921 pages, and a title like Bleak House, it's a wonder anyone reads it. I do give you credit for endurance. Especially as daily life at the moment is bleak enough for many. I have read and enjoyed Dickens, though not for some time.

My name is Erika. said...

I've got this one in my audible account read by one of my favorite narrators. I just need to be in the mood for such a long tale. Glad to read this review. It might help motivate me for this book.

Bleubeard and Elizabeth said...

What an incredible synopsis. I started Bleak House years ago, but couldn't get into it. Sounds like you enjoyed it a lot more than I. I may need to rethink it and try again in the future. Thanks so much for the review.

Iris Flavia said...

Oh, I go with Claudia!
Though, I admit my read is far from positive, too. It´s on Corona in Germany and what politics so far gave us as lies. Scary stuff.

A Day in the Life on the Farm said...

You have really been delving into the classics lately. Good for you.

Divers and Sundry said...

A good book is always worth considering and re-considering :) Each new generation of readers will have different reflections based on how their own experience colors their reading. That's to say I always love reading your posts on these classics :)

Tandy | Lavender and Lime ( said...

Mae, as always your review is fantastic. What did you do before retirement?