(Note – I read the book “blind”, that is with no idea what it contained. I wrote the essays immediately after reading, so they are first impressions.)
This first real post of the challenge is just a quick review of the book, looking at it from a few angles.
The main story of Bleak House follows a civil lawsuit, Jarndyce and Jarndyce. From the beginning we find out that this has been going on for decades and most of the principal players are long dead. Although this is, in ways, the primary story and goes from beginning to end, in other ways it is just the glue that holds the rest of the book together.
There are many smaller stories and subplots, but the main story, after the lawsuit, is that of Lord and Lady Dedlock, and particularly Lady Dedlock and some mysteries surrounding this lady. Oh, and Esther’s story, of course, but her story is in many ways just incidental to the main story lines of the law suit and Lady Dedlocks mysteries (I introduced Lady Dedlock and her mysteries here.)
The book follows two narratives. One is given by Esther Summerson (in first person), a poor orphan taken into Mr. John Jarndyce’s guardianship after her godmother (aunt) dies. Although she recounts her background (which is highly important!), the real story begins when she is brought together with Ada Clare and Richard Carstone, who, although they didn’t know each other before, are cousins and also both are orphans like Esther. The difference between Esther and this pair is that they are two of the remaining principals in Jarndyce and Jarndyce. They are off to live with Esther’s guardian, John Jarndyce, at his home, Bleak House. Esther has been chosen as Ada’s companion and is installed as head housekeeper (she had been at a boarding school, where she not only went to school, but helped teach and “mother” incoming students). That last point is easy to forget but important to remember – Esther is treated throughout as Ada and Richard’s social equal, but in reality, she is a servant and has to work for her keep while they are idle (at first…).
The other narrative is in third person and is, maybe, partially omniscient. It follows a convoluted story around Lady Dedlock, Sir Leister Dedlock and his attorney, Mr. Tulkinghorn but follows many other people, high and low.
As all of Dickens, this one takes on a lot of social issues of the day. The Chancery (high civil court), civil law in general, and all of the people involved (clerks, scribes, lawyers, etc) are the main target for Dickens. He describes several types of lawyers, from the self-important gregarious to the vampirish – Dickens’ description of Vohls, 50 years before Bram Stoker’s Dracula, seems to define that night creature better than most. Of course, the cold, calculating Mr. Tulkinghorn is drawn with the greatest detail.
Other big topics are the politics of the day and, even more, the aristocracy and manor system. Sir Leister, his hanger-ons and their beliefs act as the caricature for that entire system here.
Strangely enough, Charity and Causes (philanthropy) were in his sights as well. He was all for charity, i.e., generosity to other humans and helping those in need, but his charity was based on empathy and compassion for people in need, to really help where help was needed, more than the Sense of Mission that Charity (capital “C”) too often takes. The people with causes where ridiculed, while those with real heart, be it Esther herself, or even the slightly ridiculous Mr. Snagsby giving Jo a coin whenever he saw him, are treated more kindly.
It isn’t just Charity, it is the preachy style of Christianity that, as Jo put it, seems to be those preachers trying to make themselves feel better, not helping those they preach to, hits Dickens ire.
Another theme, perhaps the grand unifying theme, one that too often seems be overlooked, is motherhood. This entire book is about nothing if not motherhood, seen from both a child’s point of view, even if the child be 50, to the mother’s view, particularly of a mother’s grief over a dead child, as shown by the brick layer’s wife, Jenny. It is a feeling, as Dickens’ points out, shared by women whether of the poorest of the poor, like Jenny, or the highest of the high. And then there is Mrs. Rouncewell, whose favorite son had run off at least 30 years previous, who still lamented his absence. Also, it is seen from the other side, from the orphan, be it Jo, the street boy, or even Esther herself, denied the kind, motherly touch and yearning for it her entire life. So, yes, motherhood is perhaps as big of a theme as the law.
As is common with Dickens, there is a huge cast of characters, all with these interconnecting lives. Some of the characters are very two dimensional, some obviously placed for a specific purpose, either for the plot or to make a point, some give a comic relief. But there are a few characters in the book that are drawn with skill as true people, as alive as you and me. We also have characters from the poorest of the poor, like the bricklayers or Jo, to the rich businessman, like Mr. Rouncewell, to the highest of the elite aristocracy, like Lord and Lady Dedlock. And, as mentioned, the entire legal system is shown from poor copiers to the highest paid lawyers.
As is usual with Dickens, the story is sprawling and wordy. It isn’t necessarily bad, but if you are looking for sparse, go elsewhere. Of course the wordiness is very 19th century. And this does paint a very good picture of the time, almost as good of a picture as Dickens paints of London in the opening – one of the greatest descriptions of all times (see my take on the opening here).
As is shown in many of his books, Dickens had a pretty good understanding of human nature and was able to display the world from all classes. He was also a master at manipulating emotion when it suited him.
Over this week I am going to talk about a few topics. There are so many that stand out to me, both what I mentioned above and beyond, like how the male Dickens in a male dominated society wrote a book with so many female main characters, and even from a female point of view. I’ll leave that to others, as will I leave the odd relation between Mrs. Bagnet as the true head of the household compared to some of the downright misogyny that is occasionally on display here. Other big topics are displacement (like Mr. Tulkinghorn displacing his resentment of Lord Dedlock to his actions against Lady Dedlock) and seemingly contradictory opinions on a large variety of topics. And, of course, the way time flows – what is the timescale of the book? Why is it that Jenny has just lost her child through the entire book?
As I write these posts, I will try to keep most of the spoilers out, but there are places where they will be necessary. Since we were all supposed to have read the book… Anyway, if I have a post where I know I put in a spoiler, I will try to warn you.