Counting Down Dickens’ Greatest Novels. Number 1: Bleak House

Bleak House is the great writer’s grandest, most virtuosic achievement.

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In the middle of Bleak House, the heroine, an orphan named Esther Summerson, gets smallpox and goes blind. The first time I read the novel I was so shocked and upset by this turn of events that I wrote about it in my journal as if it had happened in real life, to someone I knew.

Bleak House is Dickens’ grandest, most virtuosic achievement, but with all that grandeur and virtuosity it still makes me cry for Esther Summerson. The novel is divided into two strands: the story of rich, haughty, reserved Lady Dedlock, told by an omniscient narrator, and Esther’s story, told in her own words. They are connected, as is everything in Bleak House, by the court case Jarndyce and Jarndyce, a tangle of disputed wills and disrupted inheritance that has tied up the High Court of Chancery for decades, suspending the lives of its legatees and incurring costs of 60,000 to 70,000 pounds. When the lawyers of Chancery speak in glowing terms of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, which they are wont to do, as a “monument of Chancery practice,” they speak of its interminable procedures, its unending piles of paperwork. They call it “the cause,” but there is no effect. They never speak of justice.

(MORE: See all of the entries in our Blogging the Dickens project.)

With his dual narrative structure, Dickens stands above his action and within it. In no other novel is his ventriloquism so cleverly on display. At Chancery and with the Dedlocks, he lays on the pomp and circumstance as if taking the English language and gold-plating it. This is the Dedlocks’ country estate of Chesney Wold left empty, when the couple has gone to town:

Chesney Wold is shut up, carpets are rolled into great scrolls in corners of comfortless rooms, bright damask does penance in brown Holland, carving and gilding puts on mortification, and the Dedlock ancestors retire from the light of day again. Around and around the house the leaves fall thick, but never fast, for they come circling down with a dead lightness that is somber and slow. Let the gardener sweep and sweep the turf as he will, and press the leaves into full barrows, and wheel them off, still they lie ankle-deep. Howls the shrill wind round Chesney Wold; the sharp rain beats, the windows rattle, and the chimneys growl. Mists hide in the avenues, veil the points of view, and move in funeral-wise across the rising grounds.

The present tense, used throughout this strand of the novel, signals continuity but also oppressive stagnation. The rich, round vowels are full of money. It’s hard to read these sentences aloud; they almost choke the throat.

Esther, on the other hand, speaks as you would expect a young woman to speak who is humble, with no lofty connections, raised by a “grave and strict” godmother.

I had never heard my mama spoken of. I had never heard of my papa either, but I felt more interested about my mama. I had never worn a black frock, that I could recollect. I had never been shown my mama’s grave. I had never been told where it was.

Singled out by a mysterious benefactor (but not Abel Magwitch) she leaves her godmother for boarding school, and her school for the Chancery court, where she is appointed companion to a young woman named Ada Clare, one of the wards in Jarndyce. With Ada’s cousin Richard Carstone, another ward, they move into the home of Ada’s and Richard’s relation John Jarndyce, a genial man just a bit past his prime, who would be a party to the suit had he not renounced it years ago as an ill wind that blew no one with his surname good. His home is called Bleak House, but the only bleak thing about it is the distant shadow of Chancery.

Esther may speak simply, but she is not always direct. A modest girl, she is coy about compliments, protesting too much when Ada, Richard, John Jarndyce and pretty much everyone else they meet praise her. She can be a little cloying in her emotional attachments to the same. But every time I reread Bleak House, I dwell more and more on Esther’s tempered toughness. Not for nothing did she withstand a friendless childhood, one in which she was repeatedly decried as her unknown mother’s disgrace. As Richard becomes embroiled in the lawsuit and estranged from his cousin John, Esther balances her affection for him with her disappointment, and lets him see both sentiments clearly. When John Jarndyce’s irresponsible friend Harold Skimpole takes advantage of the household’s generosity it is Esther who exposes him as a fraud. As for William Guppy, the unctuous legal clerk who falls for her charms, she remains heroically firm in the face of his unexpected proposal.

Mr. Guppy went down on his knees. I was well behind my table and not much frightened. I said, ‘Get up from that ridiculous position now, sir, or you will oblige me to break my implied promise and ring the bell!’

He gets up. Wouldn’t you?

In the introduction to my Penguin edition of Bleak House, J. Hillis Miller, one of the first serious Dickens scholars in America, advises readers to look out for the number of significant deaths in the novel. “I count nine,” he writes, and sometimes, if I’m stuck in line or on the subway with nothing to entertain me, I try in my head to count the nine. To say that Dickens writes as if for television is more than just to acknowledge his serial composition, it’s also — in the wake of shows like The Sopranos — to suggest that he populates his fictional world richly enough to dispense with a critical mass of its key inhabitants and still keep his story going strong. Even within Dickens’ oeuvre, the only other work that could possibly sustain such a quantity of mortal blows is Our Mutual Friend, and that’s a book where too many people spend too much time near a river. If nine memorable characters die in Bleak House (one of them, most memorably, of spontaneous combustion), imagine how many survive. That gives you a sense of the novel’s scope.

Because he worked closely with illustrators, Dickens had to plan his plots sufficiently in advance to give the artist lead-time in which to draw. From Dombey and Son on, his early notes for each novel survive, and the notes for Bleak House provide a master class in complex plotting. The story involves the unraveling of numerous mysteries — beginning with: who is the law writer who calls himself Nemo, and why does Lady Dedlock care to find out? — which meant the author needed to establish evidence and motive and plant clues along the way. Here are a few of the victims, conspirators and witnesses, in shorthand. Mr. Krook, proprietor of a rag and bone shop full of old documents: “Introduce the old marine store Dealer who has the papers.” The Dedlocks’ mighty lawyer, whose eye nothing escapes: “Mr. Tulkinghorn and Lady Dedlock. Each watching the other.” The crossing-sweep boy, always on the move: “Jo — shadowing forth of Lady Dedlock in the churchyard.” The mad old woman who haunts the courts: “Miss Flite and her birds.” She keeps the birds caged and names two after the wards in Jarndyce. On the day of judgment, she says, she’ll set them free.

Esther regains her sight. But she suffers in other ways that both pull one’s heartstrings and serve the story. There’s little in Bleak House, the most efficient 900-page novel you’ll ever read, that doesn’t do one or the other, or both. When I think about its merits I always remember a rather plain line at the end, spoken by John Jarndyce to Esther (if you’ve read the book, you’ll know what it means): “My dearest, Allan Woodcourt stood beside your father when he lay dead — stood beside your mother.” I love Bleak House because the entire plot coalesces in that one sentence and transforms into poetry. You wouldn’t think it possible if you hadn’t watched it happen, chapter by chapter, word by word. Dickens isn’t interested simply in making connections. He wants the connections to matter. To my mind, they never matter more than in Bleak House.

And so, dear reader, you have come to the end of our Blogging the Dickens project. We hope you’ve enjoyed it as much as we have. Please feel free to leave your thoughts about Bleak House, or any of Dickens’ novels, in the comments section below.

READ: The Previous Entry in This SeriesNumber 2: Great Expectations

MORE: The Secret of Charles Dickens’ Enduring Success

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