I have never been a great Dickens fan. I remember him mainly as the author of the only book—Oliver Twist—which I disliked when it was read to me as a child. After that, I tended to avoid him, though I did always intend to get around to A Tale of Two Cities. I can always be talked into trying a particular book, however, and over the last couple of years I have been talked into trying this one, starting with how often the title came up while I was studying Equity, and moving on to acquiring increasingly large numbers of friends who all recommended it.
The intricately-plotted tome follows the life of Esther Summerson, who is the essence of Victorian heroines. Born of mysterious (strongly hinted to be illegitimate) parentage, brought up by a stern and unloving godmother, rescued by a philanthropic guardian, and fervently loved by all her friends, relations, and chance acquaintances, Esther remains modest, conscious of her own shortcomings, and conscientiously dutiful. Her guardian, John Jarndyce, is a party in the never-ending Chancery case Jarndyce and Jarndyce, which he calls “the family curse”—he knows that once in Chancery, no-one ever gets out; that the constant expectations and hopes, constantly dashed, which such a suit raises are of a type to destroy the firmest character. Consequently, when he brings Esther to stay with him in order to act as a companion to Ada and her cousin Richard—two wards of court in the Jarndyce case—he warns the three of them never to hope that the case will ever be settled.
Meanwhile a young man (of the name of Guppy) has become smitten with Esther and sets out to discover her parentage. Lady Dedlock, the exquisitely bored young wife of old Sir Leicester Dedlock, accidentally betrays the existence of the secret she has dedicated her life to keeping, and the family lawyer Mr Tulkinghorn inexorably hunts her down. The loathsome, geriatric Mr Smallweed tries to force an old soldier into betraying the whereabouts of a creditor. A poverty-stricken clerk known only as Nemo and befriended only by a young crossing-sweeper is found dead of an opium overdose; after his burial, the grave is visited by a mysterious woman. Ada and Rick fall in love, but Rick’s inability to settle down to any profession and his certainty that Jarndyce and Jarndyce will make him rich threatens to part them. And Miss Flyte, a mad old lady who haunts Chancery waiting for a judgment in some long-forgotten matter keeps caged birds which will be released when she is.
Despite being such a long book (935 pages in my Penguin Classics edition), Bleak House was never dull and I keenly enjoyed the ride. The narration, I hear, is much admired: it switches between the first-person-past-tense narration of Esther Summerson and a third-person-present-tense narrator who sees all and is pretty opinionated (in a satirical, humourous way) about it.
In some ways the book lived up to my expectations. I have read widely, if not in Dickens, and I found (as I expected) a long book full of pungent character studies and Victorian sentimentalism. Impossible and violently evocative names like Guppy, Dedlock, Skimpole, Turveydrop and Snagsby are matched with equally impossible and whimsical characters, each with a specific character trait (to say nothing of Boodle, Coodle, Doodle, Foodle, Goodle, Hoodle, Joodle, Moodle, Noodle, Poodle, Quoodle, and their opponents Buffy, Cuffy, Duffy &c ad infinitum)--so much so that I was able to pinpoint Esther’s love interest in his very first appearance, because his name and character were not grotesquely whimsical. One the one hand, that glowingly benevolent estimation of the human character known to the world ever since the author’s day as “Dickensian”. On the other hand, a foggy, rainy, depressed view of human society and its poverty-stricken meanness which I remember all too well from Oliver Twist.
In other ways, the book surprised me. I had not expected to enjoy so keenly the bleak satire of human folly and wickedness that I knew I’d find: even at his most trenchant, Dickens is hilarious, which is what makes him readable. But the book is not entirely disapproving; of course not—there are just as many pleasant characters as unpleasant ones (my favourites may be the delightful Bagnet family—“Discipline must be maintained!”).
The plot itself was the thing that surprised me most. First, it had after all very little to do with the Court of Chancery or the law of equity. It savagely criticises the institution, focusing on the larger social ramifications of such a system, but has little to do with the institution itself, and gives no suggestions for its improvement. I would further note that while Dickens was writing the novel, the stratified system was just beginning the process of reform which eventually abolished the court of Chancery altogether. I found Anthony Trollope’s satire of the legal profession in The Warden rather more to the point.
Second, the multitude of subplots eventually resolves into two major plots. There are no last-minute plot twists here, and most surprisingly of all, no resolution that ties the two loose ends neatly together. Both end almost independently; so independently that at first I was left wondering what the book was all about.
I immediately turned to the Introduction in my Penguin Classics edition. Just a word on Introductions. When you buy a classic work of literature in a respectably endnoted and Introduced edition, never read the Introduction first. It will spoil the ending and all the major plot points for you. I don’t know why they call it an Introduction; it should be put at the end and called an Afterword. It really is only useful after reading the book.
The Introduction to Bleak House is by J Hillis Miller, and it focuses on the theme of interpretation: “Bleak House is a document about the interpretation of documents.” Characters are constantly misreading or misinterpreting things: documents, people, situations, even the future (as with the otherwise astute Mr Tulkinghorn). Mr Miller says:
The villain is the act of interpretation itself, the naming which assimilates the particular into a system, giving it a definition and a value, incorporating it into a whole. If this is the case, then in spite of Dickens’s generous rage against injustice, selfishness and procrastination, the evil he so brilliantly identifies is irremediable. It is inseparable from language and from the organization of men into society. All proper names, as linguists and ethnologists have recognized, are metaphors. They alienate the person named from him unspeakable individuality and assimilate him into a system of language. They label him in terms of something other than himself, in one form of the differentiating or stepping aside which is the essence of language. To name someone is to alienate him from himself by making him part of a family.
This is a fascinating opinion, but it is an opinion so thoroughly up-to-date and postmodern that I have a hard time believing that Dickens himself held it or would have expressed it so clearly. Whether or not it was Dickens’s, I hope I need not illustrate how thoroughly anti-Christian this view is. It assumes that a person has “unspeakable individuality” which language, particularly naming, destroys. But we assert that no-one has existence apart from God who is entirely outside creation and, not counting the Incarnation, of different substance to ourselves. We assert the creation of the world by the Word and the foundation of ultimate reality in the communion and relationship of Father, Son, and Spirit. We assert naming as a righteous act of dominion, beginning with God’s naming His Creation, bestowed upon man with Adam’s naming the animals and his wife, and continued throughout redemptive history with Abraham, Israel, Daniel, Peter, and Paul.
However inaccurate this view may (or may not be) as a hint to Dickens’s intention in Bleak House, it remains a fairly good attempt to describe what the book is actually about as far as I can see. “The villain is the act of interpretation itself…It is inseparable from language and from the organization of men into society.” Let me quote a few more snippets from the Introduction to complete this picture:
Like many other nineteenth-century writers Dickens was caught between his desire to reject what he found morally objectionable or false about Christianity, in particular its doctrine of original sin, and his desire to retain some form of Christian morality.[…]A later generation might see marriage as one of the perfidious legalities distorting the natural feelings of the heart.[…]The novel persuasively shows, however, that nothing lies at the origin of Jarndyce and Jarndyce but man’s ability to create and administer systems of law. Such systems give actions and documents a meaning. It would seem, nevertheless, that the Ten Commandments fit this definition of evil as well as the laws and precedents governing Chancery. […] Between its commitment to a traditional interpretation of these relations and a tendency to put all interpretation in question as the original evil Bleak House remains poised.
While I do not like to take the Introducer’s opinion as a final statement of this book’s meaning (if he is right, after all, his interpretation is doing a violence to Dickens’s work!) I think it makes something about Bleak House rather clear.
In Christendom, everyone knows (or should know) just what’s wrong with the world. As GK Chesterton said when the question was put to him, “I am.” Human nature is what’s wrong with the world; that is the meaning of original sin. That the heart is deceitful above all things. That the natural urges of humanity are all tarred with the same brush.
As humans, we are made in the image of our God. Like God we are individuals, each of us fallen and sinful. Like God we are also fellowships, corporations, collectives, societies: we are families, churches, states, ping-pong clubs; each of these just as fallen, just as sinful. Societies may even be the ultimate reality, because a society can be made up of individuals, but an individual cannot in himself be a society. The doctrine of the Trinity settles once and for all the question of the One and the Many, not by giving either ultimacy but by asserting their equal ultimacy.
In short, what comes out of a man’s heart corrupts him; not the influence of society.
Dickens, and Bleak House, support the exact opposite viewpoint. In Bleak House, humanity is naturally good: it is society that corrupts, and most of all it is, in Miller’s words, “the perfidious legalities distorting the natural feelings of the heart”. This view can be seen clearly in the way Dickens handles the character of Richard Carstone. He is an amiable, happy, good-natured sort of youth who nevertheless is unable to settle down to a specific course of employment. This is blamed above everything else upon the effect which Jarndyce and Jarndyce has had on him: he is unstable because he has been taught to depend upon the suit, to wait for it to be settled so that he can become rich. It is Jarndyce’s fault that he becomes distrustful of his nearest friend. More advanced cases are obvious: Miss Flyte has been driven mad by Chancery, and Gridley, a man who has been ruined and forgotten about, can only keep his wits by resorting to violent anger:
“It would be better for me, they tell me, if I restrained myself. I tell them, that if I did restrain myself, I should become imbecile. I was a good-enough-tempered man once, I believe. People in my part of the country, say, they remember me so; but, now, I must have this vent under my sense of injury, or nothing could hold my wits together.”
In Bleak House, it is the effect of society that makes Esther so blind to her own usefulness and lovableness; it is the fear of society that drives Lady Dedlock to so desperately fear the revelation of her secret; it is society that grinds Jo and so many other characters into the dust. Chancery is the specific aspect of society that gains Dickens’s attention in this particular book, but there is also much eloquence poured out against organised religion in the persons of Mr Chadband, Mrs Pardiggle and Mrs Jellyby.
This view, of course, comes directly from the philosophy of Rousseau, who claimed that human nature was basically good and that corruption comes from society, which “distorts the natural feelings of the heart”. By locating the source of evil in Chancery and the legal profession rather than in his characters themselves, Dickens fails to present a real answer to the problems of Victorian England, and fails to address the fact that law is divinely appointed, and that, in any society which honours God’s law, the legal profession must also be respected.
All this said, please don’t think of Bleak House as a Diatribe of Revolutionary Impiety. As Miller points out, Dickens was sincerely caught between a wish to do away with the bits of Christendom he objected to, but to retain the bits he wanted. As with much Victorian literature (Jane Austen, as always, a salutary exception, together with Anthony Trollope), he was critical of organised religion but warmly in favour of a sincere personal faith; this is shown throughout the novel, especially in Esther.
I have heard that Bleak House is Dickens’s greatest novel. Unfortunately, I have not read enough of his books to give my own opinion on that. But I enjoyed this one very much, and I will certainly go on to read more Dickens in future.
Bleak House has rarely been filmed. I hear good things about the 2005 TV series, and intend to see it at some point.