On the Shelf: Bleak House by Charles Dickens

My Rating: 4 / 5 stars

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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?

My Thoughts:

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.

Sample Quote:

“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!

On the Shelf: Rick Riordan, Classics on Audiobook, and a Bit of Dickens

I’ve been shirking my summer reading lately… which explains why I didn’t make a book-related post last week.  But, I assure you, I have a good reason!  (More on that later.) Even though I haven’t completed anything worth reviewing lately, I’ve still been literary.  Instead of following my usual format, I thought I’d take an opportunity to discuss all the stories I’ve consumed.

First up: Blood of Olympus by Rick Riordan I’ve been inching my way through Riordan’s vastly entertaining stories about modern-day demigods for several years.  Whenever the next one comes my way, I pick it up.  I started the Heroes of Olympus series three years ago and, although the final novel has been out for a year or two, I finally got around to reading it on my Kindle.

Yes, I know these books are written for twelve year-olds.  But what’s the fun of reading if you don’t appreciate stories for all ages?  Although the writing isn’t spectacular, I ADORE these books.  The characters are just plain FUN.  The plot moves quickly, pulling me in and keeping me up late into the night. I won’t spoil the final novel for any of you who haven’t read them, but it did not disappoint!  I read for hours straight, unable to put the book down.  A satisfying conclusion to a highly enjoyable series!

Check out this FABULOUS fan art by Viria, one of my favorite artists:

Photo taken from Google Search

Audiobook Talk: Since I do field work for my summer job, life gets boring quickly.  So, I listen to audiobooks!  What I love about listening to novels is that it gives me a sense of purpose–the plot progresses to an end, giving me a goal to work towards.  It breaks up the day and gives me something to look forward to amid weeding, hoeing, and other menial tasks.

Every summer, I listen to J.R.R. Tolkien’s masterpiece on audiobook.  I’ve been through them at least four or five times now.  I started this year’s listen during my first few days back at work.  Fellowship of the Ring took a mere four days–a new record!  The Two Towers took longer–about a week.  The Return of the King went quickly as well.  I don’t really know what else to say about the series outside the fact that it’s an old favorite and no summer would be complete without it.  I’m hoping to get through the copy of The Silmarillion I received for Christmas sometime this summer–a project that has now been set up quite nicely!

Last week, I returned to another old favorite: Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen.  Like many, many, many others, I’ve been reading and re-reading Austen’s classic for years.  It’s been quite a while since I last touched the novel itself.  What I love about P&P is that it’s the kind of story that you never tire of reading.  Every time through, something different strikes you.  Listening made certain aspects of the story stand out in ways that I had never before considered.

Now, I’m revisiting another old favorite: Jane Eyre.  I’m currently almost nine hours in–Rochester just dressed up as a gypsy in order to mess with his house guests (and find out if Jane has feelings for him).  I’ll probably finish this one by the end of the week.

Finally, the book that has been holding me up… Two years ago, I started reading Bleak House by Charles Dickens.  I got 350 through before sending it to the back-burner due to assigned reading.  This summer, I’ve vowed to finish the massive 800 page chunker.  The problem is… it’s an enormous story with at least thirty characters that are difficult to keep track of.  I had to re-read the Sparknotes summary for all the chapters leading up to where I left off, as well as character descriptions.  This helped a bit, but I really didn’t get my bearings until I had plowed through fifty pages or so.  I’m now on page 473 with half the book to go.

It’s a wonderful book (minus the boring parts) and I WISH that my Victorian Lit professor had assigned it.  I feel like there’s so much that I’m missing.  But the central characters are enjoyable–I especially love Mr. Guppy.  The portions Esther narrates are my favorite.  I also laughed out loud at the part where Mr. Krook spontaneously combusted.  Dickens has lots of balls in the air at the point I’m at and I’m excited to see how he connects everything.

So… that concludes another On the Shelf!  Maybe this weekend, I’ll take a break from Dickens and read something review-able.  In the meantime, are there any books that I talk about here that you’ve read?  What are your thoughts on them?  Based on these texts, are there any you recommend me adding to my massive “To-Read” list?

Tis the Season Day 3: Victorian Ghost Stories

We have reached day three of Tis the Season and today I will be tying Christmastime with academia.

I had the pleasure of spending the past semester in a Victorian Lit and Culture class.  When you think about it, the Victorians are really the ones responsible for Christmas as we know it today.  They began traditions like singing carols and waiting for Saint Nicholas.  Prince Albert is responsible for bringing the practice of bringing evergreen trees into homes, a tradition he carried over from Germany when he married Queen Victoria.  One tradition, however, did not continue into the twenty-first century: Christmas Eve ghost stories.

Why ghost stories on Christmas?  According to a KnowledgeNuts article, they are a remnant from pre-Christmas pagan practices.  You see, the Christmas was strategically placed on December 25 because various festivals, rites, and rituals were already associated with the Winter solstice. Due to these practices, “the solstice was also considered the most haunted day of the year due to its association with the death of light. The barrier between the world of the living and the realm of the dead was supposedly lowered on this day.”

Superstition was aided by technological advances.  Modern gas lamps provided eerily dim light, leaving room for the imagination.  In a creaky old house filled with flickering shadows, ghosts were easily believable.

Dickens, of course, was a firm supporter of the Christmas Eve ghost story tradition.  What first comes to mind, of course, is A Christmas Carol, a story so deeply ingrained in our culture that we all know the story.  (I admit, I haven’t read it.  But I hope to someday!)  We all know of the hard-hearted Ebenezer Scrooge who is visited by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future.  Always big on enforcing strong moral messages, Dickens nails Scrooge’s story with a lesson on appreciating life and showing kindness to those less fortunate.

A lover of drama, Dickens took immense pleasure in doing readings of his work.  Last Fall, when I toured the Charles Dickens Museum, I actually got to stand in the room of his house where he used to present read to his family and friends.  They still have the podium he used.  He would stand there on Christmas Eve and read off his latest ghost story for his loved ones, thrilling them with dramatic voices and pauses.  It was really a treat getting to see into the famous author’s world.

I stumbled upon many fascinating and fun articles while researching for this post, and my favorite was probably one from The Guardian by Kira Cochrane.  If this post has piqued your interest, I highly recommend checking her article out!

What do you think about the Victorians and their ghost stories?  Do you wish this tradition was still around today?  Why or why not?