I first read Charles Dickens’s Bleak House (1853) when I was in my teens and it sent me into hysterics (not the “ha ha” kind either, the Victorian kind). I thought I was doing fine as Dickens piled on the pathos, but when Esther Summerson woke from her illness to find the mirror removed from her room, that was it, I freaked.
Aside from my lack of enthusiasm to repeat this experience, I wouldn’t have chosen to read Bleak House again because, at close to 1,000 pages, it’s a monster and there are so many other books I ought to read. Still, in this case I’m glad I was forced to re-read it for work.
Bleak House is a huge, ramshackle, labyrinth of a novel with a divided narrative and a complicated double plot held together by intricate connections. Dickens, with his incredible appetite for writing, couldn’t seem to pick a genre and stick with it, so we have realism, romance, melodrama, satire, the gothic, and crime fiction all thrown in together. This makes it difficult to interpret because the way we read books for meaning depends on our knowledge of the genre in which we place the work. I tend to agree with the critics who read it as a story about the power of secrets and dangers of obsession, as well as the helplessness of the subject under the tyranny of the law. It has been compared to Franz Kafka’s The Trial.
The title is not deceptive: it’s definitely bleak and I’m not surprised that I had hysterics the first time around. There are nine deaths in this book. It abounds with the grotesque figures Dickens was famous for, but there isn’t much humour. He interprets Victorian England as a sick, decaying society in which the misery of the poor caused by social injustice spreads to infect everyone, just as Jo the crossing sweep gets “moved along” and infects Esther with the smallpox that disfigures her beyond recognition.
When I first read Bleak House I had very little patience with Esther’s syrupy “Angel in the House” narrative, but now I see its construction as quite psychologically astute on Dickens’s part. Esther’s low self-esteem and self-depreciating remarks should be read in relation to the stigma of her illegitimacy, which is also signified by her scarred face. It makes sense that a woman with no name, legal relations, or status in society would feel the need to trade in goodness because her only chance in life is to make people love her. She has nothing else to offer.
The first time around I liked the benevolent John Jarndyce who takes Esther and the other wards of court into his home, but this time I experienced him as a creepy control freak who can’t stop trying to orchestrate other people’s lives.
I remember hating the opening (boring!), but now I think it’s one of the best things Dickens ever wrote.
Victorian feminism makes an appearance in the vicious representation of Mrs Jellyby, the irresponsible do-gooder with a squalid house full of neglected children and a husband who spends his time leaning his head against the wall in despair. Towards the end of the novel it is sneeringly remarked that she’s turned her attention to women’s rights to sit in parliament.**
Despite this surface disdain for women’s rights, Bleak House is actually very interested in gender and the position of women. The entire book is gendered, with half the narrative told from a self-depreciating feminine position by Esther, and the other half by a presumptively male, confident but cynical, narrator. Then Dickens can’t help being fascinated with the icy Lady Dedlock who finds her secrets catching up with her and he represents the frightening lawyer Mr Tulkinghorn as an outright misogynist.
Overall it was worth the effort, but I don’t think I’ll be going for a third attempt anytime soon.
If you can’t face reading the entire book, the BBC adaptation with Gillian Anderson is pretty good.
** By Dickensian coincidence there’s a post up at Hoyden About Town about Caroline Chisholm. Chisholm was allegedly the model for Mrs Jellyby.
Cross posted to Flaming Culture