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NA844312 - DICKENS, C.: Bleak House (Abridged)

Charles Dickens
Bleak House


Dickens’s ninth novel, Bleak House, was published between March, 1852, and September, 1853, in twenty monthly parts. It has two narrators, the not-altogetheromniscient authorial voice and the personal testimony of the central female figure, Esther Summerson. The action of the story largely revolves around one particular mystery: that of Esther’s true parentage.

The novel opens in the Court of Chancery, the Lord Chancellor’s court, to which cases were referred which had no remedy in common-law courts. Abuses at the time had led to demands for reform and Dickens uses the fictional suit of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce—based on a real instance, a case that had begun in 1834 and had still reached no conclusion—to satirise and condemn the worst excesses of an absurd, sclerotic system.

This lawsuit, as the novel opens, is continuing to spread its net far and wide, connecting Lord and Lady Dedlock of Chesney Wold; Ada Clare and Richard Carstone, orphans given into the care of the philanthropical Mr. Jarndyce (who has so jaundiced a view of the proceedings of the court that he forswears all dealings with it and counsels others, Richard in particular, to do likewise); Esther Summerson, Jarndyce’s other ward; the powerful and sinister lawyer Tulkinghorn; and so on, all the way down to the lowliest of the low, the unfortunate crossing-sweeper Jo. In other words, it entraps, confounds and frequently condemns to a premature end, persons from all levels of society.

The severe social criticism of Bleak House aroused indignation among some of Dickens’s contemporaries and led to unfavourable reviews in such publications as Blackwood’s, the Westminster Review and Saturday Review.

In the Dictionary of National Biography Leslie Stephens’s complaint seems to have been that the novelist was too popular among the lower orders:

If literary fame could safely be measured by popularity with the half-educated, Dickens must claim the highest position among English novelists.

Dickens was evidently paying insufficient homage to the social system and failing to appreciate the status quo. He was particularly accused of being unable to portray a gentleman, i.e. a sympathetic member of the upper classes. In Bleak House the chief representative of the higher orders is Sir Leicester Dedlock, baronet. But although his readiness to bridle at any manifestation, however slight, of Wat Tylerish lèse-majesté is preposterous, he is shown to be a tender and considerate husband; and when struck down by serious illness, his pathetic prostration and anxiety for his wife is rather moving. Dickens’s social criticism is not monochromatic.

Some early readers thought the novel rambling and ill-constructed but John Forster, a friend and Dickens’s first biographer, formed quite the opposite view: ‘Nothing is introduced at random, everything tends to the catastrophe, the various lines of the plot converge and fit to its centre.’ That Dickens ever managed this, in view of the fact that the novel was published serially, is astonishing. The firsttime reader may wonder how Mrs Jellyby, Guppy, Mr. Smallweed, Trooper George and Mr. Bucket (to pick a number of characters out at random) can all be relevant and not simply incidental, but all the threads are drawn together with great skill.

The modern view of Bleak House is that it counts as one of Dickens’s masterworks. J. Hillis Miller in his 1971 introduction to the Penguin edition writes: ‘Dickens constructed a model in little of English society in his time. In no other of his novels is the canvas so broad, the sweep more inclusive, the linguistic and dramatic texture richer, the gallery of grotesques more extraordinary.’

The function of Esther Summerson in this complex tale—or set of neatly dovetailed intertwining tales—is to allow the reader a view of what the ordinary individual’s response might be to a social organisation that is eating itself away, a social (dis)order that is a ghastly parody of what a just human society ought to be, and could be.

She is far from being alone in attempting to set right what is wrong. Society around her is a-bristle with wellmeaning souls who struggle to reform and correct whatever is amiss. However, they are mostly ineffectual either because, as with Mrs Jellyby, attracted by the exotic woes of ‘savages’, they ignore the problems under their own noses, which consequently worsen by dint of their neglect—or because they aim, like Mrs Pardiggle, to bully those whose behaviour they disapprove of into reforming themselves. The zeal of such charitable busybodies results in no perceptible alteration, let alone amelioration, of affairs. All that is enhanced is the do-gooders’ own self-satisfaction.

There are, of course, individuals who act in less ambitious, less ostentatious and more fruitful ways to bring about changes and improvements. Mr. Jarndyce provides for the apparently orphaned Esther; pays the debts of his self-centred friend Skimpole (largely to help out his neglected family); rescues Charley’s family when they are orphaned; approves of Esther’s desire to take in the stricken Jo; and so on. It is true that he does not act altogether altruistically in taking Esther under his wing, hoping that one day she will be his wife but he can surely be forgiven for desiring to have such a companion. There is also the doctor, Woodcourt, who most actively helps the needy and, during his adventures at sea, saves countless lives after a shipwreck.

Dickens appears to be saying that only by such individual actions is the world in any way redeemed and that to expect institutions to reform themselves and society to change for the better is mere folly. It may seem to be a message not wholly unlike that of Voltaire’s Candide: to cultivate one’s own garden, not, cynically, as an act of selfish disregard for the rest of suffering humanity, but in recognition of the fact that the best one can do—or that some can do—is to set an example by doing what little one can directly (rather than at several removes through cumbersome bureaucratic charitable organisations), even though one’s efforts may not always be crowned with success.

Esther’s attempts throughout her life to alleviate the sufferings of others are for her just part of what it is to be human. She is regarded by some readers as an idealised, unreal figure but it is made clear that her early life of emotional poverty and rigidity has left her highly self-critical and fearful that she is undeserving, so that she fights to be felt worthy of love and acceptance. Her warmth of personality and tireless selflessness are somewhat saintly but she is perhaps to be viewed rather like the lost princess in a fairy tale, howbeit one gone wrong. She may be a marvel of generosity of spirit and goodness but Dickens does not make of her a magician. Her successes are limited (understandably, given the recalcitrant nature of the circumstances she comes up against). She cannot save Richard, Jo, nor the bricklayers’ families, but she inspires Caddy, Mrs Jellyby’s put-upon daughter, to break away and make a life for herself, gives her good advice concerning her engagement to Prince and demonstrates to her good housekeeping practices; she does her best to teach Charley how to read and write, and on a personal level triumphs over her disfiguring illness, the shock both of the discovery of her true identity and of the almost immediate loss of the real mother who informs her of it; and ultimately she does not let the severe warning of her adoptive mother ruin her life.

Bleak House is far from being a gloomy novel albeit that there is much darkness in it—darkness which links the sterile, deadened world of the Dedlocks of Chesney Wold and the wretched infernal region of Tom-all- Alone’s. It is lightened by means of comedy and those positive endeavours by such characters as Esther and her guardian to counter the evils of the world.

The comedy is very powerful but never merely for its own sake. The depiction of the Court of Chancery and its futile dealings or pseudo-dealings is itself humorous but that humour is dark and at times disperses to reveal the stark realities of the London of the time with its wretched slums and huddled poor hunting for scraps on the human dung heaps and in the muddy sludge that befouls the streets.

The domestic arrangements of Mrs Jellyby, for another instance, are both very funny and at the same time pitiable, as she ignores her own children in favour of wretches across the seas. The Reverend Mr. Chadband, with his orotund vacuities boomed into the receptive ears of meanspirited souls like the desiccated Mrs Snagsby, is an entertaining figure but he is one of those for whom words supersede deeds and he unsurprisingly reveals himself to be perfectly hypocritical in seeking to make pecuniary profit from his knowledge of ‘a sinful secret’.

Such characters, in which the novel abounds, are, as ever with Dickens, wonderfully named: Guppy, Skimpole, Turveydrop, Tulkinghorn, Dedlock. They seem to sum up the individual concerned, sometimes more or less literarily (Dedlock), but more often by association. Such names are fantastical but Bleak House, is not a naturalistic work. Its most famous incident is the manner of the death of Krook, which may surprise the newcomer to the novel. In 1872 G.H. Lewes published an essay criticising Dickens for his distortions and grotesque exaggerations. To his friend Forster, Dickens commented: ‘in these times, when the tendency is to be frightfully literal and catalogue-like…I have an idea…that the very holding of popular literature through a kind of popular dark age, may depend on such fanciful treatment.’

Critics have noted affinities with Balzac and Gogol, and certainly Dostoevsky was an admirer. When a friend asked him what reading matter he should offer his daughter, he wrote: ‘All Dickens’ books, absolutely without exception.’ Some have sought to make a case that Kafka’s work shares characteristics with those of Dickens. Be that as it may, our greatest novelist aimed, in the words of Graham Storey, ‘to be master of both factual truth and imaginative life.’

Notes by Maurice West

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