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Old 27th May 2004, 17:03   #1
amner
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Default Charles Dickens: Bleak House

During the first weekend in August last year, the county seemed to empty around me as everyone headed down the M11 to join the world's biggest traffic jam. Some people, I've heard, even managed to get into Knebworth (yes, der Scheißemeister General himself was on); woo, wow, knock yourself out, etc. Let him entertain you.

Me, well I had a house to myself and a weekend's papers to get through. Fully sated on European Federalism, the latest skiing fashions (natch), new football season previews and everything I ever wanted to know about a weekend in Talinn (they have a surprisingly busy street theatre culture, apparently, rebel folksongs a speciality), I turned lazily to The Observer and the Arts Reviews section. An article caught my eye because it was written by John Lanchester, an author I'd only just read and, although his book (Fragrant Harbour) wasn't great by any stretch, that sort of coincidence is usually enough to help you get your nose stuck into a substantial article.

He was writing about the use of facts in fiction (which was a bit rich, if I'm honest, but that's another review) and how the five greatest novels were all, in their own way, based heavily on painfully researched facts. An eyebrow raising moment, then, someone about to pin their colours to the mast and tell us what he thinks are the five greatest novels ever written. I won't keep you waiting, they were: Moby Dick, Middlemarch, War & Peace, The Remembrance of Things Past and Bleak House. The first thing that struck me was that there's not a slim one amongst 'em (they're all getting on for 500,000 words or more, pretty much). The second, that I hadn't read a single one. Now, admittedly, my only previous experience of Lanchester's work irritated the living daylights out of me, so taking his opinion on such matters might be a dubious starting point, but starting point it is, and from the moment I read it I became determined to tick off at least three from that list (that way, if I'm honest, rather than saying I'd have all of them, I could avoid the Proust).

Of course, we've all heard of them, and we probably even think we know them without ever having to actually read them. That's the difficulty with Classics, I guess. Folk memory gives us these damn things and we reckon we 'own' them enough – or have amassed enough bijou fact-ettes about them through our collective cultural osmosis - not to bloody bother with that tedious reading thing. But I was settled on it. Three sod off Classics, no time scale. Easy. Plus, I could dispense with Lanchester now, like a catalyst he helped me along but was essentially unchanged (well, he got recycled, I think). And that is how I arrived at Bleak House.

It's a monster of a book, and that's not really a reference to the length necessarily (although at 900+ pages, you can't help but be a little daunted). Bleak House has big plans for you, it wants to grab you and shout at you and whisper at you and tell you ten thousand things all at once in dozens of different accents. It's a book, really it is, with a mission, and an appropriately large dollop of missionary zeal.

Dickens was already a household name when he wrote it. He'd already cast his net far and wide over an increasingly eager audience (Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, David Copperfield and Nicholas Nickleby had all garnered great praise for him, and Martin Chuzzlewit's extensive American episode – after his trip there in 1842 – had helped his popularity no end in the US). He was world famous. He had also just begun editing the weekly journal Household Words, a publication he hoped would help highlight the social injustices of the age. Bleak House is confident and furiously angry in many respects addressing, as it does, much of the same agenda that Household Words railed against week in week out.

The plot centres on the interminable case of Jarndyce v Jarndyce, a years-old law suit creaking its way through Chancery (a reference to two cases: Day v Croft, a suit begun in 1838 and still being heard in 1854; and Jennings v Jennings, begun in 1798 and finally settled in, wait for it, 1878, although, as Dickens says in his Preface, 'if I wanted [more]…I could rain them on these pages, to the shame of a parsimonious public').

Quote:
Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce drones on. This scarecrow of a suit has, in the course of time, become so complicated, that no man alive knows what it means. The parties to it understand it least; but it has been observed that no two Chancery lawyers can talk about it for five minutes, without coming to a total disagreement as to all the premises. Innumerable children have been born into the cause; innumerable young people have married into it; innumerable old people have died out of it. Scores of persons have deliriously found themselves made parties in Jarndyce and Jarndyce, without knowing how or why; whole families have inherited legendary hatreds with the suit. The little plaintiff or defendant, who was promised a new rocking-horse when Jarndyce and Jarndyce should be settled, has grown up, possessed himself of a real horse, and trotted away into the other world. Fair wards of court have faded into mothers and grand-mothers; a long procession of Chancellors has come in and gone out; the legion of bills in the suit have been transformed into mere bills of mortality; there are not three Jarndyces left upon the earth perhaps, since old Tom Jarndyce in despair blew his brains out at a coffee house in Chancery Lane, but Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce still drags its dreary length before the Court, perennially hopeless.
Circling this legal colossus, turning and turning in the widening gyre, if you like, is a cast as memorable as any that Dickens assembled before or after. The demure Esther Summerson, a resilient young woman carefully uncovering her past; Lord and Lady Dedlock, landed gentry living in a shadow-filled mansion in rural Lincolnshire; the threatening and ultra-clever lawyer, Tulkinghorn; Jo, a wretched street boy; and a whole swathe of legal junkies, obsessed acolytes flitting around the Courts of Chancery and Lincoln's Inn Fields. Every one always mentions the characters in Dickens - ah! the characters! they say - but then, they're remarkable, and wonderfully realised. But, as the case drags on, things fall apart and the centre – definitely - cannot hold.

When an affidavit is discovered amid the J v J papers, written in a sinister and familiar hand, Tulkinghorn's investigations kick off a series of events that lead to a modern thriller style body count. One death that can't be added to the mystery, but no less chilling for that, is the famous spontaneous combustion sequence, as grisly a set piece as ever appeared in a Victorian novel (weren't these people supposed to have good old fashioned values or something?), marking a disturbing midpoint in the book (p.450-ish, of course) and creating a grim catharsis for the community in Chancery Lane. The build up, as two minor characters discover something rather worrying, is suitably distasteful:

Quote:
'Don't you observe,' says Mr Snagsby, pausing to sniff and taste the air a little; 'don't you observe, Mr Weevle, that you're — not to put too fine a point upon it — that you're rather greasy here, sir?'

'Why, I have noticed myself that there is a queer kind of flavour in the place to-night,' Mr Weevle rejoins. 'I suppose it's chops at the Sol's Arms.'

'Chops, do you think? Oh! — Chops, eh?' Mr Snagsby sniffs and tastes again. 'Well, sir, I suppose it is. But I should say their cook at the Sol wanted a little looking after. She has been burning 'em, sir! And I don't think;' Mr Snagsby sniffs and tastes again, and then spits and wipes his mouth; 'I don’t think — not to put too fine a point upon it — that they were quite fresh, when they were shown the gridiron.'
It gets worse:

Quote:
Mr Guppy sitting on the window-sill, nodding his head and balancing all these possibilities in his mind, continues thoughtfully to tap it, and clasp it, and measure it with his hand, until he hastily draws his hand away.

'What, in the Devil's name,' he says, 'is this! Look at my fingers!'

A thick, yellow liquor defiles them, which is offensive to the touch and sight, and more offensive to the smell. A stagnant, sickening oil, with some natural repulsion in it that makes them both shudder.
The plot becomes ever more labyrinthine and to help us shed some much needed light on the matter we get Inspector Bucket (great name) one of the earliest detectives in fiction, and an absolutely perfect Columbo role model down to the amiable outlook, the never-seen but frequently-mentioned Mrs Bucket and the 'just one final question' moments as he leaves a room.

All is division in Bleak House. The Dedlocks and the suit's lawyers on one side, everybody else on the other. When the two sides meet (weighty social irony in use here) the sparks light up the dark corners of the filthy London streets and someone invariably comes off worse. This is where the anger creeps in. Creeps in? Nah, floods in. This is where Dickens's agenda falls into place like a guillotine and you wonder how he ever managed to get on the side of the Toffs six years later for A Tale of Two Cities:

Quote:
Dead, your Majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen. Dead, Right Reverends and Wrong Reverends of every order. Dead, men and women, born with Heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us, every day.
There's humour though, in fact there are plenty of real laugh out loud moments. The moment when Lord Dedlock discovers that someone has the audacity to stand against him in the election and that he's - egad! - an 'industrialist', is a splendid attack on the baronet's smug pomposity.

Narrative hops around from player to player, resting most often on a first-person account by Esther, who is the conscience of the story, but beyond her everybody gets a focus and story line, and the extended sequence of tying it all together, starting with the solving of the murder about 150 pages out, heralds a very satisfying series of dénouements.

So, is John Lanchester right? Is it one of the five best books ever written? I'm not at liberty to say, of course, that's a question I'll have to come back to in my dotage. Certainly, I can't think of anything to put in the negative column. Dickens is fastidious in his plotting, there's nothing he leaves unsaid. There's no filler here (an amazing thing to say you might think, but it's true), no dull chapters, no extensive flowery prose, no muttered 'get on with it' moments. He fulfils his obligations to his social concerns, he creates sympathy and antipathy where he requires it. The villain, Chancery, gets a roasting ... yet he has a nasty surprise for everyone at the last.

But, I am smitten with it, yes. I do think it's going to stay with me forever and – get this – I’m already looking forward to the re-read. I was blown away.
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Old 27th May 2004, 17:15   #2
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Damn. My interest in this behemoth - piqued when the motley panel of the Big Red Top 100 countdown all agreed it was a staggering masterpiece - had just ebbed away to comforting levels, and now you have made me need to read it, again.

On the other hand, I have read Moby Dick, so ner.

You are spot on, by the way, about how the Classics infect us so we feel we don't need to read them. Then, when we do, they turn out to be utterly different from our expectations.
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Old 27th May 2004, 17:17   #3
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I've read probably the easiest - Middlemarch - which is also my top book ever.
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Old 27th May 2004, 17:21   #4
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Well if we're being self-deprecating - and why wouldn't we be? - Moby Dick is the shortest of the five, at 500 pages. Anyway now we need members to declare their experience of Proust and Tolstoy - those lightweight foreign johnnies...
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Old 27th May 2004, 17:28   #5
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Quote:
Originally Posted by John Self
Damn...now you have made me need to read it, again.


That's the point, isn't it? I'd recommend getting a heavily annotated version by some literary luminary you can trust. Fortunately, there's plenty of choice. Despite his remarkably modern approach there are dozens of references that cry out for a bit of clarification. For example, an otherwise ignorable mention of girl from Tooting 'who has fits' brings up this note (in my text):

Quote:
Tooting: rather than keep pauper children in workhouses, many London parishes boarded them out. In 1848 cholera raged through a baby farm run by Peter Drouet at Tooting, killing more than 150. Drouet was cleared of manslaughter. Dickens was much exercised by the facts of the case and what they revealed about attitudes to the care of children, and he wrote four articles in the Examiner on the topic and alluded to it frequently in Household Words.
which his audience at the time would probably have latched on to.

EDIT: Couple of typos (which no doubt you noticed) corrected amid that little lot, above.
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Old 27th May 2004, 17:42   #6
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If you say there is no filler, I will have to give this a try - as the filler (even though I know why it is there) is the one thing that does for me when I try to read an unabridged Dickens!

Hazel (who has also read Middlemarch, and should really read it again)
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Old 27th May 2004, 17:50   #7
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BH's place in his sequence is very important I think Hazel (which is why I mentioned it, I guess). It's a bloke saying "I'm on top of my game, me" and then setting out to prove it. The early stuff (Nicholas Nickleby and The Olde Curiosity Shop being regularly pointed at with regard to this complaint) has been labelled turgid by a lot of people. Bleak House is fifteen years down the line ... a man at 40, in his stride and knowing what he does best. You'll thank me ... I hope :D
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Old 27th May 2004, 19:18   #8
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I will give it a try then - just can't promise when

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Old 27th May 2004, 19:56   #9
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Wow, sounds awesome. I picked up a copy last week at the local flea market and hope to read it soon. Long live the Classics!
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Old 27th May 2004, 19:58   #10
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Quote:
Originally Posted by rick green
Long live the Classics!
Well, by definition, they already have, haven't they? :wink:

Congratulations by the way, amner, on what seems to be the fastest growing thread on Palimpsest ever...
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