Review – Bleak House by Charles Dickens

A few weeks ago, I went to the Gothic exhibition at the British Library. As well as a lot of the titles I remembered from school – Mysteries of Udolpho, Northanger Abbey, Jane Eyre – were a lot of books I’d never thought of as Gothic before. One of the most memorable parts was turning a corner and being confronted with a three-minute clip of Gillian Anderson in the 2005 BBC adaptation of Bleak House.

Spookily enough, I already had a copy in my bag, although I hadn’t started reading it yet. Dickens and I have always had a somewhat troubled relationship, which I’ve written about elsewhere (see my comments on Great Expectations, which I read last year after a ten-year Dickens hiatus), and whilst Great Expectations was awesome, my copy of Bleak House runs to 989 pages without appendices and I wasn’t quite sure about spending so much time in his company.

And I’m not going to lie, it was not a walk in the park. It was a bit of a slow start, despite one of the chilliest first pages I’ve ever read (‘Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas, in a general infection of ill-temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if the day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud…Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green its and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping, and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city.’ Ah, London. Plus ca change.). Similarly to Great Expectations, it took me a couple of weeks to read the first 90 pages, although after that I – well, I didn’t exactly race through the rest, but it did get quicker.

Bad bits first. I didn’t like it as much as Great Expectations, and I’m not sure I’d be as quick to recommend it. I’ll admit that there was a little bit of skim-reading. I mean, I loved the plotting, and the way all of the disparate characters and strands kept coming together, but it could have done with some serious editing. I know, I know, if he’d taken ten words instead of a hundred, then it wouldn’t be Dickens. But in this, much more than in Great Expectations, I was very aware in certain episodes that they were ‘padding’. And Horace Skimpole was just plain annoying.

Splitting the narration with Esther was interesting. It’s a common criticism of Dickens that he doesn’t write women well, and I was worried at first that I was going to find her an unbearable sap. It was OK, though. I’ll admit that her modesty and passivity did grate occasionally; for example, to Mr Jarndyce: ’I am quite sure that if there were anything I ought to know, or had any need to know, I should not have to ask you to tell it to me…I have nothing to ask you, nothing in the world.’ Yeah, right. If that level of incuriousity is the model of female perfection, then I’m in all sorts of trouble. And – I won’t give too much away – but she’s a little too quick to forgive people, to my mind. Overall, though, I really did warm to her – helped mainly, I think, by the occasional snide remark which Dickens attributed to her, but in his own voice (the descriptions of Mr Turveydrop the elder, in particular, were hilarious).

But it was the Gothic elements of the novel, and how Dickens adapted them for his own ends, which engaged me the most. Esther is effectively an orphan, although that’s nothing particularly new for Dickens. The book is full of weather, fog and rain and darkness. There are plenty of spine-shivering moments of the uncanny – people recognising people they’ve never seen before, Civil War-era ghosts, and a picture of Lady Dedlock which exerts a bit of a creepy hold over more than one character. Lady Dedlock herself is introduced to us almost as the Wandering Jew – ‘the imperfect remedy is always to fly, from the last place where it has been experienced.’ (page 183) Bleak House is the typical crumbling Gothic pile, but the monster isn’t a ghost or a vampire or a villainous Italian count – the monster is the Court of Chancery, bleeding away the lives and fortunes of the characters in the 20-year saga of Jarndyce v Jarndyce (and plenty of other characters besides – who could forget the little old lady who attends court every day, having wasted youth and beauty and sanity waiting for a judgement which will never come?). Attention to detail when bringing to life minor characters is one of the things that makes Dickens a comic genius. When it comes to his comments on Chancery, though, the comedy is savage, and immediately makes us feel bad for laughing. (‘When my great Uncle, poor Tom Jarndyce, began to think of it, it was the beginning of the end!…He gave it [Bleak House] its present name, and lived here shut up: day and night poring over the wicked heaps of papers in the suit, and hoping against hope to disentangle it from its mystification and bring it to a close. In the meantime, the place became dilapidated, the wind whistled through the cracked walls, the rain fell through the broken roof, the weeds chocked the passage to the voting door. When I brought what remained of him home here, the brains seemed to me to have been blown out of the house too; it was so shattered and ruined.’ (p119) The imagery is violent, brutal, and contrasts sharply with the Latinate legalese (disentangle, mystification) brought to bear in the middle of the paragraph in the doomed attempt to slay the beast. Dickens is really angry about this, and wants people to know it – in a former house of state, ‘lawyers lie like maggots in nuts’; a (fictional) moneylender is the devil (‘The name of your friend in the city begins with a D, comrade, and you’re right about respecting the bond’, (p345)). It’s no wonder Terry Eagleton likes it. I was more surprised that I did, though. I don’t normally like my fiction ‘preachy’, and I did find myself skimming a little when it got too much. I’ve been trying to figure out why it didn’t annoy me more. I think it’s because I read Claire Tomalin’s awesome biography of Charles Dickens last year, and however much of a jerk Dickens-the-man may have been, it seems like he really did believe what he was writing about. I think that comes across and, in the end, that might have been my favourite thing.

****

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The Interesting Life of T. S. Eliot

Interesting Literature

We could write thousands of words as part of a T. S. Eliot biography, but instead we’ll limit ourselves to a shortish piece that distils all of the most interesting aspects of Eliot’s life into one relatively brief post. What follows, then, is a short and, we hope, interesting guide to the amazing life of T. S. Eliot (1888-1965).

Early Life

Thomas Stearns Eliot was born on 26 September 1888 in St Louis, Missouri, the youngest of seven children. His ancestors had lived in America for the last couple of centuries, since Andrew Elliott had left East Coker in Somerset for Massachusetts in the 1660s. (Elliott was one of the jurists who tried the Salem ‘witches’ in 1692, alongside John Hathorne, great-great-grandfather of the American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne.) An earlier ancestor, his namesake Thomas Elyot (c. 1490-1546), was an influential scholar during the reign of Henry VIII who had spoken…

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The joy of books-about-books

I’m a sucker for booktalk. I can waste hours on blogs and the Twitterverse, hours which I know, I know, I could be spending reading. Books about books fulfil a useful function, therefore, and I love them. My favourites, in no particular order:

– The Complete Polysyllabic Spree, and Stuff I’ve Been Reading, by Nick Hornby. These are two collections of Nick Hornby’s bookish articles for Believer magazine, spanning the last 8 years or so. I love his writing style – conversational and unpretentious and completely non-judgmental – but more importantly, these books have led me to other books which I otherwise would never have read. The most memorable example was his rave review of ‘How to Live’ by Sarah Bakewell. I am not the kind of person who would typically wander into Waterstones and pick up a biography of Montaigne (in fact I had barely even heard of Montaigne), but I bought it on his sayso and I’m so glad I did.

– Howard’s End is on the Landing, by Susan Hill. I read this before I read any of Susan Hill’s fiction (the Simon Serrailler books are my favourites) and I still like to curl up with it on cold winter nights. This explores a year of ‘reading from home’, ie a year Hill spent not buying any new books, but instead exploring her (beautiful, from the sound of it) home and all of the lost souls already on her bookshelves. I re-read this about once a year, and it’s one of the few books I actually own both in paperback and on Kindle, just in case.

– Ex Libris, by Anne Fadiman. If you ever need a stocking filler for a booklover, this is the one. A series of short articles on a number of aspects of bibliomania; a bit like having a conversation with an old friend.

– My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff/The Road to Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead. New entries, both of which I’ve only read in the past couple of months. They are different to the four above – they’re bibliomemoirs, both focusing on a single book or author, and I’m not sure I will re-read either of them as often as I revisit the others. That said, I enjoyed them both as stories of how engagement with literature can change people. I read My Salinger Year in an evening, and it raced along, like a coming-of-age novel. The Road to Middlemarch was more ‘grown-up’ (whatever that means), engaging more deeply with a single novel – Middlemarch, unsurprisingly – and teaching me a lot of things I didn’t know about George Eliot. Less autobiography, more biography, but as much engagement with Dorothea Brooke as with either author. Rakoff and Mead also both made me want to read or re-read the originals (Salinger and Middlemarch), which can only be a good thing.

– Why Homer Matters, by Adam Nicolson. This is similar in theme to My Salinger Year and The Road to Middlemarch, but belongs in its own sub-bullet (a) because of how different its subject matter is – three millennia away from the other two, and (b) because it was one of my few five-star reads of 2014, and easily the most surprising.

I have a couple more, waiting in my TBR pile. There’s The Most Dangerous Book, which I’m hoping will finally give me a push to finish Ulysses. There’s Among the Janeites, about Jane Austen fandom. Not to mention a chunky TBR pile of literary biographies, including The Imperfect Life of TS Eliot and pretty much everything that Claire Tomalin has ever written. (Actually most of Claire Tomalin is on my Amazon wishlist, but let’s be honest – it probably won’t be long.) All in all, it’s shaping up to be a pretty bookish year…

Welcome to 2015 – bookish goals

22 hours into 2015, and I have done nothing productive. I’m OK with it. Everyone knows the real new year doesn’t start till January 2nd (right?). I have, however, been thinking today about what I’d like to get out of this year. I’m always a little nervous of making goals and plans public, in case I change my mind or get busy/distracted/bored halfway through – always dangerous to have a public record of grand plans. But it’s good for me to get out of my comfort zone occasionally, and so here they are:

1. Numbers first – read 100 books this year. I’ve done that once before, in 2013; last year the total was much lower – 60 – because of a three-month reading slump, too much time working, and a lot of non-fiction. The challenge is going to be reading more books whilst still keeping up with my non-fiction and classics club aims – in 2013 I found myself reading a few ‘filler’ quick reads in November and December, just to make sure I got to the magic number.

2. Get stuck in to my Classics Club list. I put the list together in November and have only read one so far (Great Expectations); I’m about 150 pages into Bleak House but stalled a bit over Christmas. Listening to Radio 4’s adaptation of War and Peace today made me want to get on with that one, too. Always good to start the year with a couple of light reads (!). But I really need to read at least one a month, to make a dent in the list this year.

3. Read from a wide range of genres, and read at least one non-fiction book a month (on average). This is one of my favourite things about my reading habits over the past couple of years; it’s really only since 2012 or so that I’ve had much interest in non-fiction, but it made up more than half of my favourite new reads last year.

4. Engage more with social media. I started this blog a while ago but have been sporadic to the point of neglect. I’m going to start by trying to post at least twice a week in January. I’m going to try to get better at keeping up with Twitter, too, rather than my current phases of checking every hour interlaced with not looking for a fortnight. I’m also looking for some interesting challenges/readathons to join in with, so watch this space.

5. Be less apologetic about re-reading. With a TBR pile running to several hundred volumes, and an Amazon wishlist of a similar length, I sometimes feel bad about reading something I’ve read before – but I nearly always get something new out of it when I do.

6. Try to buy fewer books than I read. (Quite frankly it’s that, or move to a bigger house.)

They don’t look too scary when I see them written down like that, with the possible exception of 6 (I have a little problem with willpower). I’m actually quite excited to get started! Right after watching the rest of Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince…