I must have begun to read Charles Dickens’s monumental 880-page novel, Bleak House, about six weeks ago. Normally the only book- reading I do is in bed, before or after sleeping. So it does take some time to plow through a huge book. What takes me six weeks nowadays once took me four days: but that was in the first gush of youth, undertaking my brief and only post-secondary studies, when I was able to whip through War and Peace in double-quick time. At the time I was told by a notable literary critic who was my tutor for six months, that this was Dickens’s greatest novel, and I have since found other critics agreed. But myself I rather doubt that.
For one thing, I was never too clear until well on through the book exactly what the plot was: of course, it starts in the first paragraph with an unfavourable description of London with its terrible fogs and dampness and many horrible 19th century streets, and by the third page the court case known as Jarndyce and Jarndyce makes its appearance, with a strong intimation that it contains all that is worst in English law, that it is little more than a scam designed to rob innocent people of their money, and that no one can be expected to make any sense out of it.
In the following pages, Dickens describes his immense catalogue of characters, more than 60 of them by any count, and each of them delineated by some overwhelming characteristic that whenever they appear is repeated so that they become memorable. Unfortunately it was never made entirely clear, at least to me, just why the major characters around whom the novel flows, Esther Summerson, Richard Carstone, and Ada Clare, three orphans, who might generously be described as upper middle class little twits, were the subject of this suit, involving their guardian John Jarndyce, who has since been described by Vladimir Nabokov as “one of the best and kindest human beings ever described in a novel.” From my curmudgeonly viewpoint, crouched in the corner, Mr. Jarndyce, as with many of Dickens’s characters, seems far too good to be true, even though he comes out in the end as having been entirely true to every noble thought and action known to human beings.
Dickens wrote and published the book in serial form over19 months between March 1852 and September 1853, with about three chapters per month. He must of necessity have felt the need to continue entrancing his readers, so each chapter must surely have contained at least one of his memorable caricatures. And it is this huge novelistic energy at the novelist’s command that has always, in my eyes, differentiated Dickens from every other writer who has ever lived.
Anyway, rather than weary readers with details of the somewhat convoluted plot, I thought I would mention a few of these caricatures. Having captured something essential to their characters and outlook with a single phrase or idea, the novelist never relaxes that hold over them. Mrs Pardiggle, for example, introduced early in the book as a woman obsessed with doing good works for the poor, is always portrayed in that way to the very last pages, handing over their allowances to her five children, and immediately insisting they donate the greater part to charities, like “Alfred, my youngest (five) who has voluntarily enrolled in the the Infant Bonds of Joy,” while Alfred, clearly dissatisfied with this disposition of his allowance, scowls unremittingly in the background. Mrs Jellyby, a woman so obsessed with the conditions among the Boorioboola-gha tribe in distant Africa, that she has failed to notice the dire condition of her many children, who are filthy from head to toe, resumes: ”It is gratifying…. It involves the devotion of all my energies…and I am more confident of success every day. Do you know, Miss Summerson, I almost wonder that you never turned your thought to Africa….the finest climate in the world.”
“Certainly. With precaution. You may go into Holborn, without precaution and be run over. You may go into Holborn, with precaution, and never be run over. Just so with Africa….If you would like,” said Mrs, Jellyby, putting a number of papers forward, “to look over some remarks on that head and on the general subject, (which have been extensively circulated) while I finish a letter I am now dictating…”
It has been claimed in recent years that many of these caricatures are based on real-live people whom Dickens did not especially admire. The writer Leigh Hunt is one, mercilessly made fun of in the character of Mr. Skimpole, a man insisting always on being recognized for his childlike characteristics, and his total unfamiliarity with money, which he never has any of, but nevertheless manages to spend a good deal of other people’s after they have taken pity on him and given him what they can afford.
Others, while retaining that element of exaggeration which is a mark of Dickens in full flight, are quite touching, brilliantly delineated, and so memorable --- for example, the teenage boy Jo, malnourished, neglected, convinced he knows nothing and will never amount to anything, and yet a youngster with evident smarts that should have served him well if only just one person had ever taken an interest in him. Several theatrical performances have in recent years been built around this character and his pathetic condition.
“….he sees a ragged figure coming cautiously along, crouching close to the soiled walls --- which the wretchedest figure might as well avoid --- and furtively thrusting a hand before it. It is the figure of a youth, whose face is hollow, and whose eyes have an emaciated glare. He is so intent on getting along unseen that even the apparition of a stranger in whole garments does not tempt him to look back. He shades his face with his ragged elbow as he passses on the other side of the wall, and goes shrinking and creeping on wirh his anxious hand before him and his shapeless clothes hanging in shreds. Clothes made for what purpose, or of what material, it would be impossible to say. They look, in colour and in substance, like a bundle of rank leaves of swampy growth, that rotted long ago.”
This is a boy, surely meant to represent many of the dirt-poor, who has known only one thing as he has hung around in a slum known as Tom’s-All-Alone, trying to earn a few pennies as a street sweeper but always enjoined by police and busy-bodies in general, to move on, to move right along. Eventually, this unfortunate creature, who never hurt a fly in his life, simply gives it all up and dies on the street.
There is no doubt who are the villains in Dickens’s world: they are the lawyers, from the most powerful like the scheming snd heartless Mr Tulkinghorn, who has so successfully ground money out of Jarndyce and Jarndyce that when it is finally settled, the fortune expected by his young victims has already been spent in fees, and who, in the book’s major plot, eventually got his in the form of a deadly bullet; and Mr Vholes, who has squeezed every sign of life out of the aforementioned Richard Carstone, one of his clients, so that he, too, before the last word is written, dies of total inanition. And the aspiring lawyer Mr. Snagsby, so full of himself that, although having been rejected as suitor by Miss Summerson on his first application, nonetheless appears after passing all his exams, to renew his application, only to be rejected again with contumely.
It is the middle-ranking persons in the English class system who seem to have appealed most to Mr Dickens, and they appear in this novel in the form of Mr. George, a sturdy soldier home from the wars, who is wrongly suspected of Mr. Tulkinghorn’s murder, and who foregoes the invitation to join his long-lost brother in his prosperous business, in favour of pursuing his family’s destiny by becoming the strong right arm of Sir Leicester Dedlock, Baronet, (as he is always described by the shrewd detective, Mr Bucket --- said to have been the first detective ever to have appeared in a work of fiction). Sir Leicester is a pompous ass, kept in a sort of diminished power by the sheer force of tradition, and his continuing hold over his tenants; and it is his wife, the beautiful Lady Honoria, wrapped in her haughty sense of superiority, around whom the greatest plot contrivances revolve: she is revealed to have been shamed by a pre-marital affair, the issue from which is the one of the major female characters in the story. My Lady dies from shame at the prospect of her indiscretions being revealed to her husband.
Ah, well, I have fead once more, and found it, like all of Dickens’s work, full of interest and pleasures, and what I find to be the enthralling vitality of this great writer. No wonder I have always loved Nicholas Nickleby, Martin Chuzzlewit, Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, to name only four that I could re-read with even more pleasure.