sometimes witty book reviews
Title: Bleak House
Author/Year: Charles Dickens, 1852-3 (serialised)
Found: On the reading list for a subject I didn’t take
Read time: A month-ish
The intricate plot of Bleak House is woven around a very dry subject: the case of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce. A case that has been in court for generations. So complex and incomprehensible is it’s nature its weekly-ish occurrences in court forces sighs and/or laughter from the regular gaggle of onlookers. Caught up in the great yet sagging web of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce is Esther Summerson; a young woman of considerable intelligence, beauty and bad luck.
Each birthday of her childhood Esther is forced to reflect on her existence by her godmother, Miss Barbary – specifically on how she was the ruin of her late mother. The rest of the year she lives a bland and un-stimulating life. Upon Barbary’s death, Esther is put first through six years of schooling and then sent to Bleak House to live with the owner (and her new guardian), John Jarndyce. An unwilling participant in the Jarndyce v. Jarndyce affair, this Jarndyce is also guardian to two other young people – a pair of distantly related cousins, Richard and Ava. Both also have a claim in Jarndyce v. Jarndyce.
A Lady Dedlock enters the book (predictably also entangled with J v J) and then the plot really thickens (or rather, the plot really Dickens). Spying the handwriting on a letter being read by her solicitor, Lady Dedlock faints. Startled, and after attending to his client’s immediate bodily needs, the solicitor finds the writer to be a tramp named ‘Nemo’. At the same time Richard is trying decide on a profession and attempts a medical one. Through his study buddies Esther meets her love interest, Dr Allan Woodcraft.
Lady Dedlock disguises herself as a French maid to investigate the curious ‘Nemo’ with the help of a poor street sweeper named Jo. She also somehow meets Esther in a church. An encroaching legal clerk named Mr Guppy falls in love with Esther and tries to woo her. Meanwhile, Richard and Ada are also falling in love. Jo needs rescuing from smallpox and with Esther’s help recovers. But then Esther catches it and is scarred in the process, rendering her undesirable to Mr Guppy and, she fears, Dr Woodcraft as well. Meanwhile Richard has abandoned medical school and thrown himself into the Jarndyce saga convinced he will make his fortune that way. He also finds out that Esther has a claim in J v J.
A generous dollop of seemingly-polyfiller-yet-actually-essential characters are woven into the narrative for delicious reading pleasure. To name a few: Lawrence Boythorn, a friend of John Jarndyce who was once in love with Miss Barbery (who turns out to actually be Esther’s aunt); Krook, Nemo’s landlord who dies of spontaneous combustion owing to his exclusive diet of gin; a Mr Bagnet, a former military man who plays the bassoon – it goes on (and on).
Finally, Lady Dedlock works it all out. And people die, but there’s a happy ending.
Dickens’ defining talent for character description is put to the test in this marathon tale of people caught in the system and social demands of the day. It’s hard to believe 900 pages could be so…succinct. The sentences are long but not flowery in the least. Pages start to fly by as one adapts to the nature of Dickens’s prose (a similarly in-over-your-head to the first ten disconcerting minutes of a live Shakespeare play; you get the swing of things quickly).
Bleak House is the genius of Dickens in delectable quality and quantity.