I’ve just finished reading “Bleak House”, almost hard on the heels of Tomalin’s biography of Charles Dickens. It is the first time I’ve read all the way through,although I have begun it more than once and my head is cram-full of questions and ponderings.
Many of the History Girls will be far better acquainted with the The Inimitable, so all I am offering are my currently swirling thoughts, with apologies to any scholars.
To begin with, Dickens is not exactly a perfect writer. He often shows what, in current view, a writer should not do. He creates over-long descriptions. He creates puffed-up elongated scenes, admittedly for the entertainment of a different historic time. Read now, some of these needed more attention than is available on insomniac nights.
As my eyes slid along such paragraphs, I conjured up Victorian fathers reading onward, aloud, while the not-entirely-rapt listeners drifted into a doze or played with the cat or concentrated on a particularly troublesome embroidery stitch during such passages.
I felt Dickens glorying in the sound of his own prose, of his own voice. I hear him reading his work aloud to his trusty Foster. Dickens must have killed some of his darlings - but it doesn’t always feel so. Can the relationship between writer and chosen reader or editor get too close? Do all writing critique groups fall into self-perpetuating attitudes? Maybe there is an acoount of these meetings?
Besides, Bleak House veers and slides from one genre to the next. Is it a mystery? A ghost story? A crime novel? A romance in response to Jane Eyre? Possibly a historical novel, set as it is before the arrival of the railways? The novel has a jackdaw quality, as if Dickens picks up an attractive idea and runs with it for a while before pulling another out of a more interestin hedge. Aren’t we all given to worrying about writing the next new thing?
Published in instalments, there’s a definite creaking to his planning at times. I’d almost heard strains of "Thank God I had that idea!” at times. Not quite the Robert McKee story structure method, set out with cards or diagrams or planned by Scrivener.
There’s an emotional randomness about the characters, even though I’ve now seen notes that show this character is the mirror of that character and so on. I don’t know enough to feel convinced Dickens worked like that, not at first, although the Romantic element of the novel insists he pull everything together tightly the end.
The written cast, with their eccentric names, burn on the page unevenly and plentifully, from the main characters to those like Miss Flyte with her caged birds of doom to the wonderful woman that is Mrs Bagnet. I feel I shall shall strive to be Mrs Bagnet in future.
It is hard to read Dickens freshly now. Having seen early episodes of the BBC’s most recent Bleak House, Mr Guppy will ever be Burn Gorman.
I’m also sure that Anna Maxwell Martin’s intelligent and sensible face was the one image that helped me cope with Esther Summerson’s almost impossible first person account this time.
I can see what Dickens intends to do through Esther's Narrative but I am not sure I like the way he is doing it.
But above all, what stood out for me was that Bleak House has another quality too. It is offensive.
It is offensive and offended about much of his society, as if Dicken's eyes and heart are worn out with what he has seen.
Over the course of the 380,00 words, Dickens castigates the whole working of the legal system. He shows it feeding of itself, existing only to multiply costs and empty pockets into its own coffers. Not, I thought, unlike some no-win-no-fee scams, or some of the consultancy firms involved in government projects or those saviour companies that arrive to asset-strip after takeovers. Entirely legally.
Dickens started Bleak House in 1851, after a year’s break, not that the whirlwind man ever had such a thing. In that period, as well as items of journalism, he had helped Angela Burdett-Coutts plans for slum clearances. He had was instrumental in setting up her home for fallen women, even to suggestions for decoration of the rooms. He helped to set up a Guild of Literature and Art, intended to help poor writers and artists, put on huge theatricals to raise money for charitable causes and more besides.
He had been watching the dark and dreadful side of Victorian England - poverty, unemployment, disease, squalor, harsh working conditions, jobless soldiers, the burden of the elderly, quarrels over public and private rights, the content of education, the lending and borrowing of money, the divisions and inequalities in society - just when the Great Exhibition was prominent in every paper and journal as “a showcase for Britain”, although those words might be taken from a more recent time.
Bleak House, as a book, works despite its difficulties because, so often, the pages ring with emotion and indignation. The personality of Dickens – his “good character” – comes through so strongly that one is held to the story despite the onslaught of relationships and relations and the effusive paragraphs.
The book is just as “offensive” now, making the reader brood on what has changed, if anything, and what has not. Only a few of his fifty-nine characters end up with happiness and often hard-bought.
I want to discover more about how Dickens actually wrote this novel. Are there any History Girls who have studied the Dickens archives, I wonder?
Arthur Calder-Marshall's unabridged edition has notes suggesting that Dickens drew his characters from real people. Was John Jarndyce as a kinder portrait of his father? Georgina the model for Esther? Leigh Hunt the sponger Skimpole? No doubt there are more real people and places offered as inspiration.
However, what fascinates me is how on earth did he weave it all together? How did he hold it all in his mind? The scope and the content of Bleak House is unsettling.
Dickens is not always a perfect writer but somehow he makes himself a most, most memorable one
Penny Dolan's novel for 9-12 year olds, A BOY CALLED M.O.U.S.E., is published by Bloomsbury