Bleak House by Charles Dickens, Thoughts at the Beginning

It has been a little while since I’ve read a Charles Dickens novel, but beginning Bleak House (first published 1853) was a delightful reminder of why I enjoy this author so much: he’s so good at writing. The scene as it is established in the early passages of the novel is simply marvelous. I was delighted at how Charles Dickens breaks all the “rules” (I’m thinking Strunk and White here).

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ‘prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.

I love the setting as it is described here. And while Bleak House the residence does not (at least so far) seem to be a bleak place, London’s pervasive fogginess (and by symbolic extension, the never-ending Chancery case at the center of the novel) provides a wonderful contrast that got me excited to be reading the novel from the beginning.

Because I’m only 15% into the book, I have a few problems. First, I don’t know who is who. There are so many new characters – all with fantastic Dickensian names – that I can’t remember who I’ve already met and which character did what. A second and related problem is that I have no idea where the book is going. This is a good thing, right? As I do get in to the book, the suspense of the unknown will grow and it will end up rather satisfying. I’m a read-the-end first kind of reader, though, so not knowing what to expect leaves me feeling lost in an unsatisfying way as I do read. What should I be looking for? Which of the many characters will be most important as the novel progresses?

Finally, I am a bit lost about the Chancery situation. As in, I don’t know why the families are at legal battle with each other. They’ve tried to explain it a few times, but I’m just not getting it. I suspect this is an important aspect of the novel, so I’m hoping I get a better grip on it soon. In fact, before I posted this, I went back and skimmed the Chancery bits in the first 15% of the novel to try and get a better understanding for the rest of the novel.

But, despite my concerns, I am happy to say that I’m very impressed with what I’ve read so far. I look forward to delving in to it a bit more this week.

Have you read Bleak House? Do you have any suggestions for how I should continue reading it (especially concerning keeping the characters straight)?

This is post one of my Charles Dickens Month project!

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  1. I’ve read the opening of this book over & over. I just love it. I own a copy and plan to read it at some point. Feb I’m devoting to the big ones: A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, and David Copperfield.

    Enjoy, Rebecca! 🙂

    1. Jillian » Oh those are great popular ones –but with the bonus that the first two at least are not “big” ! but shorter. I really loved Great Expectations. Tale of Two Cities may just be a Jillian book, but it seemed much more forced in plotting than the other Dickens I read. Still very good — it is Dickens after all! I haven’t read David Copperfield yet.

      I do keep coming back to reread the fog chapter. It is fantastic 🙂

  2. Dickens himself included lists of characters at the beginning of the novels when the monthly serials were first collected. So he understood the problem! Sometimes modern editions include the character list, sometimes they do not. They should include it!

    1. Amateur Reader (Tom) » ah, the list of characters would be great! I’m reading it on an ereader but I’d totally reference a character list if it had one in the beginning. My Penguin classics hard copy doesn’t have a character list either. I guess I should make my own! I also suppose that is why rereading Dickens must be so rewarding: you finally know who everyone is so you can enjoy the story!

  3. I read this one a couple years ago with Amanda for a readalong. I had a really hard time getting into the first half because I couldn’t remember who the characters were! I think I felt quite “meh” about it when I finished, but I really want to try it again now that I have more of his books under my belt. 🙂

    I’m going to be reading David Copperfield and Nicholas Nickleby near the end of the month and into February.

    1. Allie » Those are two novels I am really looking forward to! I must admit I wasn’t delighted to jump in to Bleak House because I remember a lot you read-along-ers had such a hard time with it. I’m really enjoying it, though. It is hard to remember the characters….

  4. You and I will have to consult each other regularly as we are both reading Bleak House.

    I’m thinking that the title is actually referring to the Court of Chancery as the true “Bleak House”.

    Also, since you’re a bit ahead of me, I’m going to take note of your gripe and keep my own notes on each character that I read about. Hopefully, this will help me keep everyone straight!

    I, too, really love the description of the setting in the opening chapter. I only wish that I had started reading on Dec. 31, when San Diego was thick with fog! It would have set the mood so much better than today’s warm sunshine! I’ll just have to put my imagination cap on, I guess!

    1. Mandy » Ah, quite a smart reading re: the Court of Chancery as “Bleak House.” As for the fog, I’m in a Chicago winter, so I’d say it’s just right …. except it’s been unusually sunny so far, so yes, I can relate to wanting a bit more of the fog for the setting.

      I’m reading this for my book club so I’ll be pushing forward at a quick speed in order to finish by my discussion night on January 18! I look forward to reading your thoughts — it sounds like you may be reading it at a bit slower pace.

  5. I hope you end up enjoying Bleak House. It’s my favorite Dickens so far. There are a LOT of characters. You might look up a character list – as someone mentioned, some versions are printed that way so it’s not cheating. 🙂 For me, this novel has some of the best Dickens characters. A lot of the secondary characters ended up being very memorable to me, so hopefully they will all come together for you. Oh, and regarding the Chancery situation, I think you’re supposed to feel a bit lost. Part of Dickens point was that the court system was screwed up, and that this case from long ago that we don’t even really understand is affecting these young people today. Don’t worry too much about the details of the case itself. Have fun with the rest of the novel!

    1. Lindsey » oh definitely not cheating. I’m an end-first reader, so I don’t even mind if the Wikipedia one tells me a little bit too much. I don’t believe in spoilers. And good point about Chancery situation making me lost. I am enjoying the novel, now I just need a few hours of uninterrupted reading time. (Ha!)

  6. I think I was lucky that I read this in a class, and we read a bit at a time. The class discussions made it easier to keep track of the characters. I agree with the suggestion that you look for a character list and keep it handy!

    1. Teresa » I do think reading it slowly would help me remember people more. But I don’t have that kind of time since this is for my book club. If only I’d started in earnest much sooner. Ah well.

  7. I’m planning on reading Bleak House this year as well, although probably not until late spring or over the summer. I saw the an adaptation on PBS a few years ago (which was very good), and now that you’ve mentioned the difficulty with keeping names straight, I think I’m happy I at least have an introduction. (I don’t know how closely the miniseries followed the novel.) I loved the miniseries, so I’m hoping the I’ll love the novel as well, and that you do also. The beginning certainly sounds lovely!

    1. amanda » Watching the movie would be a great way to feel less lost, I think. I really do enjoy it. Once I get a character list printed out, I should be good to keep plowing through.

  8. I am also reading Bleak House these days as I’m on holidays. I had started it some time ago and left it because I didn’t have time to read at ease. But when I wanted to continue reading I found it really hard because, as you mentioned, there are so many characters!! As my book doesn’t have a list of characters I decided to make one myself and I also included some comments such as remarkable personal traits. I really enjoyed doing this because now I find the novel easier to follow. I hope you find this suggestion useful!

    1. Irene » That is part of the problem — I put the book down for a day or two here or there with the holidays and so I came back lost. I think if I just kept reading for an extended period of time I won’t be lost anymore! Thanks for stopping by, I’m definitely making a character list.

    1. Amanda R. » I’m finally starting to get to “know” Lady Dedlock a little more. This is a wonderful novel for it’s memorable characters!

  9. Bleak House made it into my favorite books of 2011. Isn’t the fog opening fantastic? All the characters will eventually sort themselves out. Dickens is pretty good later on at putting in a little something to help jog your memory. The Jarndyce and Jarndyce suit is over a will and who gets to inherit what and how much. I struggled with that bit too but it all becomes clear in the end. Have fun!

    1. Stefanie » I’m about half way through now and things ARE starting to sort out! I’m thinking this will be a favorite Dickens of mine too (but then, I’ve enjoyed all the Dickens I’ve read!!).

  10. I just started this one as well! I’m only a few chapters in and so far I’ve had a similar response. The writing is beautiful, but I’m looking forward to getting to know the characters and story a bit more.

  11. I strongly recommend NOT looking up a character list because some of them include major spoilers!! There are some identity reveals which would completely spoil the plot! I agree, Dickens throws a lot of different threads at the reader in the beginning, but they all tie together. Of course, it was much easier for me because I’d seen the BBC adaptation first — I know, that’s almost cheating. There are a LOT of characters. Everything becomes clear eventually.

    And I think the whole Chancery suit is meant to be confusing, because Dickens is making a point of how pointless the whole thing is. Basically, a wealthy man named Jarndyce made a ton of money and a whole lot of different wills, and nobody can figure out who the money is supposed to go to. The suit’s been going on forever, and now the descendants of the original heirs are still fighting it out.

    If you need help with the characters, email me and I can help. I love Bleak House, it’s one of my favorite novels.

    1. Karen K. » lol re: spoilers. I don’t believe in them. I have been referencing a character list and yes, you are very right. I figure knowing the end of each character can’t be worse than having watched the BBC version and known how they all fit together. I’m really enjoying the novel, though, and yes, the characters are sorting themselves out! So it’s all good. I look forward to seeing it all play out.

  12. I have tried twice to get through BLEAK HOUSE. Both times I made it around 250 pages in and gave up. I’ll finish it someday, because it is many people’s favorite Dickens novel. In the meantime, I was a little bit gratified to know that you struggled with some of the same things I did. I couldn’t see where the novel was going, and I had a hard time keeping everyone straight because of that. I look forward to following your progress on this one.

    1. Jessica » I think Karen K has the right idea: watch the movie to get an idea where it’s going! But, not every novel is for everyone. I really enjoy Dickens, but I understand how he’s not everyone’s cup of tea 🙂

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