#79. Bleak House, by Charles Dickens
Bleak House, a novel by Charles Dickens, was originally published in twenty monthly installments between March 1852 and September 1853. While not distinguished as his greatest work, it is still held to be one of Dickens’s finest novels, containing one of the most vast, complex and engaging arrays of minor characters and sub-plots in his entire canon. The story is told partly by the novel’s heroine, Esther Summerson, and partly by an omniscient narrator. Memorable characters include the menacing lawyer Tulkinghorn, the friendly, but depressive John Jarndyce, and the childish and disingenuous Harold Skimpole, as well as the likeable but imprudent Richard Carstone.
At the novel’s core is long-running litigation in England’s Court of Chancery, Jarndyce v Jarndyce, which has far-reaching consequences for all involved. This case revolves around a testator who apparently made several wills, all of them seeking to bequeath money and land surrounding the Manor of Marr in South Yorkshire. The litigation, which already has consumed years and sixty to seventy thousand pounds sterling in court costs, is emblematic of the failure of Chancery. Dickens’s assault on the flaws of the British judiciary system is based in part on his own experiences as a law clerk, and in part on his experiences as a Chancery litigant seeking to enforce his copyright on his earlier books. His harsh characterization of the slow, arcane Chancery law process gave memorable form to pre-existing widespread frustration with the system. Though Chancery lawyers and judges criticized Dickens’s portrait of Chancery as exaggerated and unmerited, his novel helped to spur an ongoing movement that culminated in enactment of the legal reform in the 1870s. In fact, Dickens was writing just as Chancery was reforming itself, with the Six Clerks and Masters mentioned in Chapter One abolished in 1842 and 1852 respectively. The need for further reform was being widely debated. These facts raise an issue as to when Bleak House is actually set. Technically it must be before 1842, and at least some of his readers at the time would have been aware of this. However, there is some question as to whether this timeframe is consistent with some of the themes of the novel. The great English legal historian Sir William Holdsworth, set the action in 1827.
For most readers and scholars, the central concern of Bleak House is its riveting and insistent indictment of the English Chancery court system. Chancery or equity courts were one half of the English justice system, existing side-by-side with law courts. Unlike law courts, which heard actions for legal injuries compensable by monetary damages, Chancery courts heard actions having to do with wills and estates, or with the uses of private property. By the mid-nineteenth century, English law reformers had long criticized and mocked the delays of Chancery litigation, and Dickens found the subject a tempting target. (He already had taken a shot at law-courts and that side of the legal profession in his 1837 novel The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club or The Pickwick Papers). The fame and critical success of Bleak House have led many readers and scholars to apply its indictment of Chancery to the entire legal system, and indeed it is the greatest indictment of law, lawyers, and the legal system in the English language. Scholars such as the English legal historian Sir William Searle Holdsworth, in his 1928 series of lectures Charles Dickens as a Legal Historian published by Yale University Press, have made a plausible case for treating Dickens’s novels, and Bleak House in particular, as primary sources illuminating the history of English law.
Dickens claimed in the preface to the volume edition of Bleak House (it was initially released in parts) that he had “purposely dwelt upon the romantic side of familiar things”. And some remarkable things do happen: One character, Krook, smells of brimstone and eventually dies of spontaneous human combustion, attributed to his evil nature. Using spontaneous human combustion to dispose of Krook in the story was controversial. The nineteenth century saw the increasing triumph of the scientific world-view and of technology rooted in scientific advances. Scientific and technological research and discovery were regarded as among the highest forms of human endeavor. Scientifically inclined writers, as well as medical doctors and scientists, rejected spontaneous human combustion as legend or superstition. When the installments of Bleak House containing Krook’s demise appeared, the literary critic George Henry Lewes criticized Dickens, accusing him of “giving currency to a vulgar error”. Dickens vigorously defended the reality of spontaneous human combustion and cited many documented cases, such as those of Mme. Millet of Rheims and of the Countess di Bandi, as well as his own memories of coroners’ inquests that he had attended when he had been a reporter. In the preface of the book edition of Bleak House, Dickens wrote:
“I shall not abandon the facts until there shall have been a considerable Spontaneous Combustion of the testimony on which human occurrences are usually received.”
George Gissing and G. K. Chesterton are among those literary critics and writers who consider Bleak House to be the best novel that Charles Dickens wrote. As Chesterton put it: “Bleak House is not certainly Dickens’s best book; but perhaps it is his best novel”. Harold Bloom in his book The Western Canon, also considers Bleak House to be Dickens’s greatest novel. Daniel Burt, in his book The Novel 100: A Ranking of the Greatest Novels of All Time, ranks Bleak House number 12.
While I am not particularly a fan of the his writing style, I do admire that Dickens used his books to shed light upon and push his political agendas, but while doing so, he did not allow his political agendas to be too overpowering for the story itself. Upon reaching page 375, nearly halfway through the book, the plot finally exposed itself, and I was no longer tending to the thoughts of “what is the purpose of this book?” I found the first half of the book to be drab, as if I was telling you the entire life history of everyone that I interacted with last week, despite whether or not it affected the main events of last week. While I do not enjoy reading dialog in dialect, I found it more distracting to not understand the “point” of the piece. I ended up watching it on disc, to assist me in understanding what was going on, and the point of the novel. It was the second production of Bleak House, and aired in 1985 as an eight-part series. It starred Diana Rigg and Denholm Elliot. While the movie completely eliminated characters such as Caroline “Caddy” Jellyby, an important secondary character, I felt that the production put the chapters of the story in a more logical order than Dickens wrote it.
Bleak House has been cited as “the first novel in which a detective plays a significant role” by Mill Roseman in the 1971 “Detectionary”. It’s thought that Dickens patterned the character “Mr. Bucket” after Inspector Charles Frederick Field of the then recently formed Detective Department of Scotland Yard.