Focusing on Esther Summerson, a ward of John Jarndyce, the story traces Esther's romantic coming-of-age and, in classic Dickens style, the gradual revelation of long-buried secrets, all set against the foggy backdrop of the Court of Chancery. Mixing romance, mystery, comedy, and satire, to limn the suffering caused by the intricate inefficiency of the law.
Dear Mr Dickens,
Thank you for the submission of your manuscript 'Bleak House' to Simian and Shyster, America's Biggest and Best Books™. We are interested in your book, but feel that substantial changes will need to be made to make it fit our house style and to make it marketable. I list these changes below.
1. The title. This is puzzling. I don't think readers will see the relevance of the title to the rest of the text. Also, it is not grammatically correct, as it should be 'The Bleak House'. Popular titles for novels at the moment are rather longer and say a little bit more about the book. Suggestions based on titles which have proved popular recently might include 'Very Dirty and Terribly Important', or 'The Girl who Wondered Who She Was'. Please think about it.
2. The double narrative. I strongly recommend that you split these into two separate books. It should be quite easy to separate the two narratives, one of our interns could do it. Perhaps the Esther narrative could be published first, and then the other narrative later, as a second book? This would allow us to maximize our investment.
3. The prose style is far too overwrought and will not be popular with readers. To help you understand what I mean, I have notated the opening paragraph with suggestions for changes.
We've got a problem right here, as many of our readers will simply not know who or what or where London is. We suggest changing this to 'Milwaukee', as market research shows that this city is representative of our target audience.
Michaelmas Term lately over
Similarly, our readers will be asking, 'what is Michaelmas?' And 'term' is far too British. We suggest changing this to 'fall semester'.
and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall.
Again, simply too British. We suggest changing this to an American position of equivalence. Perhaps 'City Council Member'. Also, many readers will take exception to the association of Lincoln with an inn. Perhaps change this to the name of a President who is a bit more innocuous and likely to have been forgotten by most readers: Carter, perhaps?
Implacable November weather.
Can you change 'implacable'? I'm not sure our readers will know this word. Two syllable words maximum are best, as has been shown by market research many times. (If you hit F6 on your keyboard, you get a really useful thesaurus you can use to choose words more likely to be familiar to readers)
As much mud in the streets as if the waters had
Here at Simian and Shyster we pride ourselves on keeping metaphors out of our writers' work. Now, as this whole passage is one extended metaphor, getting rid of it will mean extensive rewriting. Mmm. In fact, come to think of it, the whole book is an extended metaphor isn't it? I'll check with our marketing department about how to proceed on this, and get back to you.
but newly retired from the face of the earth,
'but newly retired' is not being accepted by my grammar checker, it suggests 'only recently retired'. Are you ok with that?
and it would not be wonderful
Readers will not understand this. Avoid this kind of implied negatives. Suggest: 'and it would be cool'
to meet a Megalosaurus,
'Megalosaurus' is simply far too long. Market research shows that the most popular pet in the Milwaukee area is a dog, and this also ties in with our Frequent Word Recognition Program ™, which has been very helpful in keeping more than 50% of our books in the NYT Bestseller list for longer than one week, and which also suggests 'dog' here.
forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard
Oh dear, this is getting into a mixed metaphor isn't it. I suggest scrapping this altogether. Do try to keep your sentences as short as possible. Readers like to read short things.
up Holborn Hill.
'up' is far too strenuous. Market research shows that depictions of exertion or exercise fare badly with the Midwestern market. Readers there apparently feel guilty about their lifestyles if they read about exertion. I suggest 'down' the hill. Easier. Also, please use Google Earth to check if their really is such a street name in Milwaukee.
Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow-flakes — gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun.
This is showing as an 'incomplete fragment' on my grammar checker, so you will need to look at the grammar of this sentence. In fact, most of the manuscript shows up in red on my grammar checker, so you will really need to change your style. Avoid long sentences, and avoid complex sentences, compound ones are better. Here is an example of what I mean:
Smoke was lowering down from chimney-pots. It was making a soft black drizzle, and it had flakes of soot in it. These were as big as full-grown snow-flakes. A person watching (avoid 'one', it's so pretentious) might imagine that it had gone into mourning for the death of the sun.
The rest of the paragraph can simply be cut. You are merely adding more detail to reinforce your point, but actually you are not saying anything new. Readers will not understand it, and they will get tired of all the detail. The story does not move forward. Pace, pace, pace, keep it moving forward all the time, and keep your sentences as short as possible. Market research shows this is best.
I think we have a possible winner on our hands, but as I said above, the novel needs a lot of work before it is ready for publication. If you can agree to our suggested changes, I'll put together a team of staff writers and editors to work on it with you.
Thanks once again for submitting your manuscript, and I look forward to writing your book for you.
New Project Manager
Simian and Shyster
America's Biggest and Best Books™
With a cast of thousands, this book is a celebration of Dickens immense characterization skills. Just the coining of the names is a feat to behold: Harold Skimpole, Grandfather Smallweed, Mr. Vholes, Mr. Turveydrop and Mrs. Pardiggle to name a few. Immediately you begin to imagine a picture in your mind that Dickens then quickly fleshes out.. The names are just the jumping off point for the characterizations themselves. Harold Skimpole, for instance, cons others into settling his debts and, basically, supporting him in one way or another:
”For he must confess to two of the oldest infirmities in the world: one was that he had no idea of time, the other that he had no idea of money. In consequence of which he never kept an appointment, never could transact any business, and never knew the value of anything.”
He frequently had to remind others that he was merely “a child,” and therefore couldn’t be expected to work or make money in any way. His freeloading somehow never resonates with his friends, who are continually taken advantage of. At the end of the story he finally gets his comeuppance to the cheers of every reader, I’m sure.
And that’s just the portrayal of one character in a book that is loaded with complex, interesting, and not always likable, characters and one of the things I liked best about the novel.
The main theme of the book is the law, in the form of the British Court of Chancery, the slow moving behemoth that ties up people’s lives and fortunes and Dickens skewers the Court from every angle. The case of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce impacts and has far-reaching effects on almost all of the main characters and has languished for years, chewing up currency at a wild rate. The plight of the poor is illustrated and the failure of the English society to intervene, which is pretty standard Dickens narrative, is depicted painstakingly:
”Jo lives---that is to say, Jo has not yet died---in a ruinous place known to the like of him by the name Tom-all-Alone’s. It is a black, dilapidated street, avoided by all decent people, where the crazy houses were seized upon, when their decay was far adevanced by some bold vagrants who after establishing their own possession took to letting them out in lodgings. Now, these tumbling tenements contain, by night, a swarm of misery. As on the ruined human wretch vermin parasites appear, so these ruined shelters have bred a crowd of foul existence that crawls in and out of gaps in walls and boards; and coils itself to sleep, in maggot numbers, where the rain drips in; and comes and goes, fetching and carrying fever and sowing more evil in its every footprint.”
Plot? You mean plots, don’t you? Plots, sub-plots galore, all told through the most engaging dialogue and an interesting narrative fashion. The story is told partly through a first person narrator, Esther Summerson, the book’s heroine looking back at her life and partly through a third person omniscient narrator.
Don’t wait as long as I did to read Dickens. And Bleak House is a great place to start.
The case of Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce, a longstanding preoccupation of the gentleman of the Court of Chancery, is a character of its own right; sprawling, beleaguering and affecting lives that Dickens lifts out of the ‘London Particulars’ and follows in absorbing, engaging detail. The lawyers, particularly the watchful and endangered Tulkinghorn, the gentle Esther Summerson who becomes companion to the ‘wards of Jarndyce’, the interrogative, amiable and brilliant Inspector Bucket… some of the most remarkable people I’ve ever met lie within these pages.
The writing is humorous – either blatantly so, or wry; often shamelessly sentimental (I was chuckling on page five and bawling on page nineteen), often enraging – Dickens’ disgust at the deprivations visited upon the impoverished lower classes of the time is legendary, and Bleak House contains a smorgasbord of exemplars – the story follows those involved in the case, innocently or not, as they navigate murder, romance, mysterious personal circumstance, charity (in all its manifestations), devotion or self-interest – I cannot think of an aspect of humanity that isn’t examined within the scope of this fabulous story.
I finally understand what all the fuss is about when it comes to Dickens. This is what all the fuss is about.
The book has two main plots, one being the interminable legal wrangling over a very old will. I do not begin to understand chancery and don't want to be enlightened. Bleak House makes lawyers look worse than ever. The chancery negotiations involve everyone in the book, however lightly. There is a second, subplot, which also involves pretty much everyone in the book. This second plot is typically Dickensian, involving a long lost parent and/or child. He seems to like that storyline.
The inhabitants of Bleak House (which is anything but bleak) are the people both plots revolve around. The narrative moves back and forth between Esther Summerson and the author. This gives two perspectives on some of the events. We follow Esther from birth to marriage and motherhood. Along the way she brings order out of the chaos of many people's lives with the help of her guardian. Another main character is Lady Dedlock, also peripherally affected by the chancery dispute. There are many deaths, murders and even a case of 'spontaneous combustion'. There is an end, finally, to the chancery suit and I will not spoil that for you. It is one of the funniest things I have read in Dickens. Dickens does a fine job of pointing out the ridiculousness of the legal system in Britain at that period, not to mention all the carnage it caused.
At any rate, I cannot rate Bleak House too highly. It was impossible to put down, except for the flu. It makes me want to break out some more Dickens very soon
The themes, layering and interlacing of plots and the cast of characters are also offered on a grand scale, and the overall impact in mesmerising, yet surprisingly readable and engaging. It is difficult in a short review even to attempt to summarise the plots. Suffice it to say that they are all expertly managed and resolved.
Looming over the whole novel is the long-running civil law case of Jarndyce v Jarndyce, which has been progressing at glacial pace through Chancery. ‘Jarndyce and Jarndyce’ has now become a byword for legal obfuscation (or ‘wiglomeration’ to use Dickens’s own term). Even in the novel itself, the case, originating decades earlier from disputes over the distribution of a complex estate under instructions contained in conflicting wills, the case had already become infamous, and those connected with it were imbued with a certain dusty glamour.
There are some marvellous set pieces that show Dickens at his characteristic best. The opening paragraphs contain with a glorious description of an impenetrable fog surrounding (and emanating from) the Inns of Court that presages the confusion and opacity that the claimants in Jarndyce and Jarndyce, and indeed any other cases that come before Chancery, will encounter.
It is, however, not just a splenetic satire on the iniquities and perfidies of the legal system. Social injustice is held to account throughout the novel, with some heart-rending scenes depicting the life of some of London’s poorest inhabitants, many of whom live in stark juxtaposition with some of the wealthiest members of society. There is plenty of humour too, with Dickens’s portrayal of Mrs Jellyby, an undoubtedly well-meaning woman whose obsession with bringing relief to the poorer tribes of Africa leaves her utterly blinded to the neglect faced by her own children, and the desperately ambitious Mr Guppy for whom what he lacks in self-awareness is more than compensated by good, old fashioned solipsistic vanity. There is also a murder mystery following the death by shooting of Mr Tulkinghorn, a sinister senior lawyer who has fingers in a multitude of pies, and whose passing is mourned by few beyond Sir Leicester Dedlock, one of his wealthiest clients.
The main story is, however, concerned with the progress through life of Esther Summerson, who narrates much of the book. Esther is, as Jane Austen might have said, ‘the natural daughter of somebody’, and finds herself taken under the aegis of John Jarndyce to act as companion for his cousin, Ada Clare. Ada, along with her cousin Richard Carstone, is one of the wards of court around whom the interests in Jarndyce and Jarndyce circle. Unacquainted before the novel opens, they are both assigned by the court to the protection of John Jarndyce, who lives in Bleak House, and, almost predictably, fall in love with each other. John Jarndyce, who will emerge as possibly the most benevolent and generous character in English literature, counsels them to try and embrace life without considering what might eventually come their way as their respective legacy from the ‘Jarndyce and Jarndyce’ case. Ada is happy to follow that advice though Richard, like a prospector who has fleetingly spied a sparkle in his pan, cannot escape from dreaming of how he might enjoy his legacy, and allows his mind to be twisted by greed and hope. Esther, meanwhile, has her own story, that is no less beguiling and engrossing for the reader.
To my surprise the last quarter of the book turned out to be a fast read. Here Dickens begins to weave all the threads that he has started together and bring all the stories to an end, some happy and others not at all happy, with very few loose ends.
While there are signs of Mr. Dickens being paid by the installment in his lengthy descriptions, these long passages were often interesting and were fairly typical of the expected prose of his period. The abridged version I read decades ago certainly moved faster but this complete one was ultimately quite satisfactory if one has the patience to keep on reading.
The book starts slowly as Dickens introduces us to the Chancery Court and then the Dedlock’s, but within a few chapters I found that it picked up speed as I got to know the characters better. Dickens is a marvelous author and I marvel at his way of weaving together disparate characters that, at first look, seem to have no relationship to one another, but who often have long, unknown, to them, histories that are intertwined. I am also fond of his use of characters to comment on the social mores of his time. However, I really struggled with some passages and during these would tell myself to “just keep reading” until I was through them. I noticed that these sections often described a place, individual or thing and seemed to just go on too long for my attention. Nevertheless, I am a Dickens fan and recommend this book.
It was given to me as a gift when I was involved in an epic and long-lived legal battle, which undoubtedly biased my opinion. Nonetheless, it is a very entertaining read.
I was extremely excited about Bleak House, it’s often called Dicken’s masterpiece. Even the name is gothic and mysterious and it has Dicken’s only female narrator. But I should have remembered that Dicken’s work was originally printed in monthly installments in the paper and he was paid by the word. This beast clocks in at more than 1,000 pages.
I made a major mistake when I read Bleak House. I was reading Moby Dick and Cloud Atlas at the same time. Both of those books are a lot to process on their own without adding in the wordy Mr. Dickens and his 702 characters and their crazy names! If I’d focused only on Bleak House and I think I would have enjoyed it more. The plot is so convoluted and I felt like I was trying to keep everyone straight for the whole first half of the book. The plot grew on me once I had a chance to get to know a few of the characters.
Like all good Dickens novels there is a huge cast with intertwining story lines. There are orphans and rich people, lawyers and lords. It’s hard to jump right into these books because you really have to get to know everyone first. It takes such a long time to figure out who everyone is and really get into the story.
The whole book revolves around a complicated court case called Jarndyce v Jarndyce that has stretched on for decades. There has been no resolution; people have gone broke and committed suicide over the case after hanging their hopes on its outcome and hoping they would inherit the massive fortune.
Half of the book focuses on the wealthy Lady Deadlock and her elderly husband. She lives an unhappy life, filled with secrets, in the old mansion called Chesney Wold. We bounce back and forth between an omniscient narrator who tells her story and the character of Esther, who narrates in the first person.
The book’s second plot line involves Ada and Richard, cousins who are both wards of the case. Their fates and fortunes are unknown until the case is resolved. Esther is a young woman who has been raised by her aunt. A man named John Jarndyce decides to take Ada and Richard into his home and he hires Esther as a companion for Ada.
All of that and I haven’t even touched on half the characters! There’s the mysterious Nemo, manipulative Tulkinghorn, the Jellyby family with their distracted mother and sweet daughter Caddy, Lady Deadlock’s crazy maid Hortense, Mr. Snagsby, combustible Krook, loyal George, wonderful Allan Woodcourt, Esther’s maid Charley, Inspector Bucket and more! Obviously I wasn't kidding when I said this novel had an overload of characters and subplots.
At first I had some serious issues with the main characters. Esther was just a bit too nice and accommodating. She sounds a bit like Jane Eyre whenever we read chapters that she’s narrating, but she doesn’t have the same spunk or view of self-worth. I wanted her to stand up for herself or decide to pursue something that she loved. The moments I liked her best were the ones where she held someone else (like Mr. Skimpole) accountable for their actions.
Richard was just hopeless, why wouldn’t he give up the case! It was so distressing to watch him waste away as he threw his money towards the case. I wanted so badly for him to understand that his life was with Ada and she was worth so much more than the case.
Mr. Skimpole was captain creepy pants with his “I’m just a child” nonsense and I wanted to smack him in the face. People like that are just the worst. I love how Dickens can create such wonderful villains, sometimes they are evil because they are weak and devious, instead of being outright bad people. Mr. Guppy was another odd one. He believed he fell in love at first sight, but it was really just a shallow infatuation that brought out his stalker qualities.
The entire Jarndyce v Jarndyce fortune was eaten up by court costs just as they finally figured out who the money was going to go to. I couldn’t believe it when that happened! I was shocked when Esther got smallpox too. There were all these major plot points that caught me off guard and I really liked that.
I thought Esther was going to end up with her guardian until the very last moment and I was pissed! I am so glad it didn’t turn out that way or I might have hated it.
Oh yeah, someone dies of spontaneous combustion… seriously. I was a bit surprised by that.
BOTTOM LINE: I think this is one that will undoubtedly benefit on a reread. After I got through the first third I really enjoyed it, but it was much tougher than most of the Dicken’s I’ve read up to this point. If you’re thinking about dipping into his work, don’t start here. I would recommend reading Great Expectations or David Copperfield and seeing if they work for you.
Dickens builds wonderful stories and gives readers some of the best characters (both good and bad) that they’ll ever encounter. I know that I’ll continue to work through his catalogue and I’ll reread this one in a few years.
SIDE NOTE: I would highly recommend the 2005 BBC miniseries of Bleak House. I watched it after finishing the novel and it was excellent.
Each chapter was originally published in a "periodical" - a bit like the modern magazine Cosmopolitan or Elle - so it's not surprising that each ends with a cliffhanger. The amazing thing is that it has the same effect today, 159 years after its original serialisation.
Intended to raise the issue of long-running, expensive legal cases, it did eventually lead to changes to prevent the type of abuse demonstrated in "Jarndyce v. Jarndyce". Other themes are poverty and illegitimacy.
These plots contain complex interactions of dozens of characters, whose knowledge of one another is continually changing. To further complicate, there are two narrators: an all encompassing narrator (whose tone changes from satirical to benevolent and otherwise), and the main character "Esther's narrative", but who is often saying one thing about herself but meaning another. The narrators move back and forth between chapters. If that's not enough, Dickens rarely states anything directly so one is inferring and deducing from long passages how the plot has moved forward in a particular scene.
This is a complex novel, yet it seems to come together in the end, it just gets better as it goes. I couldn't absorb too much at once so it took me nearly 30 days to listen to the LibriVox narration by Mil Nicholson, but I admit to falling back on the amazing 8-hour BBC Drama (2005) to fill in some plot elements and characterizations that I didn't fully understand from the book, so it's been a multimedia immersion. The novel contains murders and a detective story (it's been called one of the first novels to feature a detective story), and a story aimed at the interests of young women (marriage and family), but it transcends genre with its social commentaries about lawyers, the changing relationships of rich vs poor, the rise of the middle-class, and the evil of selfishness.
I don’t really know if one is better than the other.
I enjoyed BH enormously. Dickens seems to me to have two main types of novel: the personal stories like David Copperfield and Great Expectations; or the great social panoramas like Our Mutual Friend or The Old Curiosity Shop. Bleak House, although it contains the personal history and first person narrative of Esther Summerson, is in the latter category. The inanimate antihero is The Law, and it is manifest in a variety of ways - through the amoral lawyer, Tulkinghorn, far removed from any tender human emotion; through the madness of poor Miss Flyte and the obsession of Richard; and through the mind-numbing and soul destroying atmosphere of the Court of Chancery. The law is an instrument of harm in this book, and an object of horror, because the very process and persons that should uphold justice and peace instead make confusion, misery and poverty. Bleak House is a book about obfuscation, and the plot is deep and twisty including hidden identities, murder, scandal, mislaid documents, love - wise and unwise, loyalty and hatred.
There are many interesting characters to love or hate, including Dickens' staple preternaturally good woman in Esther Summerson (who is likeable nevertheless)The portrait of Inspector Bucket is especially satisfying, and I found in him the type of many of fiction's hero detectives. His way of insinuating himself and apparently carrying on a perfectly normal conversation whilst extracting information is particularly reminiscent of Peter Whimsy.
Dickens has some hard things to say about the society and mores of his time, but he doesn't let the social comment get in the way of a cracking good yarn.
This is a very long, convoluted book and I highly recommend reading this on an Ebook and saving your eyesight and hands. It is certainly well worth the effort.
That's the merit factor for me; the depth of the story, of Dickens' empathy and opinions, of the references that flesh out the world of both author and characters. All of which culminate in a work that makes you truly feel the weight of it as an experience had - as if each word simply bulges with it. It's this that keeps such a work relevant in my opinion.
So, in this reading of Bleak House since I hope there will be several more to come, I found myself most captivated by Jo's plight of moving on and the rippling riptide of Chancery. Jo was my emotional Twist twist. "Please sir..." where should I move, sir. Dickens knowing how to haunt both the soles and souls of even the modern human:
"'My instructions are that you are to move on. I've told you so five hundred times!'
'But where?' cries the boy.
'My instructions don't go to that...move on!'
Do you hear, Jo?... The one grand recipe remains for you- the profound philosophical prescription- the be all & end all of your strange existence upon earth. Move on! You are by no means to move off, Jo, for the great lights can't at all agree about that. Move on!"
He's also quite the master of encapsulation and metaphor. From character to character we have these revolving spheres of motion, action, inaction, emotion that give us insight to the whole. It's this interconnected style that I find absolutely fascinating (and that keeps my list of characters pretty well thumbed through).
Not wanting to emulate Dickens in a review of, well, Dickens, I'll keep it short and sweet. This is an easy new favorite. The wit and wisdom being balanced with a plot that I found pretty interesting as we encounter characters arcs diverging and a bit of a caper-esque (timing, timing, timing) climax that, though not the crux of the work, certainly adds intrigue. While not all characters made a significant impression on me this time around - that's kind of the beauty of want I've rambled about so much here. On another read through I'm sure I'll find even more to sink into.
*A fascinating group, really. We never get anywhere though; everyone talks too much.