Bleak House by Charles Dickens, Thoughts at the End

Bleak House (published serially 1852-1853) is a sweeping saga of epic proportions. Charles Dickens obviously planned the plot carefully, especially by providing introduction and characters for the bulk of the first third of the novel, so that the last third of the novel would swiftly move to a satisfying conclusion that ties all the previously unconnected threads together.

Because of its imposing nature (the novel in print is nearly 1000 pages), its abundance of memorable characters, and Dickens’ elegant writing style as he created the settings, Bleak House is not a novel for every reader. The beginning is confusing especially. But for the careful and interested reader who takes the time to sink into the details and immerse oneself in the foggy and confusing murk that is 1850s London, Bleak House provides a number of keen insights in to the impact of social class on life and the changing nature of social class in those years, especially in the context of a satiric look at the Court of Chancery and the practice of law in nineteenth century England in general.

Of course, the novel addresses a number of other social issues. For example, Dickens approaches gender roles to some extent (in Bleak House, Dickens writes with a female first person narration, and some of the women’s struggles are ones men probably would not deal with) and, as is typical of Dickens, the plight of the orphan and the poor is central.

But to me, the bulk of the issues he describes seem to hearken back to a changing upper class in Victorian England. One wealthy family has a secret to keep hidden, a secret that probably would not be detrimental to their reputation had they not been upper class. Another gentleman lives in poverty due to his own misguided hopes. The exaggerated and sometimes ridiculous caricatures of other supposedly upper class persons also bring more questions to the front of the reader’s mind: what makes a gentleman and a lady? Why? How do persons of the different classes differ?

Bleak House is crammed with rather depressing commentary on both the lives of the poor and of the rich, the hazy nature of the law courts (specifically Chancery), and a frank discussion of illegitimacy. This gives Bleak House a rather depressing tone: the marvelously written first chapters, which capture the fog and dirt of Victorian London, are a pretty accurate foreshadowing of the hopelessness many the characters will face. And yet, I personally found Bleak House anything but depressing. The residence of John Jarndyce which was called Bleak House was full of cheer, charm, and pleasantness. Further, as the story of Esther’s life became uncovered, her satisfaction in life seemed only to improve. And while there were, I admit, a number of unhappy ends in the novel, for the most part, I found the ending a satisfying resolution to a lengthy and deep story (albeit a satire-rich ending).

Although I not certain Bleak House will end up on my list of favorite Dickens’ novels (I believe that will still include Great Expectations and A Christmas Carol), it’s certainly one I will enjoy sinking my teeth in to again in a few years. There’s a reason it’s a classic, and it is certainly a novel that is meant to be reread and pondered and enjoyed time and again.

From this point, this post contains spoilers for Bleak House.Continue Reading

Cybils 2011 Nonfiction Picture Book Nominees

My work as a Fiction Picture Book panelist is over, but the great things about the Cybils is the lists of finalists to keep reading from for the rest of the year! This month, I decided to find the seven nonfiction picture book nominees to see what the fuss was about in the nonfiction sector.Continue Reading

Henry VI Part 2 by William Shakespeare

Coming off the heels of 1 Henry VI, the next play, 2 Henry VI, struck me as wonderfully written. I hadn’t found much to stand out in 1 Henry VI. But from the beginning, the analogies, the rhythm of the poetry, and the play on words impressed me in the second play. As the action progressed, I could picture the actors and their reactions. I really enjoyed 2 Henry VI, and in fact I read it twice this month just so I’d feel I understood it fully.

1 Henry VI provided the backdrop for the War of the Roses, capturing the 20 years or so after Henry V’s death and the establishment of the Duke of Gloucester (Lord Humphrey) as the Lord Protector of England, since Henry VI was only an infant at his father’s death. At the end of the play, Lord Suffolk in France has arranged for Margaret of Anjou to marry the now-grown King Henry VI.

Then, 2 Henry VI begins right where the first play left off, with Suffolk arriving in England to deliver Princess Margaret to the King. From the first scene, there is tension as the Lord Protector reads the treaty arrangement that gives Margaret (who is French) to England: two of the recently conquered territories in France have been returned to French rule as a result of the marriage arrangements.

2 Henry VI is about conflicting interests, about secrets among leaders, and especially about what it means to be a leader as chaos begins to erupt around King Henry’s throne. It’s obvious that King Henry VI depends on his Lord Protector (who is his uncle) and others to guide him as king. Although he is technically of age, he is a weak and inefficient leader, although he trusts all his close counselors. This blind trust leads to the beginning of his downfall as friends are executed and his supposed friends instigate uprisings against him. I have not yet read 3 Henry VI, but I can see where it will go.Continue Reading

Bleak House by Charles Dickens, Thoughts at the Middle

Note: this post contains “spoilers” for the first 60% of Bleak House.

I have a book club discussion on this book next Wednesday night, so I have been pushing myself to read quickly: this has been my main reading material this week (after I finished 2 Henry VI, that is — more on that tomorrow, maybe).  At any rate, reading Bleak House in long one-hour stretches in the evening has been very helpful to get me accustomed to the confusion that is Chancery (I’m not worrying about it, as many of suggested I shouldn’t) and the multitude of characters. I’m now about 60% finished.

There are two things that are making Bleak House one of the great novels I’ve read. One is the writing: I love the frequent metaphors that bring the setting to life. The second aspect is the characters. There are so many of them, but they are rather memorable in their own ways, and I enjoy disliking the villains, like Mr Smallwood and Mrs Jellyby (what an awful lady!), and cheering for the wonderful “heros” of the book: John Jarndyce who is so very good, Esther who likewise deserves a great end, and even poor Caddy Jellyby (now Turveydrop) who seems so sincere in her desire to have a happy life despite her mother. These characters that I love have really let me sink in to the story.

I must admit: I did reference a character list in the past week. As some cautioned, this provided very detailed spoilers, so I knew the Lady Dedlock connection to Esther before it was revealed. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I don’t “believe” in spoilers, but I do somewhat wish it could have mysteriously unfolded to me, much as the secrets in The Woman in White were enjoyed on my first read. Nevertheless, I liked seeing how it was going to come: the discussions between that man named Guppy (great name) and Lady Dedlock made complete sense to me, while if I hadn’t known what the underlying secret was I may have been confused as I’d felt in the beginning. So it was a nice experience to read it, knowing the secret, but it may been nice the other way too. I still stand by the “no such thing as a spoiler” philosophy. The story is great regardless.

And yet, last night, Mr Dickens just about lost me. In the last chapters I read of the novel, Mr Krook’s death by spontaneous combustion just about did me in. It was so ridiculous and “out there” that I wondered if Dickens was trying to turn this novel into science fiction. I referred to the footnotes in my Penguin copy of the book (I’ve been reading on my nook) and found a explanation in an appendix that explains the inclusion of the phenomenon in this novel.

For the purposes of the novel, however, perhaps the signal point is in the narrator’s observation: “The less the court understands of all this, the more the court likes it’ (Chapter 33). Not only does Krook’s grisly end give a narrative and symbolic parallel to the theme of self-destruction also played out by Jarndyce and Jarndyce in Chancery, but it is equally surrounded by enticing mystery.

I can really appreciate the symbolic irony of the mysterious death. I must also admit that this portion of the novel sent me on a hunt for more information about spontaneous human combustion. See the Wikipedia page about it, as well as a post about a 2010 and a 2011 possible death.

Personally, I think there must be an alternative explanation for these deaths (as well as those throughout history). I hope Bones does an episode about it (I’m currently watching season 4 with my husband; will it come up at some point?)

At any rate, despite the supernatural science in the novel, I’m enjoying watching the scenes unfold. I’m looking forward to a resolution! And I suspect already that this may be a novel to revisit.

What do you think about spontaneous human combustion? I’m very curious about it, although I’m kind of with one of the scientists quoted in Wikipedia: if it’s so reasonable an explanation, how come it doesn’t happen more often than 200 times in 300 years?