Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Bleak House: Charles Dickens

I feel ambivalent about this novel. I enjoyed reading much of it, but it was a difficult read, and seemed too long. It was first published in 20 monthly installments between March 1852 and September 1853, which was probably an enjoyable way to read it, but how did readers of the time keep up with all the characters? It took me nearly three weeks to read, although I did read other books at the same time, unusual for me.

The story centers around a case in the Court of Chancery, Jarndyce and Jarndyce. The case has something to do with the resolution of conflicting wills, which I never truly understood, and the case has been in the court for many years. John Jarndyce of Bleak House takes on the custody of two wards, Richard Carstone and Ada Clare, who are distant cousins and beneficiaries in one of the wills. At the same time he becomes guardian to Esther Summerson, an orphan who becomes Ada's companion.

The story is told alternately by Esther in first person, and by an omniscient narrator.  In addition to following the characters living at Bleak House, there are other important plots and many of them tie together later in the book. One features Sir Leicester Dedlock and his wife Honoria. Lady Dedlock has a secret she wants to keep from her husband at all costs, and the evil lawyer Mr. Tulkington is determined to find out what that secret is. Another subplot I enjoyed involved the Jellyby family. Mrs. Jellyby is a philanthropist who spends all of her time gathering funds to set up a mission in Africa, while ignoring and neglecting the needs of her own family. Her eldest daughter, Caddy, serves as her secretary (unwillingly) and becomes a good friend of Esther.

There is a murder mystery within this long novel. I knew that before I started reading it, but I had expected it to play a small role. In fact, it is an interesting and engaging part of the story, and the detective, Inspector Bucket, is a very good character.

I have complained about the confusion of too many characters in other books, but this book overflows with characters. On the Wikipedia page there are two lists of characters, with 21 major characters and about 40 minor characters. I highly recommend the Wikipedia page for a description of the characters, but I would avoid reading the synopsis of the story before reading the book, because it starts out with a big plot spoiler.

As I mentioned previously, I had difficulty reading this book. But I did not want to take a year to finish it like I did with Victor Hugo's Les Misérables. I preferred the chapters told by Esther; they had more focus and initially they were more interesting. So I would pace my reading by reading up to a point where Esther's narration starts again. There was a point where I was having difficulty reading more than one chapter a day, but that only lasted a few days, fortunately. And then towards the end, I wanted to keep reading along because I wanted to know the ending, how it all turns out.

I would like to share Colin Dexter's thoughts on this book from an article at the The Guardian. The story of how he came to read Bleak House for the first time is very entertaining, so I recommend reading the entire article.
I have since religiously read the novel from beginning to end three times, and with ever-increasing delight and understanding. It was, and is, the greatest novel of the lot. Why? First, the quality of the writing; second, the complexity of the plot; third, the extraordinary insight and honesty of the characterisation.

Here are reviews at other blogs to check out:


Publisher:  Vintage Books, 2012 (orig. pub. 1853).
Length:     866 pages
Format:     Trade Paperback
Setting:     England
Genre:      Fiction, Classic
Source:     I purchased this book.


Rick Robinson said...

I've read and liked some Dickens, but not this, nor is it one I intend to read. I've put it below even such lesser known works as The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit. What I have read: The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol, David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations

Bill Selnes said...

TracyK: Thanks for an interesting post. I feel I should read the book but am not sure I want to undertake the challenge of reading a true door stopper.

TracyK said...

Rick, The only other Dickens I have read is Christmas Carol. The others that you have read are ones I want to read too. I am glad I read Bleak House, but... it was too long.

TracyK said...

Bill, You might enjoy this book. It is about legal matters. But for me it was a struggle, so I cannot recommend it to others.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I have read the same ones Rick has and enjoyed Great Expectations and David Copperfield in particular. This one, I didn't even make it through the Masterpiece Series, I think. Brevity grows more important.

Roger Allen said...

If it was too long, what would you drop from Bleak House ?
It is all tied together in an enormous skein. If you made two novels half as long they would both be worse.

"The case has something to do with the resolution of conflicting wills, which I never truly understood"
Don't worry! You aren't meant to. Nobody understands the case.

TracyK said...

Patti, Thanks for the recommendations. I do want to read more Dickens, but have plenty of other books on hand, and no other Dickens in the house. My husband likes Dickens, and especially Bleak House, which is the major reason I read it first after A Christmas Carol.

TracyK said...

Roger, that is a good question, and I did think about that (prior to putting it in the review). I do think most of the subplots were important to the overall story, although some have left my memory entirely and were confusing to me as I read them.

The same thing was said of Les Miserables, that even the parts that seemed extraneous were important to what Victor Hugo was aiming for in the novel, and I agree. I read all 1100-1200 pages. And sometimes enjoyed the "extraneous" parts more than the main plot.

I think it is more a matter of taste for me and my reading and I should have made that clearer. I do prefer shorter novels but I wanted to experience this one and I am glad I did.

I am glad to hear that the Jarndyce and Jarndyce case was not supposed to be understood.

Cath said...

I gather these long drawn out cases were quite common in Victorian times. I believe the idea was that they went on so long all the money went to paying the lawyers and there was nothing left for the claimant. I will read this one day. I loved the BBC adaptation from about 10 years ago, wonderful cast and nicely done with half-hour instalments every night over a few weeks. It was one of Corey Mulligan's first roles and people like Charles Dance, Denis Law, Anna Maxwell Martin and Gillian Anderson were in it. Well worth a look if you can find it. Well done on your perseverance for finishing it.

Margot Kinberg said...

Bleak House really is a long book, Tracy, with a lot of characters. So I'm not surprised that you found it rough going. It's got a lot to it, doesn't it? But the writing style can really draw one in, and I'm glad you persevered to the end.

TracyK said...

Cath, one of the things we planned to watch when we subscribed to Britbox on Amazon Prime was Bleak House, but we have not done that yet. (We have watched a good bit of Poirot episodes and a season of Shetland.) We should do that soon.

TracyK said...

Margot, I admire Dickens' writing and he certainly showed what life was like at that time at different levels in society. It was extremely interesting from that viewpoint.

Judith said...

Hi Tracy,
What a fascinating discussion of your experience reading Bleak House. I have taken note of your suggestions for reading. And I'm actually dying to read it now, which you may not have expected your post to do for a reader! But it did, indeed.
Thank you for taking the time to point out all you did.
And I do want to congratulate you for having finished reading it because it is such a TOME!!
Finally, finally The Devil's Brood by Sharon Kay Penman has arrived. It took one month to get here from California, if you can imagine. So I will be engrossed with it for a while, while also reading a "pot-boiler," a new e-book borrowed from the New York Public Library. It's The Lost and Found Bookshop by Susan Wiggs, brand new. Easy reading.
Best wishes to you!

TracyK said...

Judith, I am sure you will enjoy reading Bleak House. Many readers love it and read it over and over. My husband has just put it in his stack to reread again sometime. And I am glad none of my comments deterred you.

I am glad you reminded me of Sharon Kay Penman. I am going to find The Queen's Man and pull it out to read soonish. After I finish the 20 Books of Summer list.

Rick Robinson said...

And now I want to find and watch the movie of Tale of Two Cities!

TracyK said...

Rick, Which movie version do you prefer? I would want to read the book first, I think.

col2910 said...

Well done. I think if I was going to read anything by Dickens, I might go back to Great Expectations, or Oliver Twist, but I doubt I'll ever feel inclined to read him.

TracyK said...

Col, I hope to read more by Dickens, but I will have to do some research on what appeals most.

Clothes in Books said...

This is one of my favourite Dickens books - when he is on form I find him totally immersive and I don't mind how long they are, or how many characters! But I can see that would be an issue. Agatha Christie loved Bleak House, and said she tried her hand at a TV adaptation of it once, but it was impossible, too many 'layers of the onion' for her to write a script, she said.

TracyK said...

Moira, that is interesting about Christie wanting to write an adaptation. It does seem like a huge task. I am interested in reading more by Dickens someday.

GG said...

Agatha Christie was paid £10,000 to write a film script of Bleak House. She completed the work, which remains unfilmed.

TracyK said...

GG, that is very interesting. I had never heard that. Someday I want to read a biography of Christie.