by Charles Dickens
I have been a big fan of Dickens since I started reading his books, and I have loved most of them from the first time I read them. And yet for some reason, I was always too intimidated by this book to attempt reading it, until I found an audio-CD of it at the library. Why that should be so now escapes me. Perhaps it has something to do with the forbidding ring of the title, which suggests something unrelentingly and perhaps boringly serious. Or perhaps it was the discouraging prospect (glimpsed through the blurb on the back cover of either the Oxford or the Penguin edition) of a novel satirically skewering the long-drawn-out, ruinously expensive lawsuits before the English court of Chancery, also known as Equity, when I understood neither word and didn't care about the injustice of a system that has long since been dismantled. But thanks once again to the miracle of audiobooks, I can now take my literary medicine and be happy about it too. For I have learned that nothing beguiles a long commute to and from work like a book that takes 29 hours to read aloud. Be it ever so dull a book, it must be far less obnoxious than listening to the same radio commercials twice driving each way, every day. And to my delight (I should not have been surprised), this book turned out not to be dull at all.
The first thing to know about this novel, if you're going to judge whether it is worth the time and effort of reading, is that it is by Dickens. It was first published in monthly installments from 1852 to 1853, roughly the middle of his career. So, understandably, it is typical of Dickens's books in many ways. As such, you should expect it to be full of bustling life and humor, wicked puns worked into the names of characters, and many characters (wicked and otherwise) worked into a complex web of relationships and story threads. If you're a Harry Potter fan like me, you'll soon discover that Dickens is the author J. K. Rowling most takes after.
The second thing to realize is that Bleak House is also atypical in several diverting ways. For example, the book's point of view goes back and forth between a first-person, past-tense account by an earnest young woman named Esther Summerson and an omniscient, present-tense narrator. If I had realized this was allowed, and that it could be pulled off with something like literary success, I wouldn't have burnt the manuscript of the last novel I attempted to write and buried the ashes at the crossroads. Another highlight (since we're speaking of ashes) is that the story contains a case of Spontaneous Human Combustion, which ought to make the ears of 35 percent of 12-year-old boys perk up. Then there's the fact that the heroine receives a total of four proposals of marriage, although two of them come from the same repulsive character, while the man she really loves proposes only after she has consented to marry someone else; and yet these love affairs reach their final, happy issue without anyone being obliged to knock anyone else on the head. All this happens in spite of the fact that Esther, in flagrant disregard of romantic novel conventions, loses her good looks to a bout with smallpox halfway through the book. And for a final example, I'm starting to imitate Dickens's writing style unconsciously. I spent the weekend of my fortieth birthday immersed in this book, and thus it has left a water-mark in me.
The third thing to realize is that it is hopeless to attempt a synopsis of this book within the targeted length of this review. I could go on for five or six long paragraphs just hitting the highlights, and to do less would be to omit something crucial. Inevitably, my summary would be far too boring to serve the purpose of persuading you to read this book, or at least to listen to it. If you, too, find yourself intimidated by its thickness, the lengths of the paragraphs and sentences in it, the smallness of the type and the narrowness of the margins, and the odious chore of looking up end-notes at the back of the book to explain cultural references and archaic terms, your anxiety won't be relieved by a bunch of spoilers that, as a super-condensed version of the book, lack the original's charm and depth. You're better off just making a plan for how to get through it without losing heart, such as reading one chapter a night or, if you're feeling up to a bit more, one of the twenty "numbers" into which the book was originally divided. Meanwhile, all you will want to hear from me at this point is enough of a hint at what's in this book to keep it distinct in your mind from all the other books that you feel guilty about not having read, but will enjoy reading more than you expect.
So what can I say to make this book stand out in your memory? Well, maybe I can explain those words that I mentioned earlier, which I had to look up as I started to enjoy this book. Chancery, or Equity, was a system of justice in the U.K. that existed alongside Common Law. It was mainly concerned with civil suits relating to wills, trusts, property, and guardianship. Chancery was originally supposed to move faster than Common Law courts, providing swifter and more humane justice. Ironically, by Dickens's time, it had become quite the reverse. In some notorious cases, disputes over the disposition of a will dragged on and on until the original parties to the suit were dead, and their heirs were helplessly entangled in a conflict they didn't understand, until court costs wiped out the entire estate and everybody involved—excepting, of course, the court and its lawyers—was ruined.
Such a case is Jarndyce v Jarndyce, depicted in this book: a legal morass in which the hopes and ambitions of generations have been sunk. Because of Jarndyce v Jarndyce, one man blew his brains out; another, a likely young fellow who becomes addicted to the tantalizing delusion that someday the case will be brought to a verdict, squanders all his opportunities to develop a career of his own while waiting for this result. Tragically, the evil influence of this case leads this youngster (the interesting but disappointing Richard Carstone) to mess things up badly with his family, including a pretty cousin named Ada, the endearingly gruff but wise John Jarndyce, and sometime narrator Esther. Meanwhile, the scandalous secret of Esther's birth comes home to roost at a Lincolnshire manor house where a glacially bored lady of fashion conceals a secret (more tragedy!) that could ruin her stuffy, bigoted, but basically loving and devoted husband.
Meanwhile (still more tragedy!) one of the first detectives ever to grace the pages of a novel investigates several suspicious deaths and missing-persons cases, from an opium overdose to a murder for which the wrong suspect is initially arrested. Mixed up in all these things are a variety of characters, ranging from starving children to a despicably childlike and cheerful sponger, from a narcoleptic serving-girl to a philanthropic matron who shows heroic charity towards Africa while neglecting common charity at home, from a ludicrously jealous shrew of a wife to the master of deportment who lets his dependents work themselves to death so he show himself in fashionable society, from a batty old lady whose mania for the law could make you either weep or chuckle to a paralytic old moneylender who, in spite of his greed and cruelty, often made me laugh aloud. If I were to direct a film adaptation of this novel, I would cast a ventriloquist's dummy of the Jeff Dunham persuasion, or perhaps a Jim Henson Muppet, in this role. But then I would want Barry Humphries to play both Mr. Turveydrop and Mrs. Jellyby, and he has already done a double Dickens role (cf. Nicholas Nickleby). In short, Bleak House is anything but bleak. It's a warm, rich, teeming cornucopia of vitally interesting characters that will wring tears of both laughter and sorrow out of you, if only you get past the intimidating cover. As with the case of Jarndyce v Jarndyce, once you sign on, you'll be hooked until the whole, tangled case is told... Only, you will end up the richer for it.
Saint Louis USA
Recommended Age: 12+
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