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Book review

Charles Dickens’s Bleak House.

A critique of one of Dickens’s less-known but most masterful novels.

Tom All Alone’s. A London slum.
(Image source: https://www.adctheatre.com/whats-on/play/bleak-house/)

Spoiler-free thematic analysis. NOTE: external links do contain spoilers, so clicking discretion advised.

Don’t let the name – or the dour look of the BBC adaptation fool you.  Like all Dickens’s work, Bleak House sparkles with humour, action, wit, tenderness, a spectrum of characters and settings well-individuated and dazzling in their contrast.  The action is deliberately set up, developed through a series of suspenseful complications, and fully resolved.  Bleak House is the apotheosis of story.  (Its problems are also Dickensian – we’ll address those later.)

This week I finished reading Bleak House, one of the two Dickens novels I’d missed reading as a kid.

I’ve been a Dickens fan since I was five.  I read Dickens first in abridged versions by E. F. Dodd, then the originals.  I began with the usual suspects.  Great Expectations, David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities, A Christmas Carol.  I was precocious with language, but not emotionally.  I felt proud reading thick important books, and I was entertained by the witty language, rainbow cast, and lively vocabulary.  Only when I reread these books as an adult did I realise how much I’d missed the first time around. 

Dickens is fun and easy to read.  Colourful characters, their voices so unique that, across space and time, you can hear them.  Not surprising: Dickens immersed himself in life via a promiscious social life, numerous charities, amateur theatricals and international reading tours, and walks of prodigious length; he was an avid observer with a keen ear, claiming he heard his characters’ voices in his head as he wrote; and the years he spent reading his works out loud, acting the voice and mannerisms of each character, further refined his ear for the human voice.

A Christmas Carol, the first of Dickens’s Christmas books, was the only Dickens book I fully understood as a kid.  The others I thought I did – but what I had, in fact, were a child’s incomplete responses, based on first impressions.  This is not to say that a child’s responses to adult fiction are invalid.  This is to say that Dickens is a unique novelist: readable as a child, fully appreciated as an adult, and continuing to gain layers of meaning as you mature.  As a child, I was content to take characters at face value: either as they were first presented, or at the protagonist’s assessment. 

In David Copperfield, I hated Urian Heep from the pit of my stomach – without crediting Uriah’s own claim that, despicable as he was, he was the product of entrenched classism and an upside-down education system.  This model of how he became what he is Uriah presents ironically: as if holding out, behind his back, two middle fingers.  A model is no less true for being presented spitefully.  But as a child, I read the spite, dismissed the model, and hated Urian Heep.

In Great Expectations, I hated Pip for hating Magwitch, his actual benefactor – failing to see that it was the conniving pair of rich women who trained Pip systematically to despise poverty, honest labour, and his own origins.  Dickens clearly shows Mrs. Havisham training Estelle to break men’s hearts, beginning with young Pip’s.  As an adult, rereading Expectations, it’s hard to despise either Estelle or Mrs. Havisham.  But as a child I needed heroes and villains.  I liked Joe for defending Pip against Mrs. Joe; I thought Pip was an ingrate for scorning Joe, a fool for wanting Estelle who despised him, and a villain when Magwitch’s self-revelation turned Pip against Magwitch.  As a young reader I was all emotion and not much understanding.  That didn’t stop me relishing Dickens: it helped.

Revisiting these books in my 30s, I’m shocked at how blind my first impressions were.  Dickens is often criticised for painting flat characters – colourful, but cardboard cutouts.  But, except in his earliest novels, Dickens keeps reminding us: (1) distrust your first impressions, and (2) never evaluate a person out of their context and history.  Dickens’s genius is that, when you read him as an adult, he persuades you to reconsider your own first impressions – even as he reminds you how exactly he created those impressions.  Uriah is meant to be despicable.  Pip has erred in forgetting who he is.  Reading Dickens as a child, you learn what to admire and what to despise.  Rereading Dickens as a child, you learn to identify systemic problems, and to draw actionable lessons for yourself.

Bleak House I hadn’t read as a kid.  Bleak House I read this month with fresh eyes. 

I’ve read and loved all Dickens’s novels, bar this and the unfinished Edwin DroodBleak House is Dickens’s masterpiece. 

https://apilgriminnarnia.files.wordpress.com/2016/02/jo-the-crossing-sweeper-from-bleak-house-charles-dickens-by-mervyn-peake-peaks.jpg?w=265&h=255

Jo the sweeper. 

(Image source: https://apilgriminnarnia.files.wordpress.com/2016/02/jo-the-crossing-sweeper-from-bleak-house-charles-dickens-by-mervyn-peake-peaks.jpg?w=265&h=255)

1)         BH exposes systemic injustice, but treats every character with compassion.

Take the Chancellor.  One of the two main mysteries of Bleak House involves a lawsuit regarding a contested estate.  It’s been in Chancery court for decades: involving dozens of plaintiffs; generating employment for numerous men at every rung in the judicial ladder; and haemorrhaging hundreds of miles of documents referring, through a series of mirrors, to this document referring to that document referring to nothing at all. 

Overseeing this endless fiasco is the Chancellor.  From p1, Dickens leaves no doubt: this system is irremediably corrupt.  But, soon afterwards, we briefly meet the Chancellor overseeing this carnival: he’s speaking to two people soon to become enmeshed in the tendrils of this lawsuit.  The Chancellor is a perfectly pleasant, kind gentleman.  He has no personal animus against anyone involved in any lawsuit.  He’s not deliberately delaying its resolution.  This lawsuit is a farce, but that’s a systemic problem.  He’s part of the system – but the system is not his fault.

On the other side, we have the responses of several claimants to this neverending farce.  Mrs. Flite, an old woman who’s spent half her life waiting for the lawsuit to be resolved and to reward her with some pittance of a legacy – is already, when the novel opens, half-mad with her mad mission.  Tom Jarndyce waited years for a verdict, then shot himself.  In the course of the novel, two other people lose their minds waiting for Godot.

Dickens exonerating individuals for their share in corrupt systems – while flogging the systems mercilessly – raises questions, which I’ll handle later on.  But his ability to separate individuals from systems, while never forgetting the systems that produced any person he’s studying – is remarkable.

Mr. George, in the BBC adaptation of Bleak House

(Image source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/drama/bleakhouse/characters/sergeant_george_person_page.shtml)

2)         Structurally, Bleak House is perfect.  The book is 1055 pages, but every chapter, every character is essential.  While reading, I was stunned by the cast, multiudinous even for Dickens – and slightly irritated by my troubles keeping track of so many clusters of closely-related, yet distinct, personalities.  Midway through the book, you’re still meeting new characters.  But, having read it, there’s not one character that’s superfluous.  Bleak House is a deftly woven tapestry – enormous in scale, but economical in design: pull out one thread, and the whole unravels.

Challenge: read the novel, try removing any character, and see what happens.  Jenny?  Jenny’s nameless husband?  Jobling?  Smallweed Jr.?  Mrs. Snagsby?  Every minor character is instrumental.  S/he starts investigations that prove fatal; bring major characters to the right locations; take actions that cast suspicion on major characters – and all in a way that palpably and irreversibly changes the course of events.

Take the chapter “The Appointed Time.”  As Chapter 32 out of 67, it’s the heart of the novel in structure and content.  This chapter is also a microcosm of the novel.  BH revolves around two major plotlines, each with numerous convolutions.  “The Appointed Time” seems to resolve one major hiccup in one of these two plotlines.  Documents which X had, and which Y wanted to obtain for Z’s sake – appear to have been destroyed.  X is a character who, from his introduction early in the novel, is a collector of masses of papers.  He can’t read them, but he collects them: and now, it seems, his hoarding has borne fruit, putting him in charge of a secret that might ruin lives and change the fortunes of powerful families.  From start to finish, this 18-page chapter is a bone-chilling horror/mystery.  The first sentences contain hints to what is about to happen – hints that, as you read them, appear to be just scene-setting.  That’s how the whole novel works.  Details about characters – their connections, their motivations, and unknowns about them – are scattered generously, functioning to flesh out each as an unforgettable individual existing in his own right.  But, under this artful artlessness, no detail is idle characterisation: every detail about place and person is placed deliberately, and at the right time, to contribute to the building and the solving of BH’s mysteries.

“The Appointed Time.”  Original plate from the book.

(Image source: https://www.charlesdickenspage.com/illustrations-bleak-house.html)

Bleak House’s structural perfection is astonishing.  As with all his novels, Dickens wrote BH for serial publication, in (issue) ‘numbers’ of 3-4 chapters each.  As his novels shifted – from the freewheeling vaudeville of the road-trip-based Pickwick Papers or the nomadic bildungsroman of Nicholas Nickleby – to novels respecting the unities, Dickens did make notes before commencing a new work.  But the notes were sparse; Dickens wrote and edited by hand; Dickens wrote at prodigious speed, churning out about 18,500 words a month for the novel at hand alone, excluding all the other writing and editing her did.  Besides his novels, he also generated a steady stream of short stories, sketches, and articles for his magazine and others’.  Despite the serial form in, and the prodigious speed at, which it was written, BH keeps its numerous plots straight from start to finish; each character, even minor ones who get no name fulfills multiple purposes, and these are fulfilled in due course; every ‘number’ sets us up with just the information we need to appreciate developments in the next number. 

I confess I’m biased: I’ve admired Dickens since a child.  I’ve been writing all my life, but am only now beginning to grapple with plot.  BH is Dickens’s plot masterpiece.  Mysteries mushroom everywhere.  Each mystery is developed, tangled with the others, and satisfactorily resolved.  Readers of contemporary mystery novels may not be impressed, and may solve some of the main mysteries long before Dickens intended.  Which is fine: for BH is a mystery only structurally, not thematically.

BH is not thematically a mystery: but two of its delights are a fine portrait of a detective – the earliest such realistic portrait I know of – and the hunt for a refugee piloted by said detective.  Brilliant but fallible, keen but kind, perhaps based on a real person, Inspector Bucket resolves several mysteries towards the book’s end – and probably formed a partial template for later Victorian detectives.

3)         Everyone is connected.  At its heart, this is the novel’s theme.  Brought home most clearly via the one character who wants above all to deny their connection to the past, and through the past to other people.  This illustrious personage, who appears above reproach, above anything but admiration; who reviles commoners without violating either civility or ethics – this person proves to be linked, via a nameless person, to an unnameable past.  It’s an almost-nameless person that this person asks for help; later, in the last extremity, they seek help from a person who has a name, but little else.  Then this person’s sole living relative, who we’ve known throughout by a false name, pursues them.  The irony that the novel’s most illustrious personage is linked to a network of its most disreputable persons illustrates Dickens’s idea of all humanity as one family. 

It’s on family feeling that Dickens’s appeal to our morals is based.

Mr. Tulinkghorn and Mr. Guppy at Chesney Wold with Lady Dedlock.

(Image source: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Bleak-House)

Now to tackle the question of Dickens’s analysis of systemic problems.

From his first works as a young adult, Dickens took on issues of systemic injustice.  BH takes on several: a corrupt and inefficient judicial system; the stigma around sex; the inhumane treatment of the poor created by industrialising, urbanising England; foolish or misdirected philanthropy (Mrs. Jellyby, Mrs. Pardiggle); putting style before substance (the Turveydrops); adults who specialise in playing children so as to leach off others (Mr. Skimpole); and the deep shaping power of of early education and expectations (Richard Carstone).

In exposing these evils, Dickens is scathing.  Dickens began his career reporting for the newspapers on Chancery: with his subject here he’s intimate.  Notably, Dickens doesn’t condemn any individual.  (See: Chancellor, above.)  But what about remedying these inequalities?  If the system isn’t the fault of any individual, even those most powerful, through whom it acts – then whose fault is it?  Never mind attributing fault; how are we to overhaul this system?

Here, Dickens stumbles.  Novel after novel points to serious systemic issues – but leaves them unremedied.  Dickens offers, repeatedly, only the advice that each of us, acting as individuals with compassion, in the course of our duties, can improve the lives of those around us.  As advice, this is inspid.  As a solution to the problems he indicates, this is a serious failing.  A novelist is not a reformer: but one who so persistently exposes systemic problems should point the way to some hint of a systemtic solution.  Absent that, the finger-pointing destroys without constructing.  

George Orwell, in his thorough, sympathetic critique of Dickens, studies this problem with Dickens’s morality.  Dickens lays bare social ills, Orwell observes: but his only prescription is ordinary human kindness.  The kindness of individual humans is the only solution that Dickens indicates for systemic injustices. 

This disparity of scale and origin between problem and solution is odd, to say the least.  Like prescribing strawberry-flavoured paracetamol for recurring fevers.

If you’ve read Dickens, you’ll agree.  In his earlier novels (e.g. Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby), the figure of a kind old man materialises to solve all problems: to fund the destitute hero, defeat obstacles in the way of his love, and make every deserving character happy and wealthy.  In his middle novels there is no kindly old wealthy man (David Copperfield); or, if there is one (Bleak House’s John Jarndyce) his wealth serves limited purposes, giving those immediately around him shelter and fruitful occupation.  In these middle novels, Dickens is still interested in exposing social ills, but appears to have abandoned hope of generating ideas for reform.  In his later novels (A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations) wealth corrupts.  In Tale, the Marquis d’Evremonde is an exquisite bastard who deserves everything Madame Defarge can connive.  In Great Expectations, wealth corrupts Pip: Pip learns to despise honest manual labour (or labour of any sort), his honest if simple-minded guardian Joe, and the true source of his wealth.

What’s Dickens’s lesson?  After taking on these corrupt systems, what does Dickens advise?  His advice in Bleak House seems clear: steer clear of the system.  To engage with the behemoth at all is to court self-destruction.  That’s the fate that engulfs every character in the novel who engages with the lawsuit: they are snapped up by alligator jaws.  It’s those who steer clear – those who have the means to live without waiting for their share in the legacy – that survive.

An anticlimactic message.  But a realistic one. 

Fortunately, enjoying Dickens doesn’t depend on finding his prescriptions sensible or useful.  Bleak House is a damn good novel.  With fiction well-written and low-priced, exciting yet moral, Dickens got the illiterate, pulp-loving masses enjoying readings of his work.  A superstar in his day, Dickens remains relevant and popular today.

What’s your favourite Dickens novel? Have you tried his sketches? Try this delightful album: Sketches of Young Couples.  What do you most enjoy about Dickens?  What do you think of his social commentary?  Is it important for writers to point fingers and blow whistles, even if they can’t suggest ways to reform the system?

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By Amita Basu

I'm a writer based in Bangalore, India.

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