Monday, 18 June 2012

The Classics Club: Bleak House

On the occasion of the bicentenary of Charles Dickens' birth, I read one of his epic novels, Bleak House.  In it, we follow Esther leaving her childhood home to go live with her guardian Mr. Jarndyce, as well as two other children, Richard and Ava, in Bleak House. Without further ado, we are introduced to the chaotic life of Mr. Jarndyce and of the infamous Jarndyce & Jarndyce court case, which has and is still destroying all the people in its proximity.

Bleak House starts in great writing style.  Dickens takes every pain to carefully describe the person, the case, the situation - even the helplessness surrounding the Jarndyce case... At times, he may give the impression of exaggerating, but I felt that all words had a distinct purpose.

From the beginning, though, Esther is put on a pedestal - she is slightly too good for my taste, and I was half awaiting something bad to happen or the dark side of her character to be revealed... (I'm evil, I know...)
Also very interesting were the social remarks Dickens made, which I'm afraid are valid even in our days:  the upper class that has the right to claim a ghost (...), vain people who make too much fuss for the little they do (Mrs. Jellyby), the orphans who are expected to be the little old women (Esther).  

Slowly, the constant addition of characters leaves me perplexed.  I actually had to draw a list with the characters and their relationship, so that I could keep track of what was happening in the story.  Couples begin to appear as major players in the plot:  Lady Dedlock and Sir Leicester, Richard and Ava.  Jarndyce is linked to both these couples, and there seems also to be a connection between Lady Dedlock and Esther. Various other characters monopolise the scene and mix matters up...

Towards the middle of the book, I am seriously considering giving up on the whole lot.  But then, of course, Dickens proves the genius he is:  two wonderful twists, two major revelations about Nemo and Esther rekindle my interest in the book and make me turn the pages again.  I have to find out what is happening in the second half of the book...

This begins with the introduction of my favourite character in the book:  Jo.  A decent guy, forsaken by society, but with such pure soul that almost brought me to tears several times.  He shows a depth of character that comes in stark contrast with the well-respected and highly-decorated people Dickens makes fun of.  But this is not enough:  although he proves to have played a major role in clearing up the mystery around Lady Dedlock, he's taken out of Bleak House in the middle of the night, and once I'm inclined to believe he's finally found some peace in his life - out he goes.  Dickens, if anything, will not allow for any sentimentality with regard to the poor and forgotten:  

"Dead, your Majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen… Dead, men and women, born with Heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us every day"

Twists continue to complicate the story of Bleak House even further:  Richard studies medicine, changes his his mind, studies law, gets sucked into the Jarndyce case (which, incidentally, no one remembers how it started...).  Tulkinghorn blackmails Lady Dedlock for her connection to Nemo.  Esther tries to find more information about her childhood, her aunt and her mother. George is arrested for Tulkinghorn's death, with no apparent explanation.  Sir Leicester suffers a stroke and is bedridden with grief.  Mr. Jarndyce asks Esther to marry him and she accepts...

The multitude of characters and sub-plots quickly tire me.  I start to read "diagonally" the vast passages in the novel that provide no real added value (something I'm not proud of, but it goes to show how easy it is to lose interest...)  I really want the story to move along and end at some point, as I find that it is being stalled for no reason...

The end of a very complicated story that was based on a lengthy legal case comes to an end rather abruptly.  After bearing Dickens' extended descriptions about petty instances, I am amazed at how quickly the Jarndyce & Jarndyce case is resolved (especially knowing that it had absorbed so many generations) - a will is found, the case is closed, the estate is up to the legal fees, but at least all are happy – bar Richard, whose life ends as soon as the case itself… 

Richard proved to be my least favourite character in the novel, not because he’s a bad character, but because he’s such a wasted potential. He was incapable of seeing anything but gloom, which finally cost him his life – a life spent chasing shadows. 

Of the secondary characters, I was saddened by the hidden passion Sir Leicester proved to have, as he becomes a ghost himself in Chesney Wold, destroyed by the death of Lady Dedlock.  Still, I found the unlikely pair of Leicester and Boythorn very touching – grumpy old men, but friends for ever. 

A new Bleak House is now in place, populated by Esther and Woodcourt and the next trio of characters (continuing in the fashion of Ada, Richard and Esther), full of life and laughter, in stark contrast with Chesney Wold … I believe that Esther ends her story in the middle of a sentence because life is now restored in the world, and enjoying it is first priority rather than writing her thoughts down…

All in all, Bleak House proved for me a worthy challenge - very good use of  language and on-the-spot social commentary, but at times unnecessarily complicated ...

Also read for the Back to the Classics reading challenge


  1. I've read the first... maybe... 100 pages of this one? I look forward to getting back to it. I thought Esther was hilarious because she is constantly telling the reader how wonderful she is, through other characters, and pretending to dislike the compliments. :P

    1. I have to admit it was a difficult -at times- task to read it. Still, I'm glad I finished it! As to Esther, I never really warmed up to her...

  2. It's funny how so many classics have this one character, usually the main girl, who is so pure and perfect she gets on the reader's nerves :)
    Lovely review! Do visit!

    1. This one really got on my nerves...

  3. I agree that Dickens could have used a good editor. Given how each character and event that happens has a purpose and a connection to everything else, it's hard not to marbel at Dickens ability to juggle so many balls at one.
    Brona's Books

    1. True, he had that ability, but - in my case - that meant starting to filter through the text ...




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