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Sunday, July 24, 2016

Hey, Mom! Talking to My Mother #383 - Recent Book Reviews - part two - Bleak House

Hey, Mom! Talking to My Mother #383 - Recent Book Reviews - part two - Bleak House

by Charles Dickens

I am on a quest to work my way through all the Dickens novels. It's a big project, and it will surely include some re-reading of those I have read before.

When I posed this very question earlier this year, considering a re-read of David Copperfield, which I loved and adored, or a first read of the mammoth Bleak House, my dear friend Elaine Klein wrote me and urged me to delve into the latter, especially advocating for Esther as a misunderstood and under-valued character in English literature.

I have to confess that if not for audio that I am not sure I could have made it all the way through Bleak House. I laud audio books as making it possible for me to tackle huge books like this one, though after doing so, I steer clear of the other huge books in my stack, wanting shorter reads until I am ready to tackle another hefty tome.

I read the Naxos AudioBooks edition released in 2011 and featuring narration by Sean Barrett and Teresa Gallagher. It clocked in at 35 hours and 18 minutes of audio time and took me a couple of months, through the winter when I am not riding my bike and walking the dog less often, to complete it.

Back in April of 2015, I posted this photo of the top dozen books in my stack. I am pleased to say that as of now, I have read all but four of these books. Remaining are Titus Groan, Reamde, Brideshead Revisited, and  Against The Day. When I took this photo, I had not even added Bleak House yet to my recent stack as I did not download the audio book until December of 2015. It may be time for another photo of what to read next, and soon time to consider the next Dickens.

I feel like I am still digesting Bleak House.

But given the build up from recommendations, perhaps my expectations were too high or my critical faculties are not in line with reality. Because I enjoyed it immensely, but I was not blown away.

And yet, as I read other reviews and especially the preface and the introduction to my edition, which is the Penguin Classics, I am struck by the fact that the very reasons I struggled with it are its actual strengths.

According to Terry Eagleton in the preface: "Bleak House is a wonderfully over-populated work, crammed to the seams with grotesques, eccentrics, amiable idiots, and moral monstrosities... On the surface at least Bleak House is a ramshackle, dishevelled book, a centrifugal novel that spins off a whole galaxy of hermetic social worlds. Unlike James Joyce or Henry James, Dickens was never much taken with the fetish of organic unity."

Thus, one of the greatest strengths of Bleak House is Dickens' description of characters. Though not the novel's only or even greatest asset, Dickens is very good at creating character in a variety of ways. More Eagleton: "Characters in Dickens are portrayed as one might register a stranger fleetingly encountered on a street corner, caught in s a single posture or mannerism or reduced to one or two vivid but superficial features. It is a typically urban mode of perception, characteristic of a culture in which we all live in the interstices of each other's lives. The city, then, is present in the novel's rhythms and modes of seeing, not just its literal landscape. Characters seem to be either nothing but their appearances, in which case they have the unfathomability of a piece of furniture; or they give off the sense of concealing some secret hinterland behind these appearances, one that is tantalizingly in accessible. The lawyer Tulkinghorn in this novel is compared to an oyster which nobody can open."

As a character study and portrait of contemporary life both in and out of London, which uses fog and disease symbolically while also satirizing the law profession among other societal elements, the unwieldy complexity of Bleak House is not only forgivable but the best argument for its greatness. Many people claim it's Dickens' greatest novel. And I believe its effect may be insidious. Or perhaps my expectations were misaligned. Because the more I think about what I read, the more I consider all the elements of Bleak House, the more I love it and wish to read it again, while also re-reading and comparing it such epics as War and Peace, Middlemarch, and The History of Tom Jones.

From the introduction in the Penguin edition by Nicola Bradbury: "Bleak House offers no such contract of story-telling and recognition. With its divided narration, its competing plots and conflicting novelistic modes, this work defies interpretation... Not only is this a great Victorian novel, a "Condition-of-England' commentary on society and satire on the law. It is also a romance, a murderous melodrama, an early detective story. Shakespearean echoes, particularly from Macbeth, recur throughout the text. There are Biblical allusions, Irish songs, and references to nursery works and fairy tale... Not only do its themes strike us with surprising immediacy: law, social justice and all the dangers of a diseased society, from political complacency to misdirected philanthropy leading to compassion fatigue; child abuse by neglect, exploitation or emotional deprivation; questions of feminism, the problems of working mothers and dependent parents; the psychology of escapism and frustration, depression, and despair; even the deadening effects of the class system have survived the nineteenth century... We might now see this text as proto-modernist or even post-modernist, characterized by alienation, a sense of arbitrary and of infinite regression or provisionality of values. It is semiotic, interested in signs; deconstructive, unravelling systems. Questions, not answers, determine its direction. Given its apparently random, perhaps senseless complexity... the burden of Bleak House is against all methodologies. At the level of character and action its fable is freighted with mysteries soliciting attention, but the true story unfolds more simply, without such provocations... Bleak House is a text indignant with the evils of the England it describes, but impatient with the notions of reform, moving from anger and derision towards a kind of long- suffering which cannot right, merely repair, great wrong...

"The strengths of Bleak House are the integration of different structures, together with what would seem an irresistibly deconstructive impulse. The very activity of reading, paralleled to the business of detection, implicates us in the processes that are shown to be perverse. The novel holds the balance between mystery and revelation, literary creation and analytical destruction."

Dickens wrote Bleak House at the height of his powers. Though critics of the time thought it "too real to be pleasant," the readers turned out in droves to plunk down their shillings for the chapter books with their tightly-packed text and two illustrations monthly and sales soared, making Bleak House among Dickens most popular novels.


Bleak House  ALSO has one of the most compelling and powerful opening chapters in both his storied career and in all of literature.


Just as a taste, especially if you have not read it before, I would like to read you the first few hundred words, Mom:

Chapter 1 — In Chancery
LONDON. Michaelmas Term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow-flakes — gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill-temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if the day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. 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, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ’prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds.

Gas looming through the fog in divers places in the streets, much as the sun may, from the spongey fields, be seen to loom by husbandman and ploughboy. Most of the shops lighted two hours before their time — as the gas seems to know, for it has a haggard and unwilling look.

The raw afternoon is rawest, and the dense fog is densest, and the muddy streets are muddiest near that leaden-headed old obstruction, appropriate ornament for the threshold of a leaden-headed old corporation, Temple Bar. And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln’s Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery.

Never can there come fog too thick, never can there come mud and mire too deep, to assort with the groping and floundering condition which this High Court of Chancery, most pestilent of hoary sinners, holds this day in the sight of heaven and earth.

This next link leads to a page that has so much gadgetry and advertising nonsense that it's impossible to navigate as it hogs systems resources and tries to trap the user in a variety of commercial marketing schemes, including ones embedded directly in the text itself. Much better that I pull out the content as text from The Independent and present it here giving due credit to its writer, Ms. Anna Quindlen, whose columns I used to teach in classes. I really like what Quindlen writes about Bleak House, especially that she is not going to argue that Dickens is great at writing women characters because hes' not. Esther Summerson strikes me as much like Ophelia in Hamlet, a woman written by someone who did not really understand women, though I am sure I will take flack from many quarters on that claim. There are better examples of women characters in Shakespeare, such as Lady Macbeth or Cordelia from King Lear. Perhaps it's better to say that Dickens did not write women nearly as well as he wrote men, or his idealized notion of women was appearance without depth.
Still, another argument can be made for Summerson as the strongest character in the book as she must suffer in silence and keep appearances despite her own feelings. She's a great giver, and in that light, possibly One of Dickens' greatest characters. She is the very embodiment of virtue and self-denial that has made her much maligned but also quite admirable.


FROM: Bleak House by Charles Dickens - a book of a lifetime - by ANNA QUINDLEN - 2014

I can't be dismissive of readers who don't warm to Bleak House. That title adjective isn't exactly an invitation, and the sheer size of the thing can be intimidating: I have four copies, and not a single one comes in at under 850 pages.

And, at least in the States, we've done something dreadful to Charles Dickens: assigned his work at the wrong time in the wrong place. As a seventh-grader with a paperback copy of David Copperfield once told me, "He starts out by saying he was born. What's up with that?"

I lucked out; my mother warned me that the work of Dickens was a torment, overly detailed, so populated by secondary characters that it was impossible to track them all. My youthful rebellion was to read, but it was my natural inclination to resonate. What my mother had seen as overstuffed I saw as richness, and early on Dickens became the writer I admired most.

Bleak House is his greatest novel, and not simply because, with its backdrop of a legal system more invested in obstruction and obfuscation than resolution, it remains utterly contemporary. Dickens was a wonderful actor, and this novel is a performance, in which he plays two disparate parts. One is the story of Lady Dedlock, "bored to death with my life, bored to death with myself".
The sections of the book that detail her airless existence and those that explain the legal tangle of Jarndyce V. Jarndyce are told in third person, the prose baroque and satiric. The other sections of the story are told by Esther Summerson, the writer's only female narrator. (I did my senior thesis at college on the women of Dickens; even as a devotee, I can summarize in two words: pretty lame.)

Esther is yet another one of the novelist's lucky orphans; when her guardian dies, a lawyer swoops in and sends her to live with John Jarndyce, who may or may not be a beneficiary of the endless case of dueling wills. (It's that kind of lawsuit. It's that kind of book.) The voice of Esther, simple, no frills, is completely at odds with that of the omniscient narrator; they might as well have been written by different men.

As a writer, I admire that virtuousity. As a former columnist, I always respond to the social conscience that animated and enraged Dickens. But make no mistake: there is a heart in this book, too.

Bleak House is known as a novel about the law, but it is really about the sadness and the souls of two women, one who has sold her happiness for the sake of security, and one riven by the insecurity of not knowing who she is. That's why I love it so.


I must say that by taking this blog journey that I am coming to love Bleak House more and more. It's a fantastic book and one worthy of study.

The study can begin with these links, which I place here for my benefit as much as yours, Mom, or you, dear reader.

Give Bleak House a try.


Bleak House on Wikipedia

Bleak House - full text via Project Gutenberg

Bleak House (Penguin Classics edition) - Amazon







Reflect and connect.

Have someone give you a kiss, and tell you that I love you.

Talk to you tomorrow, Mom.


- Days ago = 385 days ago

- Bloggery committed by chris tower - 1607.24 - 10:10

NOTE on time: When I post late, I had been posting at 7:10 a.m. because Google is on Pacific Time, and so this is really 10:10 EDT. However, it still shows up on the blog in Pacific time. So, I am going to start posting at 10:10 a.m. Pacific time, intending this to be 10:10 Eastern time. I know this only matters to me, and to you, Mom. But I am not going back and changing all the 7:10 a.m. times. But I will run this note for a while. Mom, you know that I am posting at 10:10 a.m. often because this is the time of your death.
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