I feel monumentally befuddled by Bleak House, the tenth book in our attempt to read all of Charles Dickens’s novels. Despite it being acknowledged by pretty much everyone as one of his greatest books, I just didn’t like it as much as I wanted to (I am imagining cries of ‘boo’ and ‘shame’ in my fantasy world where leading cultural figures read this blog). I’m not even sure why I felt this way. To misquote Churchill, it is a mystery within an enigma wrapped in utter confusion.
There’s so much to admire in Bleak House – the opening, with its one-word sentence, ‘London’, is one of the most powerful things I’ve read; the descriptions of a cannibalistic legal system and a society that’s decaying at every level, from crumbling mansions to the squalid Tom All-Alone’s, are poetic and visceral; the dark, bitter rage at injustice is more profound than the youthful anger of Oliver Twist. On all these levels, it is a masterpiece. Yet, somehow, there’s not so much to love.
The Preface describes this novel as ‘impenetrable’, but I found the people, rather than the plot, closed-off. Nearly everything we’ve read so far, even the slight duds (sorry Dickens), have featured characters with that flinging-themselves-off-the-page, grabbing-you-by-the-throat quality. But here even tragic chimney sweep Jo, Shakespearean fool Miss Flite or spontaneously-combusting Krook felt like a less satisfying version of someone I’d encountered before.
Is it because we’ve been reading Dickens in chronological order and have to get used to a more mature, subtle characterization in his big ‘condition-of-England’ novels, and wave goodbye to the exuberance? Are ideas and mood rather than character his main priorities in this book? I’d love to know what anyone else who has read Bleak House thinks. Here are the views of our esteemed panel:
‘I found Bleak House brilliantly easy to read, but in retrospect complex and hard to get a grip on. It's sort of despairing but sort of very funny, the characters are deep psychologically but I didn't feel for them deeply. I'll remember it for the vividly drawn places, such as the oppressive inns of court in sweltering midsummer, and the terrible slums where the rotting buildings crash down suddenly around the inhabitants' ears. It's a novel of eeriness, suspicions and mystery, and of people being driven mad by the system. The detective novel aspect is fantastic and I also enjoyed to trying to guess which character was going to spontaneously combust. The book is like the labyrinthine staircases in the eponymous Bleak House itself, which so intrigue and baffle its dwellers; I think if I read it five times I'd see a different novel each go around.’ Becky Stocks
‘As ever with Dickens, the opening chapter is wonderful: evocative, engaging, and full of brilliantly coloured characters. The world of Chancery is painted perfectly, giving a wonderful, terrible impression of the nightmare the suitors faced. And the characters are, of course, great: the self-effacement and gentle wisdom of Esther, the kindness of John Jarndyce, the useless charity of Mrs Jellyby, the oozy disgustingness of Krook and the rootless determination of poor Richard. And yet - I didn't find it as effective as some others we've read. Bleak House had a cynicism and a grimness to it which meant it was hard to engage with the story, and Lady Dedlock, long held up as a masterpiece of 'women in literature', seemed like a less-well drawn, less convincing version of Dombey and son's Edith. Still a masterpiece, but only third place in our chart so far. An impressed but unmoved 8.2/10.’ Sam Binnie
I’m hoping that the rest of the books we read will provide further illumination on Dickens’s progression as a writer. Next time – Hard Times.
Louise Willder, Copywriter