I have been in thrall to Bleak House for the past week or so. I haven’t wanted to do anything else. As soon as my kids are in bed (four-thirty! No dinner! Just kidding, kind of) I’ve been back at it, desperate to find out what happens next in this glorious, chunky, complex, dark masterpiece of a novel.
This is the story of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, the epic law-case that has dragged on through generations, with ruin in its wake. This case — the cause of which no one even remembers any longer — has lost fortunes, lives, loves, and sanity, corrupting those it touches even briefly. Into the shadow of Jarndyce and Jarndyce come the two orphaned wards of the case, cousins Ada and Richard, and young Esther Summerstone, brought from her own mysteriously orphaned past to be a companion to Ada. These three come to live at Bleak House itself, so named for its unhappy associations, with their kindly and honorable cousin, John Jarndyce.
On the other side of the London world are Lord and Lady Dedlock and their household. The beautiful Lady Dedlock, under her mask of fashionable indifference, hides a secret about a former lover and an illegitimate child — a secret that could destroy her marriage and her reputation. Their lawyer, Mr. Turveydrop, who knows all the ins and outs of everyone’s business, may know more than he’s telling — about this secret, and much more besides.
And this is just the beginning of what the eternal case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce sets in motion among the huge cast of characters. There’s Mr. Bucket, the police detective (one of the first in fiction); Mrs. Jellyby, who is so devoted to charitable causes that her entire household goes to rack and ruin under her very nose; Harold Skimpole, who is a mere child about money (but doesn’t mind taking it from others); little orphaned Jo, who doesn’t know nothink; and dozens of others. As the plot moves along, going from Esther’s curious childhood to the slow, relentless grinding away of Richard Carstone to a murder mystery to a romance, none of the threads are permitted to drop. Dickens doesn’t waste a single character, nor allow himself the luxury of a deux ex machina even once in the space of 800 pages. Everything comes together — everything — among people you care for, in a way that makes a powerful vision of life under the law.
I’m a Dickens fan (though I have novels I like much better than others), but I am the first to admit that his characters, particularly minor ones, are often types — caricatures — rather than fully-fleshed human beings. Look at Mr. Micawber, for instance, or Rogue Riderhood. They don’t change through the course of the story, and despite their memorable nature, they exist more to illustrate a point than anything else. Of course, there are characters like this in Bleak House (Mrs. Jellyby is a case in point.) But this is one of the first novels I’ve read by Dickens in which I started out thinking I knew what sort of person a character was, and revised my opinion as the book went on. Harold Skimpole, for instance, is introduced, apparently in good faith, as a charming, delightful fellow, completely unworldly, with no more sense than a baby of time or money. Dickens has the capacity to make this kind of person utterly lovable; I was prepared to love him. Yet as time went on, I found to my surprise that I didn’t, quite. (I won’t reveal exactly why.) The characterization was complex in a way that I haven’t always found elsewhere in Dickens, and it was complex even in his women (and I often feel, with only a few exceptions, about Dickens heroines the way some people feel about Hitchcock’s blondes.)
The style of the narration was also fascinating. It alternates between Esther’s first-person narration and third-person narration in the present tense. This present-tense narration has an unusually urgent, dark quality to it, and Dickens uses sentence fragments and exceptionally beautiful descriptions to create the brooding feel that haunts the whole book.
Finally, the book was drawn together, not only by its plot and style, but by its themes. Of course, on the face of it, it would appear that the corrupt practices of the law are the main theme of this novel. But what Bleak House is really about is parents — good parents, bad parents, no parents, those who are in loco parentis. From the wards of the court, whose “parent” is the corrupt giant Jarndyce and Jarndyce, to poor Caddy Jellyby, who has been raised without love or care by a mother who thinks only of African children, to Lady Dedlock and her abandoned, illegitimate child, to little orphaned Jo, fathers and mothers and children are on every page. The notion that good fathers and good mothers — not good blood, because many of these relationships are with guardians or adoptive parents — make good children, and that bad or absent parents make miserable or dead children, is everywhere repeated. And despite the grim legacy of the law, Dickens rejects the idea that the sins of the father will be visited, willy-nilly, on the son; he claims redemption (if not, necessarily, a happy ending.)
Out of the nine Dickens novels I’ve read, this rates up in the top two. It’s a masterpiece. If you’ve been waiting to read it, stop waiting. Whatever you’re looking for in a truly great novel, it’s here.