Reviewing a classic – Bleak House by Charles Dickens
Bleak House was the ninth novel by Charles Dickens, published in twenty installments. Small wonder – it is really a monster of a book. It is also the only Dickens’s novel in which the story is partly told by one of female leads and then complemented by an omniscient narrator. The synopsis of such a long, multi-layered story is really a challenge – I am sure that Dickens would have loved those soap operas which drag on interminably and are understood just by a handful of devoted fans – so please forgive me if I omit anything important. I also decided to use a bit of the appropriate Wikipedia’s summary. The task was simply too big to be handled on my own especially that I lacked time so I needed help very badly.
First we meet Esther Summerson, a shy good-looking girl raised by Miss Barbary. When Miss Barbary dies, the Chancery lawyer takes charge of Esther’s future on the instruction of his client, John Jarndyce. Jarndyce becomes Esther’s guardian, and after attending school in Reading for six years, she goes to live with him at Bleak House, along with his wards, Richard Carstone and Ada Clare. Esther is to be Ada’s companion. Esther does not realize that Miss Barbary is her aunt, thinking of her only as her godmother. It is a known trick of Mr. Dickens – as readers we know far much about the characters than the characters themselves. Esther soon befriends both Ada and Richard, who are cousins. They are named beneficiaries in one of the wills at issue in Jarndyce and Jarndyce; their guardian is a beneficiary under another will, and in some obscure way the two wills conflict. Apparently the long-running litigation provides jobs for half the lawyers in London and the other half has plenty of entertainment for free. Richard and Ada are created for each other – they soon fall in love, but though Mr. Jarndyce does not oppose the match, he does stipulate that Richard (who suffers from inconstancy of character) must first choose a profession. When Richard mentions the prospect of benefiting from the resolution of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, John Jarndyce asks him never to put faith in what he calls “the family curse”.
Sir Leicester Dedlock and young, beautiful Honoria, Lady Dedlock, live at Chesney Wold, a very fine estate. Lady Dedlock is one of few female characters with some backbone. Her past is rather unsavoury, though. She used to have a lover, Captain Hawdon, before her marriage. She also gave birth to an illegitimate child -Esther Summerson – but she thinks the child is dead. It is one big secret. Lady Dedlock lives in a state of constant boredom; I suppose her mannerism was nothing else than classic depression – after all Captain Hawdon was the love of her life and he left her.It happens that Lady Dedlock is also a beneficiary under one of the wills in Jarndyce and Jarndyce. Early in the book, while talking to her solicitor, Tulkinghorn, she recognizes the handwriting on the copy of an affidavit. The sight affects her so much that she almost faints, which the solicitor notes and thinks important enough to investigate. He guesses that Lady Dedlock has focused on the affidavit’s handwriting a bit to intensely and wants to trace the copyist. He discovers that the copyist was a drug fiend known only as “Nemo” and that he has recently died. The only person to identify him is a street-sweeper, a poor homeless boy named Jo. Lady Dedlock wants to find out the copyist too so she disguises herself rather badly as her French maid and she pays Jo to take her to Nemo’s grave. Tulkinghorn begins to watch her every move, even enlisting the aid of Hortense, the maid who hates s her secretly. Hortense and Tulkinghorn will soon discover the truth about Lady Dedlock’s past. After a desperate confrontation with the lawyer, Lady Dedlock flees her home, leaving a note to her husband apologizing for her conduct. Tulkinghorn dismisses Hortense who is no longer of any use to him. Hortense kills Tulkinghorn and seeks to frame Lady Dedlock for his murder. On discovering his lawyer’s death and his wife’s flight, Sir Leicester suffers a catastrophic stroke but manages to communicate that he forgives his wife and wants her to return to him. After all she was twenty years younger and pretty.
A little earlier Esther happens to meet her mother at a church service and has a conversation with her afterwards at Chesney Wold – though, at first, neither woman recognizes each other. Later, Lady Dedlock realises that her only child is not dead. She waits to confront Esther with this knowledge until Esther has survived a bout with smallpox. The illness disfigures Esther pernamently. Though they are happy at being reunited, Lady Dedlock tells Esther that they must never recognize their connection again.
Although Esther has recovered her health, her beauty is supposedly ruined. She finds that Richard, having tried and failed at several professions, has ignored his guardian’s advice and is wasting all his resources in trying to push Jarndyce and Jarndyce to a conclusion (in his and Ada’s favour). What’s more, he has broken with his guardian, under the influence of his lawyer. In the process of becoming an active litigant, Richard has lost all his money and is breaking his health. In further defiance of John Jarndyce, he and Ada have secretly married, and Ada is carrying Richard’s child. Esther experiences her own quiet romance when Dr. Woodcourt, who knew her before her illness, returns from his mission and continues to seek her company despite her disfigurement. Unfortunately, Esther has already agreed to marry her guardian, John Jarndyce.
Inspector Bucket, who up to now has investigated several matters on the periphery of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, accepts the commission of the stricken Sir Leicester to find Lady Dedlock. He suspects Lady Dedlock, even after he arrests George Rouncewell (the only other person known to be with Tulkinghorn on the night of the murder, and known to have quarrelled with the lawyer repeatedly). Nonetheless, Bucket pursues the charge given to him by Sir Leicester and ultimately calls on Esther to assist in the search for Lady Dedlock. By this point, Bucket has cleared Lady Dedlock’s name by discovering Hortense’s guilt, but she has no way to know this, and, wandering London in cold and bitter weather, she ultimately dies at the cemetery where her former lover Captain Hawdon (Nemo) is buried. Esther and Bucket find her there.
Developments in Jarndyce and Jarndyce seem to take a turn for the better when a later will is discovered which revokes all previous wills and leaves the bulk of the estate to Richard and Ada. At the same time, John Jarndyce releases Esther from their engagement and she and Dr. Woodcourt become engaged. They go to Chancery to find Richard and to discover what news there might be of the lawsuit’s resolution. To their horror, they discover that the new will is given no chance to resolve Jarndyce and Jarndyce, for the costs of litigation have consumed the estate, and as there is nothing left to litigate, the case melts away. After hearing this, Richard collapses, and Dr Woodcourt determines that he is in the last stages of tuberculosis. Richard apologizes to John Jarndyce and dies, leaving Ada alone with their child, a boy whom she names Richard. Jarndyce takes in Ada and the child. Esther and Woodcourt marry and live in Yorkshire, in a house which Jarndyce gives to them. In time, they have two daughters. Ugh. The end.
Some descriptions of the 19th century London were incredible. I also enjoyed the well-deserved criticism of Chancery institution. You can notice at once that Dickens’s assault on the flaws of the British judiciary system was 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. Lady Dedlock and her scheming French maid, Hortense have always been my favourite characters. They are intrepid ladies although Hortense is a rogue and her ladyship is so obsessed that she cares for nothing but her former lover.
Plenty of secondary characters, like Jo and Charley deserved to play a greater role in the book.
The book is definitely too long and too complex – I don’t doubt any contemporary editor would divide it into a series and perhaps put to death many subplots and many characters for the sake of clarity as well. He/she would be absolutely right.
Esther’s portion of the narrative is an interesting case study of the Victorian ideal of feminine modesty but interesting not always means good. If you appreciate all these resolute, kick-ass, funny heroines and you compare poor disfigured Esther with them you can describe her only as bland. Other females like Ada and Caddy Jellyby are equally insipid although Caddy at least married her chosen man and rebelled against a silly mother and Ada did manage to marry the worst candidate for a husband she could find. I don’t know, perhaps Victorians liked to get maudlin over a book and Dickens used their propensity to better the sales.
I also didn’t favour many male characters – especially stupid, pigheaded Richard Carstone with weak constitution and no brain to speak of. He married weak Ada and almost ruined her life – how very mature. His death was his only saving grace and it came too late. Also John Jarndyce seemed too kind-hearted and indulgent to be considered a well-rounded character. People who are apparently without vices make me shudder – one can’t help but wonder what they hide so well behind their nice façade.
I will certainly return to some parts of this very long book; some of them I will omit for sure as they deserve nothing more than oblivion.