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NAX43112 - DICKENS, C.: Bleak House (Unabridged)

Charles Dickens
Bleak House


‘ “A dreary name,” said the Lord Chancellor…’ (Chapter III)

His Lordship is referring to Bleak House—and Dickens himself, perhaps with the Lord Chancellor’s opinion in mind, took some time to arrive at this title for his book. This was to be his ninth novel, written at the height of his powers, but it was to be unlike any of his previous novels; it was to be a novel of purpose. Dickens had a message to convey on a grand scale, and there was to be no central character who would dominate the narrative. So, biographical titles like Oliver Twist or David Copperfield would not be appropriate. Instead, his novel was to reflect the state of England in 1853—a vast undertaking. For the title Dickens considered that a building central to the plot would serve as a unifying image to the disparate storyline, with its two narrators and conflicting literary styles. Dickens experimented with several possibilities: Tomall-Alone’s (the slum dwellings that feature significantly in the plot); The Ruined House (with its double meaning of ‘house’) was another. Other titles jotted down by Dickens among his working notes for the novel included The Solitary House (that never knew happiness); The East Wind; and The Ruined House That Got into Chancery and never got out.’ He finally settled on Bleak House without any explanatory sub-title or additions. This enigmatic title would allow his readers to reflect and apply it as they chose to the contents of the novel, whose projected image of England is indeed in many ways—bleak.

Dickens having completed the ultimate biographical novel in David Copperfield, set about writing a biography of the nation in Bleak House. As in David Copperfield where Mr Micawber, for example, had been a portrait of his indigent father, Dickens once again drew upon his own experiences, family and friends to provide the archetypes for Bleak House. This proved to be controversial; the poet and essayist Leigh Hunt for one was deeply offended by his caricature in the person of Harold Skimpole: ‘I am constantly being bailed out, like a boat…Somebody always does it for me. I can’t do it you know, for I never have any money; but somebody does it(Skimpole in Bleak House)

It was an essential part of Dickens’s working method to draw on his own experiences and friends whether it offended them or not and in Bleak House, drawing upon his own experiences within the legal system as a solicitor’s clerk, he attacks ‘the Law’s delays’, particularly in respect of the Chancery Court, where cases could be, and were, argued over for decades. The fictional Jarndyce versus Jarndyce case was based on the real-life Jennings case which was before the court for an amazing ninety years!

Writing in the preface to the first edition of Bleak House Dickens tells the reader sharply: ‘If I wanted other authorities…I could rain them on these pages to the shame of—a parsimonious public.’ He attacks an outmoded system deep-rooted in ancient historical practice that impeded rather than helped humanity, that ultimately destroys what it seeks to assist. A system perpetuated by its workers—the lawyers—for their own benefit, blocking and confusing rather than oiling the wheels of the law.

Likewise another system is scrutinised by Dickens. Aristocratic privilege is firmly in place, as epitomised by Sir Leicester Dedlock, but Dickens challenges the rights of the old order by introducing Rouncewell, the ironmaster, whose attitude to Sir Leicester reflects the shifting society of the 1850s, knocking at the door of privilege.

Man creates his own systems by which society is controlled and the individual contained; they are not ordained by nature, and as long as they serve mankind they will be valid. Dickens instinctively supported the free will of the individual against any restrictive system of control, indeed it would be the theme of his next novel, Hard Times.

The insidious presence of the Law in Bleak House, is represented allegorically by the London fog, with which the book opens so atmospherically, getting everywhere and influencing every character in the book from the great and haughty Lady Dedlock to the shabby-genteel, bewildered Miss Flite. It distorts images, obscures and hides. The characters in Bleak House are blurred or not what they at first appear to be. The fog too is a symbol of the pervasive contamination that corrupts society: drug addiction (opium was readily available to all); crippling poverty; a hidebound bureaucratic system (epitomised by the Law); the misguided philanthropy of Mrs Jellaby and Mrs Pardiggle, seeking to help those abroad whilst ignoring the poor at home; and one of Dickens’s key themes, small-pox spread through poor sanitary conditions. His message is that it is inertia that encourages disease to spread, and will eventually overwhelm us all. This point is emphasised when Esther succumbs to small-pox. Her physical disfigurement is a reminding presence throughout the remainder of the book. The disease shows no respect for the class system, the virus transferring from paupers to the middle classes alike.

Individual responsibility for one’s actions is set forth by Dickens as a start in making any changes to social injustice. The inaction of Lady Dedlock to set things right, has subsequent tragic effects on the lives of Nemo, Jo and Esther. On a larger scale, Dickens implies that if the tensions of an unequal and unjust society are not attended to, society itself may eventually spontaneously combust, as Mr Krook does. Parasites like Skimpole and Turveydrop, and leeches like Smallweed are contrasted with characters who continually work for good, like Jo the crossing sweeper symbolically cleaning the dirty London streets, and the good-hearted Esther, who helps such outcasts as Peepy, Caddy Jellaby and Charley Neckett. Esther’s inherent domesticity coupled with Jarndyce’s use of his money to continually benefit others, make Bleak House anything but bleak. It is a ramshackle, eccentric building, like its owner, that glows like a warm fire at the centre of the novel as a place of refuge and joy.

The story is told by two narrators—a unique feature of Dickens’s work. Esther, self-effacingly tells her own story, whilst an anonymous voice unravels the mystery of Lady Dedlock’s story. But characters cross into both stories and at times Esther’s story is told by the other narrator. This inter-mixing and crossing of conventions produces a complicated plot, at times disconcerting, that was criticised on its first publication as being in ‘absolute want of construction.’ But Dickens was evolving a new type of novel—he spread his net wide to include a vast range of characters to give a panoramic view of English society from top to bottom, and how the highest and the lowest interact. Such diversity also helped him in the construction of what is essentially a mystery story, a who-dun-it, where characters and plot-strands appear like clues and can just as likely turn out to be red herrings. Bleak House could in fact be called the first Detective novel in English Literature, as it pre-dates The Moonstone (1868) by Wilkie Collins, often credited to be the first, by fifteen years. The detective branch of the Metropolitan Police Force had been formed at Scotland Yard, in 1842, and Dickens had interviewed one of the new breed of detectives for his magazine Household Words. All the ingredients we associate with the classic fictional detective are in place in the characterisation of Bucket—he is enigmatic, single-minded in his pursuit of the criminal, ruthless and clever. It was a genre that obviously fascinated Dickens as he explored it further in Our Mutual Friend and the unfinished Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Notes by David Timson

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