On Completing “Bleak House”

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By Scott Ross

Written for another, now defunct, blog in April of 2007.

This morning over coffee I finished reading Bleak House, Charles Dickens’ great, dark satire on the Court of Chancery. What a truly satisfying experience it’s been, reading this novel: Seldom have nearly 1,000 pages of narrative prose passed through my eager fingers with such ease and enjoyment. The book places neatly with titles like The Magnificent Ambersons, East of Eden, The Eighth Day, The Great Gatsby and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie among the great readings of my life. I have seldom encountered a novel I loved in quite this way; I am wholly sated, as opposed to completing Nicholas Nickleby and feeling, however emotionally moved, rather over-fed.

Dark, sometimes brooding, often wonderfully comic, and shot through with a feeling for people and their essential humanity, so that even such a redoubtable figure as the ornately and foolishly pompous, stern, dragon-like Lord Dedlock winds up surprising us, and himself, with real and unexpected compassion… awoken too late, alas, to stop the dire fate of Lady Dedlock, who (I presume) thinks she knows him so well that she can never find forgiveness in him, which shows (again, I think) that he has hidden his true feelings so well that even his wife cannot guess at them. And then there is Richard Carstone, driven to a kind of hopeful madness by that dread legal joke of the Chancery court, the case of “Jarndyce & Jarndyce”— the very name itself  so close to “jaundice”— and utterly defeated when, at its close, there is only a void, legal costs having eaten the principle to nothing; the harried Mr. Snagsby, decent and kind-hearted but weighted down by his harridan of a wife; poor Jo, the young crossing-sweeper, so ill-used by society and so unwittingly the cause of Esther Sommerson’s facial disfigurement; Mr. Krook, whom one never quite gets the measure of and who is done in at last though Spontaneous Combustion(!); Mr. Gridley and Miss Flite, each driven insane by the court of Chancery, Mr. Gridley to the extreme of breaking down entirely, Miss Flite to a genteel, kindly (yet all-too-knowing) madness; and of course, Lady Dedlock, shutting away all lightness and feeling to hide her guilt.

Then, too, the unsavory (or at least, questionable) characters: Horace Skimpole, who does so much damage to others in his studied “infancy,” proclaiming he is wholly a child yet blithely and calculatedly taking as much from anyone as he can get; Mr. Vholes, ever with his “shoulder to the wheel,” grinding someone into dust; Mr. Guppy, who has no compunction against attempting an advantageous marriage or even blackmail as it suits him; Mr. Turveytop, so wholly concerned with his legendary (in his own mind in any case) “Deportment” that the world must owe him a living (or at least, his poor wife, done to death by work, and his son Prince and daughter-in-law Caddy, equally yoked to his dancing school and the perpetual upkeep of his noxious self); Hortense, the haughty French maid — is there any other kind? — whose hatred undoes so many; Mrs. Snagsby, so determined to be injured by something her husband has done she becomes convinced he deceives her at every turn; Mr. Chadband the orating minister (whom the reader may be forgiven for wishing to strangle every time he speaks); Caddy’s mother Mrs. Jellyby, concerned only with her endless correspondence on Africa, to the complete ignoring of her distracted husband and house full of children perpetually falling down stairs; the miserly, decrepit Mr. Smallweed, who bounces pillows off the head of his senile old wife and whose grasping claws are into any and everything that can give him even a little profit; and finally the serpentine Mr. Tulkinghorn, who is responsible in one way or another for everything that occurs and for whom no one weeps when he is found murdered.

And yet it is a book of lightness, too: Mrs. Rouncewell, the Dedlock housekeeper, who adds up to a great deal more than simple devotion to her employers; Mr. Bucket, the indefatigable police Inspector, whom one begins with liking, moves to distrusting, and ends by appreciating enormously, despite his unwitting hand in the eventual death of young Jo; Mr. George, never worthy in his own eyes yet a fountain of solace to others; the wonderful Bagnets — “The Old Girl” who always sees the right path, and her husband, who declaims her worth behind her back, swears he never tells her to her face because “Discipline must be maintained!” yet is constantly doing exactly that because he can’t help it… and meanwhile asking the Old Girl to give out with “his” opinion on every matter; the occasionally apoplectic Mr. Boythorn, ever ready either to laugh or to damn; Charly, the orphan girl who takes on monstrous amounts of work without complaining and finally comes into grace; Mr. Woodcourt, the gentle doctor who quietly dispenses a healing balm of dignity and affection to everyone he touches; Esther, who loves without restraint and yet is wholly unable to see how much love she inspires in others; and dear, kind John Jarndyce, master of Bleak House — a deliberate misnomer if ever there was one — ready to flee at the first sign of thanks for any of the (multitudinous) good deeds he dispenses without a thought.

In all, an almost incredibly rich gallery of characters, painted in marvelous hues of complexity and, occasionally, sheer giddy delight. I almost wish I had held off reading it, because there are so many other Dickens novels I hope to crack, and it would have been a lovely benediction to have beheld this one only at the last.

Text copyright 2007, 2019 by Scott Ross

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