If you’re not tall, Bleak House is the sort of thing you might need to help you reach the highest shelf in the kitchen. It stands at 2 inches or 5 cm deep – pretty big. But what’s inside, you want to know?
Well, I read Bleak House to the very end. Dickens is not a favourite, but his reputation can’t be ignored. I’m with Leavis on this one – Dickens isn’t really part of The Great Tradition – whilst George Elliot and Jane Austen would definitely get my vote – in there with the great white males!!
There is a fantastic range of characters and actions in Bleak House – and the scope is vast, though Dickens doesn’t really explore the provinces and the only industrial character has a minor role. The focus is on the Court of Chancery, and the parts of London related to it.
The opening sections of the novel are stronger in their delineation of human weakness and folly, and interesting criticisms of Victorian attitudes to charity and morality. Later the unwinding of the plot becomes much more important: the impact of coincidence is significant, and really beyond belief.
There are two narrative voices, and that of Esther the least convincing. She is very much a goody two shoes, and not a character with complexity or depth. There is a sort of Victorian niceness that is really quite sentimental and simple, and her guardian, Jarndyce, is similarly self- sacrificing: these don’t seem to be characters so much as ciphers bearing Dickens’ moral values, foils to the weaker and less moral creatures that people the novel.
At the bottom of the heap is Joe, the homeless waif who is purely a victim: doormat might be a better word. At times Dickens needs to move the plot forward, and Joe plays his part in revealing the mystery of Esther’s origins. Apart from that he too is a cipher – a symbol of the oppressed poor – but not a believable character.
Lord and Lady Dedlock are also caricatures – despite their significance in the novel – though we do see more of Lord Dedlock later in the book. Dickens is at his best with the street life of London – Mrs Jellyby, the Smallweeds, Bucket and Guppy are great fun – but the characters at the heart of the novel – Richard and Ada – are very conventional and really quite tedious, though essential to its moral.
I had expected more obvious and extended criticism of the law courts in Dickens’ “comic indictment of a legal system that devours the innocent”. (Cover blurb, Penguin Edition.) This was disappointing.
Bleak House is however a very dark novel. J Hillis Miller’s essay, also in the Penguin edition, is prefaced with a quotation from Nietzsche. The descriptions of the law courts and offices, and of the streets of London, are dark and gloomy. Characters like Tulkinghorn and Lady Dedlock are devoid of compassion and life, empty and self seeking, whilst goodness is misdirected, in the case of Jellyby, or vapid and unconvincing, like Esther and John Jarndyce.
Miller attributes this darkness to the mid-Victorian crisis of faith. I would agree. There is no sense of redemption because the characters essentially never change – they begin as they end – for good or for evil. Only Guppy seems to exist in a human world of moral ambivalence, briefly, and he is a laughing stock – the only character Esther really despises.