Bleak House

By Charles Dickens. A walloping good read and not nearly as bleak as the title suggests. I highly recommend it. It’s a very long novel with lots of characters and lots of plot lines. It tells the story of characters that are in some way (some very peripherally) connected with the case in Chancery called Jarndyce and Jarndyce (it’s a court case to do with wills and testaments and has been running for a long time, causing hardship for the people waiting to come into their inheritance).

I’ve drawn a mind map of the connections between the main characters in Bleak House. I’m placing it under the cut, as it contains a few spoilers as does the rest of my review. Don’t read if you don’t want to be spoilered (although the spoilers are mild). It’s handwritten and not easy to read, but you can see the complexity of the connections.

One of the central characters is Esther Summerson. She is an orphan who grows up living with her strict and puritanical godmother. After her godmother dies, she is sent to a school where she later becomes a teacher. When she’s about 21 years old, she is picked up from the school by a lawyer and sent to live with John Jarndyce, who has been paying for her education. She calls him her guardian. John Jarndyce at the same time also brings Ada Clare and Richard Carstone into his household. They are both also orphans, related to him, and are also affected by the Chancery court case Jarndyce and Jarndyce. They all live at Bleak House and initially everything is quite idyllic. Later on, Richard is estranged from John Jarndyce, as he comes to feel that they are opponents in the court case, with incompatible interests.

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The novel tells the stories of this family and other families in their social circle. Some of the chapters are narrated in the first person by Esther. She’s my favourite character. She keeps telling the reader that she’s not very clever, but in fact her interpretation of many of the events and the characters involved in them is very perceptive. Much of the novel centers around the mystery of Esther’s birth. After we find out who her parents were (or are, as her mother is still alive), it’s about how various parties find this out as well and try to use the information to blackmail her mother.

Another central character involved in the blackmail of Esther’s mother is Mr. Tulkinghorn, a lawyer who has many illustrious clients and keeps many secrets. He’s also a moneylender. He enjoys keeping people in the dark about his intentions and is also merciless about collecting due interest rates from the people to whom he’s lent money. In the later part of the novel, he is murdered and then it’s all about finding his murderer (and I have to say, it wasn’t the person I thought it would be).

Another important household in the book is the household of Sir and Lady Dedlock, with the housekeeper Mrs. Rouncewell, the lady’s maids Mademoiselle Hortense and Rosa. Mrs Rouncewell has a son who had a connection to Esther’s father. The Dedlock family is a conservative aristocratic family with lots of influence in society (especially Lady Dedlock, who is a haughty beauty – a type of influencer of the times). Mademoiselle Hortense is let go (much to her annoyance) after Lady Dedlock grows to like the Rosa, who has a love interest with Watt, Mrs. Rouncewell’s grandson, whose father is a successful iron-works owner. Their values are more about merit and industry and they would like to have nothing to do with the aristocracy (and vice versa).

With Mr. Snagsby the novel introduces a shopkeeper who deals with the stationary needed by the courts to feed their voluminous paperwork. He also knows Esther’s father, as he used to employ him to copy papers for the courts. Mr. Snagsby also knows Jo, who is a desperately poor orphan boy who sweeps the crossing near the Inns of Courts. Both Esther’s father and Mr. Snagsby sometime support Jo with a few shillings or pence. So, Jo knows where Esther’s father is buried and can later show the burial place to Esther’s mother, who is in disguise. Jo is hounded by the detective Mr. Bucket, who is very capable at finding out secrets and is sometimes employed by Mr. Tulkinghorn and later by Sir Dedlock.

There are characters (some very odd ones with strange fates) from all stations in life in the novel and there is a lot of social criticism: the lot of the poor, who have to live in dreadful conditions; the excesses of the Chancery court system; the failings of the aristocracy; the hypocrisy shown by so many of the characters; the perils of avarice and greed.

So far, of all Dickens’ novels I like this one the best. My list of favourites is now updated, with Bleak House in first place (they are all good reads, regardless of the place they currently have on my list):

  1. Bleak House
  2. Our Mutual Friend
  3. Hard Times
  4. Pickwick Papers

I haven’t decided which of Dickens’ novels I’ll be reading in April. I’m trying to catch up on the rest of March’s reading goals first.

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