Thursday, April 16, 2009

Bleak House, by Charles Dickens

I picked this up for $5 from during a sale they had, and I had NO idea how big this really was! I think it has turned out to be something like 31 hours of narration, which is practically a lifetime in comparison to most audio books. So I guess it was about the biggest bargain I have ever found in audio books, and that includes the ones from the library!

Where does one start with Bleak House? I have read three or four of Dickens' shorter novels, but never this one, which showed up on one of those questionable lists of 100 Books You Should Have Read But Probably Didn't. Add to that the fact that as a lawyer, I was ethically obligated to read Dickens' polemic against the English court system, and I felt I had to wade in.

First off, although Bleak House is famous for the unending lawsuit of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, the case itself plays very little part in the bulk of the novel. Instead, the suit serves as the thread which connects all the characters from all different classes of society, allowing Dickens to comment on everyone from country gentry all the way down to the starving street orphans, while showing how they are interconnected. Because make no mistake, Dickens' main topic is not about the injustice of a Chancery case as much as it is the injustice of poverty and the persistent failure of England to care for its own.

The central figure of this novel is Esther Summerson, who narrates most of the action of the book. Her narrative is interleaved with an omniscient third person narrator, whose voice is quite arch and satiric. Esther is the sort of naive narrator who stands in for the reader, watching as the plot unfolds without fully comprehending all the elements at work. Esther is also a model Victorian woman, cheerful, kind, uncomplaining, generous, and loving. While modern readers will doubtless find her unbelievable, I see her as Dickens' demonstration of the Ideal Woman: she constantly puts others' needs ahead of her own, she strictly forbids herself to be mournful over things like her disfigurement by smallpox, or her loss of her love. The other ingenue of the book, Ada Clare, is similarly idealized, to the point where her presence in the book is fairly negligible.

Dickens' has been disparaged for his apparent inability to write believable women--Lucy from "A Tale of Two Cities" is almost farcical in her passivity. Esther comes off better than that, because we see so much through her narrative, and she is given the opportunity to be honest even when it is not flattering. Ada is pure Lucy, a lovely young girl who marries improvidently but for the best of intentions, and while it is her husband who actually dies, Ada is possibly even more the victim than he is.

Ada and her cousin, Richard Carstone, begin the book as wards of Chancery, as they are apparently orphans who stand to inherit under the wills of Jarndyce and Jarndyce. As far as I know, there is no backstory to these two--they do not exist until they burst onto the scene nearly as adults. Their cousin John Jarndyce, has petitioned the court to have them live with him, and he simultaneously takes on Esther Summerson as his ward and companion for Ada. John Jarndyce has refused to take any interest in the Chancery case, and would withdraw from it if that were possible. He has claims which are reportedly contrary to the claims of Ada and Richard, but he takes them into his home in order to counteract the effects of the suit.

Dickens wrote Bleak House as a serial which ran for some 18 months, and the plot is rather a soap opera as a result. Held together by the mechanism of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, the narrative wanders widely. The highest ranking characters are Sir Leicester and Lady Honoria Dedlock, landed gentry from Lincolnshire. Lady Dedlock is at the height of the fashionable world, and bored to death with it. Oddly, Sir Leicester's attorney, the malevolent Tulkinghorn, turns up with some documents for them to review in the Jarndyce case. Lady Dedlock notices a certain distinctive handwriting on one of the documents and asks who wrote it. (Oh yeah! This was before copy machines!)

Tulkinghorn notices this unusual behavior, and becomes alert to what it might mean. He spends his considerable intellect ferreting out her secret. It was an error on her part to even mention it, because Tulkinghorn is a collector of secrets, and she is not safe, especially if her secret is in conflict with her gusband.

The secret, of course, is that before she married Sir Leicester, Lady Dedlock had a lover and bore a child, who grew up to be Esther Summerson. The handwriting was of Captain Hawdon, Esther's father, who is found dead early in the book. At that point he was a poor opium addict who went by the name "Nemo," which is Latin for "nobody."

Nemo's milieu introduces a number of other characters: Mr. Krook, his landlord; Miss Flite, the other roomer and a suitor in Chancery (but apparently not in Jarndyce); Jo, the ragamuffin boy who sweeps; Mr. and Mrs. Snagsby, the legal stationer who hires Nemo and others to make copies of legal documents. So, by the device of a document in the Jarndyce case, we have moved from Lincolnshire to London, from the upper levels of fashionable society, through the mercantile middle class, to the opium addicted dregs.

The more I think about this novel, the more I take issue with the claim that this is a protest against the abuse of Chancery, or the legal system in general. The real issue, addressed over and over again, is the various forms of poverty and need, and how different people respond to it. There is, obviously, the utter indifference of the Chancery Court to the injury it causes to the people trapped in it--Mr. Gridley loses his farm to pay the costs of the adjudication of a will, ends up in prison several times, and ultimately dies as a result of his case. Poor Miss Flite has gone mad waiting for her judgment, and the weak Richard Carstone goes into debt, alientes his family members, and loses his health and life in pursuing Jarndyce and Jarndyce. But this is not the only instance of response to human want and need.

In introducing us to Tom All Alone's--a London street where rickety buildings have been colonized by squatters who then let out rooms to those who are even poorer--Dickens reports that Parliament has discussed its response to the horrible conditions there. However, since no one can agree on what to do, the street and its residents are only "to be saved by someone's theory, but by no one's doing." Even when the buildings start falling and killing the occupants, nothing is done.

In contrast, John Jarndyce learns of Esther Summerson and decides to be her protector, as well as taking in his two young cousins as well as all but supporting the feckless Horace Skimpole. Esther Summerson acts to attend to the needy children of Mrs. Jellyby on the one night she is in their household, and as a result has a life-long connection with Caddy. Esther takes in the ill Jo, and ends up nearly dying herself of smallpox. Her generosity is not rewarded--perhaps as a message that individual charity is not the solution. Her ultimate husband, Alan Woodcourt, attends the sick and dying even when it is clear they can never pay him.

Even the nearly penniless Nemo shared what little he had with Jo, who had even less. The brickmakers' wives, Jenny and Lizzie, also share their burdens with each other and help everyone from the gravely ill Jo to the distracted Lady Dedlock.

On the other hand, we also see the pointlessness of some efforts at charity. For instance, Mrs. Jellyby's obsession with her African mission blinds her to the very real needs of her own children. Mrs. Pardiggle forces her children to contribute to her charities, which they bitterly resent. Furthermore, Mrs. Pardiggle's form of charity is basically a pious bullying, and Dickens shows it to be utterly futile.

What Dickens shows us over and over in Bleak House is the necessity of making human connections, as individuals rather than as moral subjects or unbridgeable social constructs. It is this spectrum of relationship which is the real theme of the book. The various responses run from the cold and brutal inefficiency of the Chancery system (which takes no notice of whether waht it does is right, merely whether it is the system) to the generous and warm-hearted humanity of Esther Summerson.

One last comment: while the characters are often quite stock, I fully enjoyed Inspector Bucket, who was a new form of police officer that I had not previously encountered. He is not fixable as either "good" or "bad." He seems heartless as he forces Jo to "move on" without giving the poor boy any idea as to where he was to move to--but then he makes such a wonderful guest at the Bagnets birthday celebration, without letting on that he was only there to arrest Mr. George--far more humane and subtle than I had expected of him. Further, he is an excellent detective, exonerating Mr. George and finding the true culprit. He operates from extremely sympathetic motives, although his actions sometimes have more serious consequences than he could predict. He is truly an absorbing character.

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