My Rating: 4 / 5 stars
Often considered Charles Dickens’ masterpiece, Bleak House blends together several literary genres–detective fiction, romance, melodrama, and satire–to create an unforgettable portrait of the decay and corruption at the heart of law and society in Victorian England.
Opening in the swirling mists of London, the novel revolves around a court case that has dragged on for decades–the infamous Jarndyce and Jarndyce lawsuit, in which an inheritance is gradually devoured by legal costs. As Dickens takes us through the case’s history, he presents a cast of characters as idiosyncratic and memorable as any he ever created, including the beautiful Lady Deadlock, who hides a shocking secret about an illegitimate child and a lost-love; Mr. Bucket, one of the first detectives to appear in English fiction; and the hilarious Mrs. Jellyby, whose endless philanthropy has left her utterly unconcerned about her own family. As a question of inheritance becomes a question of murder, the novel’s heroine, Esther Summerson, struggles to discover the truth about her birth and her unknown mother’s tragic life. Can the resilience of her love transform a bleak house? And–more devastatingly–will justice prevail?
Two years ago, I began the long trek that is Bleak House. I had to read the first eleven chapters during one of my literature classes while studying abroad. After covering the assigned portion, I continued reading. Every once in a while, during a break between books and Christmas break, I would pick it up and cram in a few chapters. I reached around page 350 before the next semester began.
Between school and working at a Bible camp, I haven’t had the chance to pick it up since. To say I’ve been looking forward to finishing it is an understatement. All school year, Bleak House loomed over me. All I wanted to do was pick it up and finish. Finally, last week, I did.
Picking up such an 800+ page story en medias res is challenging. I vaguely recalled the plot, but had to read all the summaries on Sparknotes for the chapters I had already covered in order to feel confident to proceed. Even then, it took a hundred or so more pages before I had a firm grasp on the wide cast of characters.
The book was definitely a challenge. It has its slow points, but I skimmed those to avoid becoming too disheartened. So, while I can tell you all about my favorite characters, like Esther, Mr. Guppy, and Peepy Jellyby, I can tell you very little about what actually went down in the Chancery law case. I wish my Victorian Lit professor last fall put this book on the syllabus–I feel like discussing it in class would help me appreciate it for more than its story alone. (We read Oliver Twist instead.) Although I picked up on many of the general themes–largely those regarding secrecy and obscurity, I would LOVE to learn more from an academic standpoint.
All this aside, once I finally got rolling, Bleak House was a treat. I read the last 450 pages in a span of three days. Once all the different plots began weaving together, things became really fun. Many of the big plot reveals were predictable, but I enjoyed them nonetheless. I liked the two narrators immensely–Esther sees and feels more than she lets on (especially regarding her feelings towards a certain kind-hearted doctor), which made reading between the lines a necessity. I appreciated Dickens’ heavy-handed criticism of the moral degradation of cities and his flagrant distaste for people like Mrs. Jellyby, who spends all her time working towards a grand Mission, all the while ignoring the plight of the helpless right outside her door. I had fun with Mr. Bucket, the detective hired to get to the bottom of the mystery surrounding Lady Deadlock. I adored Mr. Guppy–he’s quirky, absurd, and good for a laugh. Other characters I enjoyed were Miss Flite, the eccentric bird lady, Jo the street urchin, and Caddy, Esther’s friend who marries a dancing master.
There are some absolutely marvelous moments in the novel. The opening section (quoted below) is fantastic–Dickens masterfully pulled me from my skin and set me on the foggy streets of London, with Lincoln’s Inn looming ahead. The part where a certain character spontaneously combusts was so disturbing and ridiculous that I laughed aloud. The flight of Lady Deadlock at the end was chilling and dramatic.
If you’re a fan of Victorian literature, you don’t want to skip Bleak House. It’s a challenging read, but a rewarding one.
“Fog everywhere. Fog up the river where it flows among green airs 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…. 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.”
You Will Like This Book If: You enjoy Victorian literature, Dickens as a writer, and challengingly long reads
Bonus Photo: Lincoln’s Inn Hall–home of the High Court of Chancery, where the Jarndyce and Jarndyce lawsuit drags out for the majority of the book. I took this photo during my semester studying in London, where I did a self-guided Dickens tour through the city. The above quote is taken from a page-long discussion, which brings readers right here to Lincoln’s Inn.
P.S. Be sure to look up the fantastic BBC miniseries based on the novel as well! I watched it a few years ago and loved it!