Friday 17 February 2012


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


adele said...

I've just read the wonderful Claire Tomalin biog and she says that yes, Skimpole is based on Leigh Hunt. As for BH, I'm afraid I have still to read it but I adored the BBC version. And I'm not entirely convinced by your Georgina/Esther parallel though I'll let others comment on that. I take rather a dim view of Georgina and how she moved in on her sister's husband and edged Catherine out....hmm. But yes, the legal system I'm sure could be dealt with in just such a way by a modern writer. The nearest thing I know is the French legal system, taken apart by the excellent tv programme SPIRAL. Fascinating post.

Linda Newbery said...

Penny, I found this a most interesting post, as I've just finished BLEAK HOUSE too, but havene't got my thoughts together as effectively or insightfully as you have here.

Agree entirely about Esther - without constantly picturing Anna Maxwell Martin who was so excellent in the role, I'd have found her too self-consciously self-effacing to be bearable. And yes, Burn Gorm is the Guppy of all Guppies!

I am most taken with your comment about Dickens' heart worn out with weariness at what he had seen. Yes, that certainly comes through.

Mary Hoffman said...

I have read Bleak House many times, Dickens being one of my favourite writers.

We do him a disservice reading him with a 21st century eye and sensibility. I just let all that wash over me.

What I really like is the prodigality, the sense that he could take any one of those minor characters and write a whole book about them.

And I agree about Mrs Bagnet! Wash those greens.

mary hooper said...

Thanks, Penny. How brave and bold of you - you've given us many perceptive comments to think about. I loved the last TV Bleak House and it's on my Kindle to read, but the thought of 380,000 words is galling.I don't think I can keep that much in my head all at once.

Sue Purkiss said...

I read Bleak House recently, and I do agree about the incredibly annoying and smug Esther. In fact she was the reason I never got very far with it when I read it years ago.

But I do agree with Mary about his 'prodigality'. He just overflows with invention, and all his characters are so different, so individual. I find that extraordinary. And I actually like it that you seem to get several kinds of books in one: I liked it that this was a very early detective novel as well as everything else.

Penny Dolan said...

Tomalin says that the critics did not like Bleak House and that even the trusty Forster found much of the book "too real to be pleasant". However sales showed the public liked it.

Yes, Book Maven, I agree with you about Dicken's wonderful prodigality, and feel that most of the minor characters are as much a part of the pleasure of BH as the main characters. Though I did wish that somebody would shake up the "only a child" Skimpole and not in a kindly way.

Sorry, Mary, if the word count put you off but there's much to admire - and much of odd interest in the psychology of the story. Just don't be alarmed if you feel you're flagging - be gentle with yourself. It's not only you.(Not sure what you mean by the "brave" though?)

Sue, I too loved Bucket, especially the way he talks so jovially and positively while heading every suspect the way he wants them to go.

Thanks for all your comments.

Eve Edwards said...

My advice for reading Dickens - take a run at it in sections (rather like watching episodes of a good drama programme). It was after all how it was written. I'm re-reading Our Mutual Friend at the moment and find it ideal for train journeys. Don't go for the one sitting experience unless you have an essay crisis...

Unknown said...

Bleak House is my favorite Dickens - I reread it (4th reading, I think!) in the summer and enjoyed it as much as ever. I can see all the faults - Esther, in particular, is the typical "little woman" Dickens heroine, wonderfully catty in a sugar-coated way. His women were nauseatingly good, Fallen or Characters, and of course he gets all three into the pages of BH.

I'm sure that writing for serialization made it very difficult for Dickens to keep to a tight narrative. It's astounding that he was able to keep the novel going as well as he did! It just shows you that a writer can entertain his/her public magnificently without necessarily being a master of the craft. Dickens was a master of a certain type of storytelling, and he made it work.