Another Night (to Remember) at the Symphony
Bach: Christ Lag in Todesbanden

Dickens: Bleak House

Before I started writing this, I should have gone back to the 52 Authors series and read Stu's entry on Dickens, which is quite good (click here). And I see in the comments this one from me:

Bleak House is one I really want to re-read (in addition to reading for the first time the 60% or so of the novels that I haven't read at all). I read it in my 20s and thought it was great. I have a feeling I'd like it even more now.

Well, that certainly turned out to be true. I enjoyed Bleak House even more than the other Dickens novels I've read or re-read recently: Dombey And Son, Great Expectations, and, perhaps stretching "recently" a bit, David Copperfield. Everything I said about Dickens's work in general in my post about Dombey and Son a few weeks ago applies with even more force to Bleak House. As of now, it's my favorite, and as I very much liked the others that puts it pretty much in the stratosphere of my literary rankings. Now, with a necessarily somewhat smaller number of years remaining before me than I had in my 20s, and with so many books yet unread, I still may revisit this one. That says a lot about the sheer enjoyment I had in it.

Someone, and I think it was T.S. Eliot, said that Shakespeare gives us the breadth of the medieval world, and Dante the depth. A similar thought has occurred to me while reading Bleak House and Dombey And Son: that a division, an assignment of responsibility you might say, could be made between Dickens and Dostoevsky with respect to what I think of as the early maturity of modern man in the 19th century. Dostoevsky is the great prober of the spiritual (and therefore psychological) displacement of that new man. An old friend of mine once observed that most of Dostoevsky's people seem to him to be "just barely sane," and in their extremities of thought and behavior they show us what is only implied and latent in most people. As representatives of their times, they are narrow but deep. The most important of them are intellectuals or semi-intellectuals  or very eccentric in some way connected with the modern crisis. Dostoevsky is almost as much philosopher/theologian as novelist. And he is certainly Dante-esque at least to the extent of presenting an Inferno, with glimpses of Purgatory. 

Dickens, on the other hand, is almost pure novelist, purely a creator of stories and characters, and he gives us an extraordinary range of characters who are ordinary people in the sense that they are mainly interested in going about the everyday business of their not especially reflective lives, whether that business is an aristocrat's concern with maintaining the order and prestige of his little empire or a pauper's desperate attempt to keep off starvation and other miseries. And in doing this Dickens demonstrates the great Christian truth that there are no ordinary people. 

And I don't know of anyone except Shakespeare to whom he can be compared in both those respects, i.e. stories and characters (at least not in English literature--I don't know enough of others to say). Bleak House is in fact a somewhat polemical work, but to the extent that ideas play a role in it they are pretty down-to-earth, not philosophical: an attack on the Chancery courts of the time, and to a lesser degree a sort of exposé of the conditions of the London poor. (Chancery courts were very roughly comparable to what we would call civil law, concerned with contracts of all sorts, including, as in Bleak House, inheritance.) The stakes in a high-stakes lawsuit could be entirely devoured by costs, to the ruin of the suitors and, according to Dickens, the amusement of lawyers and judges. Dickens himself had a pretty unpleasant experience with Chancery, when he attempted to get some money out of people who had printed unauthorized editions of his work. 

Suppose for a moment that those were his primary motives, that Dickens thought, "I really hate Chancery, and I'm really angry at the way lack of decent sanitation forces the poor to live in filth and disease. I think I'll write a novel making these points." It's not a plausible conjecture, because there are too many things in the work that aren't part of any such focus. But just suppose. What he actually produced is no more reducible to a social justice pamphlet than The Brothers Karamazov is reducible to a philosophical one. I don't know that he could have written mere propaganda, at least not in fiction. I think his creative energy would have prevented that; the sense of energy at work is one of the striking characteristics of his work in general, and especially in this one.

The sheer fecundity of invention in plot and character is astonishing. It seems the fecundity of nature, which (to use the conventional attribution of agency) is not content to make a single bird, or even a single type of songbird fit to thrive in the southeastern U.S., but produces millions in the first case, hundreds in the second. So it is with Dickens's characters, who have a distinct "inscape," to use the peculiar term invented by Hopkins which seems to mean an essential self-ness. As Rob G pointed out in a comment recently, Dickens somehow even manages to give every character a distinctive voice. (Surely there are scholarly papers and/or books about that.)

The comparison to Shakespeare extends to the language. Prose, obviously, is more diffuse than poetry, and does not as readily provide the brief quotation that sticks in the memory in part because of its music. But, again, the fecundity is astonishing. Stephen Gill, in his introduction to the Oxford World Classics edition, cites many

passages of amazing complexity and depth, allusive, syntactically agile, multi-faceted, whose exploitation of the poetic resources of the language and the devices of rhetoric offer pleasures as rewarding as any in English fiction.

And, with due allowance for the essential difference, is often as rewarding as poetry.

The plot has distinct elements of the mystery story, including the appearance of a police detective who, though he isn't prominent until quite late in the story, is a very striking character who could easily have ranked with Sherlock Holmes, had Dickens been engaged in that sort of project. This makes me mourn the fact that he didn't live to finish The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which I have always been hesitant to read because of the inevitable disappointment.

One does have to contend with Dickens's sentimental and melodramatic streak. But even as I type that I am thinking that those terms are pretty elastic, and one person's sentimentality may be another's honest emotion. As with Florence in Dombey And Son, the central female character, Esther Summerson, is somewhat too good to be true. But she is more vivid to me than Florence because a very large part of the book is a first-person narrative by her, and so we have more knowledge of her. The narrative structure of the book is unusual in that respect--part omniscient third-person, part first-person and very limited. Moreover, the third-person narrative is entirely in the present tense, while Esther's is a sort of journal, past tense. 

As has often been remarked, by C.S. Lewis among others if my memory is correct, the characteristic virtues and vices of one historical period often balance those of another. One such virtue that is represented over and over again in Bleak House, and which is little seen and honored in our time, is nobility. Bu that I mean an iron determination to behave with honor, courage, and generosity, to say and do what is true and right and just without regard for one's own preference, ego, and interest. As far as I can tell it is rarely seen in our popular culture, and almost never among our public figures. (Try looking for it in either of our current presidential candidates.) The actual behavior of our politicians may be in practice no different from the reality of Dickens's time, but the fact that the sense of nobility was understood and admired then, while having pretty much vanished in our own time, says something bad about our culture, and good about that of Dickens. As has also often been remarked, nobility is at least as likely to be found among the lowly as among the high, something which Dickens is fond of illustrating. Also, though it is perhaps one of the more masculine virtues, as likely to be found in women as in men.


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Excellent observations. I think Great Expectations is still my favorite Dickens so far, but Bleak House is very good indeed, and I wouldn't hesitate to reread it. As I'm reading the novels in order I think Hard Times is next for me.

And yes, Inspector Bucket is a wonderful character!

I'm thinking I may go to the beginning and read Pickwick. I started it once in a badly formatted Kindle edition and couldn't get into it. I'll try it in a proper book.

I love Pickwick, but it's definitely a different animal compared to his later work. I know someone who has read most of Dickens several times over but has never been able to finish Pickwick. But I also know someone who reads it every January after New Years -- perfect way to start the year, he says!

Finished watching the 2005 Bleak House last night. It's very well done, but it sidetracks a lot of the comic touches in favor of the drama and thus the quirkier sides of most of the characters are downplayed. The cast is uniformly strong however, as are the production values. Gillian Anderson is very good as Lady Dedlock, but plays her a little too dreamily I think. In the book the character comes across as more of an ice queen. It's a small complaint though.

The only thing I didn't really care for was the breakdown into half-hour episodes (except for the first episode, which is a full hour). To me it made the thing feel a little rushed. But on the whole, very much worth watching.

As I've said a few times lately I am looking forward to revisiting Bleak House, and sometime soon. At this point I don't know what to say about my favorite. The first that I became invested in, and have re-read the most often, is Great Expectations. There is also something to be said for it being shorter and more on point, I suppose. However, I love David Copperfield as well. But then these perhaps more interesting works, such as Dombey and Son and Bleak House, seem to also give greater rewards in the end for having seen things from many different perspectives that first-person narration doesn't allow for. I have also read his first three books, Pickwick, Oliver, and Nickleby; they are quite different than the latter ones. Pickwick is wildly episodic and comic. Oliver is much darker than I would have expected going in. Of the three, Nicholas Nickleby has stayed with me in memory much more, and I'm not sure why.
Well, I'm just rambling. Enjoyed your post, Mac. I also enjoyed the 2005 Bleak House, Rob. But of course there are the differences that you mention.

Coincidentally, I finished the 1985 Bleak House last night. My reaction is broadly similar to yours to the 2005 one, Rob: favorable with reservations. But I think I have more reservations. Some are pretty subjective, a disagreement with choices about how certain characters should be presented. I don't think, for instance, that Tulkinghorn should ever smile, even a little. Perhaps he does in the book but if so I didn't notice it. Diana Rigg is pretty good as Lady D. Cinematography and some other things seem a bit dated. Very big on dark London.

And of course in the nature of the project there's a lot that just has to be left out.

I saw the 2005 one some time ago, probably when it first came out, and will be watching it again sometime soon. I recall thinking it was pretty good. So I guess you weren't bothered by Gillian Anderson's English accent? I think I was. I certainly have been in other things. Maybe it's just me but it seems very strained. But in general she's good at icy. :-)

"Oliver is much darker than I would have expected going in." It really is quite dark. I didn't like it as much as I expected to when I read it 10-15 years ago. Now that you've brought out its position early in Dickens's career that seems less surprising. There's a fairly recent BBC adaptation of it which is *very* dark.

One novel which seems to get overlooked is Martin Chuzzlewit. I enjoyed it a lot, however, and the 90's BBC version is very good.

Something I read recently, probably in the intro or other material in one of the editions of BH I was reading, mentioned it favorably.

Re "The sheer fecundity of invention in plot and character is astonishing."

I recently read some of Claire Tomalin's biography of Dickens and was struck by how much of an influence the theatre and acting had on him, and how much he himself loved to act. And that led me to this review of a book by the actor Simon Callow, Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World, with this:

'Callow's book stands out because he not only chronicles what's on stage but also peers behind the curtain, exploring the why and wherefore of "the histrionic imperative so deeply rooted in Dickens." Here are three characteristically illuminating examples.

Linking Dickens' own impulse to perform with what's unique about his characters, Callow writes that "with Dickens, the reader is always conscious of his presence: the author is performing his characters . . . brilliantly shaped with a view to the reader's reactions. Even the descriptive passages have the quality of arias."

Discussing Dickensian melodrama, Callow contends that Dickens makes "gold" of such "dross" because of his "intense and detailed connection with emotional truth as opposed to mere theatrical effect. . . . When melodrama is taken as seriously as this, it can become overwhelming." ...

Tapping into the power of Dickens' public readings, Callow writes that "acting is above all an act of imagination rather than of mimicry: it is an overpowering mental connection that produces a physical result."

Whether Dickens was performing on paper or from a platform, Callow suggests, he became his characters, giving body to what first existed in his mind.'

I don't have time to read that now. But it certainly fits. I didn't know until I read some of that supplementary material I mentioned how much he put into his readings, not just reading but performing. Or that he was so active in the theatre. Sure wish we had some video.

Bleak House is such a wonderful novel. One essential (?) addendum would be the introductory essay that Chesterton wrote for the novel. I made a few comments about it here. Chesterton's "introductory" essays to Dickens' novels are always worth reading, but it's better to read them after finishing the books.

Incidentally, Pickwick was Chesterton's favourite Dickens novel!

Thanks for the reminder, Craig. I have a copy of 'Chesterton on Dickens' but I forgot about it!

One of my copies of BH includes that Chesterton piece but I haven’t read it yet.

I nearly always read the text of any book before I read the introduction.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name is required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)