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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Review – Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

I am pretty embarrassed that I got to thirty years old without ever reading this book. I’m also a little annoyed that it was so good. I thought, after university, that Dickens and I had parted ways forever – and I was pretty happy at that. I’d read David Copperfield and not got much out of it (I found David to be a bit of a sentimental sap; in my eighteen-year-old way, I was more interested in twentieth century grit and postcolonial fiction), and I’d struggled through Little Dorrit, which I still think is a ridiculous text to set as part of a university course. I read A Christmas Carol a couple of years ago, mainly because I couldn’t find my DVD of the Muppet version, but A Christmas Carol is one of those stories that you know so well, it’s impossible to judge objectively.

So, I thought I’d managed to excise a good ten books from the cannon, which was frankly a bit of a relief because that still left plenty that I hadn’t read. However, swayed by the views of Susan Hill and Nick Hornby, both of whom have written a favourite ‘book about books’ (Howard’s End is on the Landing and The Complete Polysyllabic Spree), I decided to give Dickens another go.

I started slowly. I had downloaded Great Expectations onto my Kindle, for times when I didn’t want to tote around the Penguin paperback, and it took me a good week to get to 9%. (This is unlike me.) Then, one Sunday morning, I took the paperback into the bath with me. I was very, very wrinkly by the time I could bring myself to get out. From that moment on, I was hooked.

A lot of people have said a lot of things about Dickens. I won’t talk about how well he creates characters (although he does), managing to find pathos even in caricatures, because it’s been said before. (Miss Havisham is awesome, by the way. Despite, or maybe because of, her flaws – all of which seem to come from a bottomless well of heartbreak.)

I won’t spend a lot of time on his portrait of obsessive, unselfish love, although from experience I think it’s pretty much spot on:

‘You are part of my existence, part of myself. You have been in every line I have ever read, since I first came here, the rough common boy whose poor heart you wounded even then. You have been in every prospect I have ever seen since – on the river, on the sails of the ships, on the marshes, in the clouds, in the light, in the darkness, in the wind, in the woods, in the sea, in the streets. You have been the embodiment of every graceful fancy that my mind has ever become acquainted with. The stones of which the strongest London buildings are made, are not more real, or more impossible to displace with your hands, than your presence and influence have been to me, there and everywhere, and will be. Estella, to the last hour of my life, you cannot choose but remain part of my character, part of the little good in me, part of the evil.’

And I won’t talk about that ending, because I don’t want to spoil it, but suffice it to say that it was gorgeously complex, even in the revised form which Dickens was pressured into writing.

I will talk a little bit about the thing that held me and surprised me the most, which was how funny the book is. I always found people who laughed at old novels a bit pretentious; with the possible exception of Jane Austen, I never found humour to translate that well across the centuries. But the ridiculousness of Pumblechook, the high jinks of Pip and his friends, and some of the scenes with the Aged P are comedy gold. And that’s before you even get to the inherent funniness of the child narrator. Dickens pitches young Pip perfectly, an earnest reporter of exactly what is said, and leaving the hypocrisy of those around him unsaid but obvious.

Don’t get me wrong. Pretty much everything I’ve ever read about Dickens points out and apologises for his flaws – sentimentality, verbosity, a tendency to caricature – and they’re all here, although I think they’re maybe less obvious than in some of the longer novels. But overall, I loved Great Expectations, and I really wasn’t expecting to.

Which is, as I said, kind of annoying, because it puts the rest of Dickens back on the table. But I’ll forgive Pip and friends for that. Just.

*****