Bleak House

Rating: ★★★★

The received opinion I have had about Dickens is that a lot of people can't get on with him, that his writing is overstuffed. This in turn seems to be -- at least for some -- a reaction to a previous wave of opinion that his work is a standard by which other novelists might be judge. I can see both points. The book is long, not just in page count but in the amount it forces you to live in it, to read leisurely introductions to each scene. Dickens does, quite obviously, spin out certain of these scene-setting descriptions with an eye on his wordcount, but they are nonetheless worthwhile, some for their pretty turns of phrase, others for the way they make clear some minor element of the 19th century setting, and yet other parts for the mannered humour. The plot movement is slow, and some of it predictable, but unlike his contemporary Austen I found Dickens had a subject that interested me.

Bleak House is, most openly, an attack on the system of the Chancery courts, through which at the time (if Dickens is to be believed) minor disputes over estates are so drawn out and tortured by self-serving lawyers that entire fortunes are lost to the courts. Dickens writes to illustrate this, to show the harm and injustice, and agitate reform. In this he was successful, and in writing a novel that actually changed the world for the better he meets a rare standard for any artist.

Beyond this, the novel also carries many morals in its many sub-plots, but primarily Dickens is concerned with the proper focus and form of charity, and warning people against wasting their lives on high-minded causes while all around them goes to ruin. Most obviously, the image of this is Mrs. Jellyby, who organises tirelessly for a settlement in Africa while around her her household lies in ruin -- ruined, in fact, by her own hand. There are other figures of similar standing, however, like Mr Turveydrop, who devotes his life to his Deportment while starving his family, and even Richard, whose obsession with getting justice in the Chancery case distracts him from profitable employment, exhausts the funds of himself and his beloved, and causes him to die a pauper. Jo, the illiterate orphan with so little understanding of religion that he cannot be sworn in at an inquest, provides a pointed societal extension of this reprimand when he sits exhausted on the doorstep of a Society concerned with promoting the gospel in far-off lands. Esther and Allan provide the model for Dickens -- be practical, and generous in energy and support to those around you.

Which brings me to the big negative: the novel is so very empathetic that at times it was a bit much for me. Jarndyce is so charitable to anyone he bumps into that it's hard to see how he's not ruined. Esther, the main character, is so very concerned to be useful and kind to everyone she meets that she is quite sickly sweet and you start to want to throttle her just to stop her bloody apologizing to everyone. The little subtle digs she lands on some of the characters -- and I should remark that Dickens writes incredibly vivid characters -- are about the only thing that kept me from giving her up as a lost cause. Outside of the characters themselves, most drawn with great empathy, Dickens spends so much time carefully detailing the conditions of the poor in general that you can't doubt it was a serious concern for him. For those like me who worry about finding it a bit sweet, I should mention the palate is relieved by many deaths, one count of adultery, a murder and a spontaneous combustion.