February 13, 2003

Bleak House, by Charles Dickens

I like Dickens' books. Some call him long winded and tedious but I have never found him to be so. James Joyce's Ulysses is long winded and tedious. Dickens is just... extremely Victorian. His plots are complex, his descriptions are voluminous and his characters are cartoons rather than rounded people. Nevertheless, I almost always find something relevant in his books. He creates a world that I find immediately familiar, understandable and amusing.

The skeleton plot of Bleak House revolves around the story of two young litigants, Ada Clare and Richard Carstone, in a long and hugely involved Chancery suit called Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce. The case is hopelessly bogged down in legal mumbo jumbo, the lawyers are eating all the money up in court costs and the whole process of waiting for resolution has driven the people involved to madness or suicide. On the opposite side is John Jarndyce who, in an effort to repair the damage done by the suit, takes the pair under his wing as wards and provides them with financial support and a beautiful home called Bleak House. He also takes in a young woman, orphaned and raised by an aunt, to act as a companion to Ada. Esther Summerson, the young orphan, becomes his housekeeper.

Now, all of that is very nice, if a little dry. What makes the book so much fun to read is all the side characters Dickens throws in as well. Usually, it's his long winded descriptions that are so amusing. My personal favorite is Mrs. Jellyby, who uses all her time in philanthropy for the people of Boorioboola-Gha and completely ignores her household affairs. Her children are filthy and wild, her servants drink, the house is a pig sty and her husband comes home to say nothing and lean his head against the wall. However, she has a Mission and it's to raise money for the poor Africans, not tend to the minor facts of her home life. She is something right out a Monty Python sketch. She does illustrate well the thematic elements involving charity and philanthropy that runs thru the entire book. Mr. Tulkinghorn, the personification of the evil lawyer, is another well drawn character. He hears everything, sees everything, feels nothing, loves no one. Fortunately, Dickens kills, oops, sorry. Anyway, he lives up to every lawyer joke I have ever heard. And, of course, there is the poor little street sweeper, Jo, who has the audacity to be orphaned, ignorant, homeless, hungry and always being told to "move on" though he has nowhere to go, like the dust he sweeps from the sidewalks for the rich.

If you haven't read a Dickens novel, start with a shorter one like Great Expectations. But if you are not new to the world he creates and you are willing to read slowly and digest, this book is certainly one of his more rewarding and amusing books.

Posted by Deb English at February 13, 2003 05:06 PM