Book Review: Bleak House

Charles Dickens, a former resident of Lant Street.

Charles Dickens, a former resident of Lant Street. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Bleak House by Charles Dickens 


Quite simply the best novel I have ever read. From the first page, with its astonishing evocation of a fog-bound London — “Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners” — Bleak House draws you into a world and doesn’t let you go.

“I couldn’t put it down” is an over-used expression, but the first time I read Bleak House, when I got to the famous chase sequence, I truly couldn’t, so much so that I read it all night and into the morning. My arms ached from holding the book, my eyes hurt, I was exhausted and yet I still could not put it down. In the dark reaches of the night the room got cold and I huddled under the blanket, but I read on. I had a full day of work ahead of me the next day, but I read on. Eventually I noticed it had grown light outside. 6am. I read on. I finally stopped at 8am because I had to get up and go to work. I read for ten hours solid and didn’t sleep a wink, and I would have gone on if I could. That is how good Bleak House is.

Modern readers are put off by Bleak House‘s length, and its Victorian setting. Don’t be: this is no dusty, drawn out morality tale. Bleak House has been called the first detective novel in English, and there is a mystery to be solved, a blackmail attempt, avaricious lawyers, a thoroughly nasty old man who spontaneously combusts — whether because of his drinking or his wickedness is never entirely clear, though Dickens was at pains to point out that spontaneous combustion is a genuine, documented phenomenon.

There are a welter of amateur detectives, most of them with less than admirable motives, who cause a great deal of trouble with their investigations, before the professional, Inspector Bucket, the first great English detective, makes his late but decisive entrance.

There are a host of the comic characters for whom Dickens is justly renowned, of whom the best is Mrs Guppy, who succeeds in completely stealing the show in a scene towards the end of the book which may be the funniest in Dickens’ entire oeuvre, when, outraged that anyone should resist her son’s amorous advances, she orders the object of his affections out of her own house.

Most of all, though, there are the women. There are many critics who say that Dickens couldn’t write realistic women, only two-dimensional saints or harlots. They clearly haven’t read Bleak House.

The cricticism may have been just of the younger Dickens, but here he is at the height of his powers, and there few female characters in literature as beautifully drawn as Lady Dedlock, with her foibles, her weaknesses, the mistakes she has made in her life — to say more would be a spoiler — who yet remains a deeply sympathetic character.

Then there is the narrator of much of the book, Esther Summerson. Some have seen in her, perhaps, a little of Dickens’ tendency to idealise his heroines. But there is another side to her, and the manner in which he adopts the voice of a once beautiful woman aware that her looks have been ravaged by smallpox, her horror at facing the world with her scarred face, and the way in which it changes her, and comes to colour her view of the world, is masterful, and the product of a deeper empathy for his female characters than Dickens is usually credited with.

The other trait for which Dickens is known is his righteous exposure of social injustice, and it is here, but in a more sophisticated form than the sermonising of his earlier works. Here he keeps his anger in check: the mature Dickens knows the effectiveness of the accretion of cold detail, and trusts in his immense descriptive powers. Only once does he let the mask slip, at the death of Jo the crossing sweeper. His anguished direct appeal to Queen Victoria and the British Establishment from the pages of the novel could have been embarrassing in the hands of a less skilled writer, but Dickens pulls it off: it is as if he can hold back his anger no longer.

Technically, Bleak House is startlingly modern, alternating between Esther’s first person past narrative, and a third person narrative using the vivid present tense, without any artificial explanation for the shifts such as his contemporaries would have used, like a diary or letters. The third person sections employ that trademark of Dickens, not the omniscient narrator, but the narrator who refuses to do any more than describe the visible and tangible, what the characters do and say, how they move, where their eyes linger a moment too long. This is a technical tour de force, the work of a writer who can make us understand what his characters are thinking without telling us, just by showing us how they act and react.

There is so much more to Bleak House: the great vicious joke of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, the greatest satire of lawyers in literature; the perfectly observed snobbery of the upper-class Dedlocks and the social climbers and hangers-on who surround them; the evocation of scene after scene in London — the slap bang dinner, the court of chancery, the worst slums in the city. This is a novel that has so many fully developed characters it can at times seem more like a world than a book.

For me it is the masterpiece, the novel against which all others are measured. Incomparable.

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