Bleak House follows the fortunes and relationships of three characters whose fates are tied to the obscure inheritance case of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, which is tied up in endless litigation. While many deserving and undeserving claim the inheritance, it is ironically being devoured in legal costs.
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.
God save your majesty!
I thank you, good people—there shall be no money; all shall eat
and drink on my score, and I will apparel them all in one livery,
that they may agree like brothers, and worship me their lord.
The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers.
Nay, that I mean to do.
Henry The Sixth, Part 2 Act 4, scene 2
Shakespeare was, of course, not really against all lawyers per se. Nor, despite appearances to the contrary, was Dickens. Bleak House, based on Dickens's experience as a law clerk and on litigation concerning the copyright of his early books, is often considered his greatest novel. Much of the plot of the book is concerned with the Chancery case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, and how it impacts all the characters involved in the book. I enjoyed the book immensely, but not without a few caveats, which I will get to.
Recently, I read in a (South African) newspaper that one of our local literary doyennes said on a panel that 'children need to stop reading Charles Dickens'. My first thought was, well, that must be out of context. Yes, there are problems with Dickens, especially socio-political ones, but one cannot deny that, at his best, he was a great writer. I for one read him as a child and, though I only understood him as a child, I still loved his ability to weave a story. Now, although I have put away some childish things, I still admit to a deep, abiding passion for Dickens, who is more than merely a great plotter. Bleak House has again proved to me that beyond a doubt.
I will not get into the story much - it is much too labyrinthine to summarise adequately, and as it is also a bit of a mystery, I would not want to give away some of the plot. Rather, I will mention a few of the characters that I found particularly interesting, and some incidents which elucidate Dickens's methods. Dickens writes the story in alternating chapters of anonymous third person narration and first person narration. The third person narration is more terse and to the point, but it also has lively imagery and telling moments of detail. Here, for instance, is the famous opening of the book:
London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln's Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets, as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill.
The terseness beautifully captures both the hidebound, rule-governed atmosphere of the Chancery court, and the dismal quality of the weather. The Megalosaurus - a humorous touch! - also indicates the 'dinosaurs' one finds in the courts.
The first person narration is from the point of view of one Esther Summerson. Dickens is often accused of being unable to write realistic female characters: they are either angels or devils. Esther is certainly on the side of the angels, but she is more complicated than that. Her narration is usually straightforward and candid, but at times she can even be a bit unreliable. Here is the opening of her first paragraph:
I have a great deal of difficulty in beginning to write my portion of these pages, for I know I am not clever. I always knew that. I can remember, when I was a very little girl indeed, I used to say to my doll, when we were alone together, 'Now Dolly, I am not clever, you know very well, and you must be patient with me, like a dear!'
Esther protests too much, methinks. Through the course of the story, we will see that she is quite shrewd.
Dickens beautifully ties together these two narratives, introducing such memorable characters as Richard Carstone and Ada, the 'wards in Jarndyce', mad Miss Flite, who haunts the Chancery courts, and Harold Skimpole. Ah, Harold Skimpole! What a character! Supposedly based on Leigh Hunt, Harold is 'a child' in the matters of money, human relationships and society - or so he claims. He is quite charming, in his way, but he mercilessly sponges off all the characters who are of a noble persuasion. And then there is John Jarndyce, whom Nabokov called 'the best and kindest man ever to appear in a novel'. He is such an endearing, humane character, that he puts the lie to suggestions that Dickens can only write grotesque caricatures.
I do not usually show much emotion when reading books - I tend to think that tears can be evidence of cheap emotional exploitation - but this book really touched a deep chord in my heart, and I admit to sometimes wiping away an errant drop of salty moisture. Dickens is not saying that the law is inherently bad - on the contrary, he has some very humane legal characters in his fiction. Rather, he shows how the impersonal, mechanical application of the law, without consideration of human frailty, can lead to a grinding down of people and their hopes.
I will miss the friends with whom Mr Dickens has acquainted me. Lovely is the thought that, in the days to come, in the years that wait, I will be able to revisit this brave company of souls.
Oh, and I didn't even mention the Spontaneous Human Combustion!
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.
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 London depicted this time is less romantic, darker and dirtier, its streets filled with what is generously called mud, and an emphasis on the 'London particular': a dense fog that is actually the product of London's thick coal-burning miasma. Dickens has it gather thickest at the Chancery, the centre of all legal goings-on and a focus for the main theme. The plot for once is fully under his control, even as he tasks himself with alternating between first and third person. A parentage mystery is set up set up early and evolves gradually, and there's a murder mystery towards the end. Right in the middle we are treated to the famous spontaneous combustion incident. I might have wished for a stronger merge between the Dedlocks' story and the Jarndyce legal insanity. Esther is the lynchpin but she is not a unifier, and these two threads are not truly sewn together.
Bleak House sounds like a gloomy place but in fact it's an attractive setting, a mansion so full of marvellous rooms and hallways joining in puzzling ways that I wish I might explore it. This practically applies to the novel itself: an off-putting title and page count at first blush, but worth delving into. Dickens is at full power here and it is one of his best.
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.
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.
I'm not sure that the narrator and Esther's narration really worked. Esther, at times, sounds like she knows more than the could/should at the time mentioned, meaning that she is not clearly differentiated from the narrator's voice. Meaning it has a similar tone throughout.
I'm pleased I've read it, and glad to have got through it, but I'm not sure I can see myself wading through the first 600 pages, even for the fun ride that the last 300 odd produced.
I don’t really know if one is better than the other.
Though overly verbose, Dickens does a wonderful job creating a litany of quirky characters, some of whom are quite funny, some quite useless (Skimpole, Turveydrop), some cruel, and some so overly kind you get a toothache from reading them. I think Joe and Caddy are my favorites. Joe is just so much himself, a little orphan just trying to make his way, getting caught up in things so much bigger than him. Caddy has a wonderful transformation, all through her own efforts in a desperate attempt to live her life well.
Jarndyce, Esther, Richard, and Ada are my least favorites, partly because they are the least interesting. Both Jarndyce and Esther are so kind and good as to have no flaws (meh). Richard is completely illogical about money and law that he's hard to respect. Ada has almost no personality beyond loving Richard and it's hard to get a sense of her at all.
Overall reading Bleak House was a good experience. Not my favorite reading experience and I'm not jumping to read it again, but there were aspects I enjoy and Dickens surprised several times over toward the end (both in plot and characters being more complex than I thought). It's just so wordy!
Which, of course, is what I like about Dickens now.
"Bleak House" is an excellent novel, and a good example of Henry James' description of the novel as a loose, baggy monster. The descriptions alone border at times on the surreal as Dickens animates the landscape: portraits, buildings, papers, even woods assume a kind of intelligence, sometimes watchful, sometimes warm and compassionate, sometimes cold and even malignant.
Dickens' real achievement, I think, is in his characters. And he has a boatload of them in here. The names--Esther Summerson, Caddy Jellyby, Prince Turveydrop, Lady Dedlock, Krook, Snagsby, Richard Carstone, John Jarndyce, the lawyers Vholes and Kenge, Harold Skimpole, Detective Bucket, just to name a few--range from the mundane to the suggestive to the outright amusing. But Dickens' genius is in the individual speech patterns and gestures he assigns to each character. These, more than the names, differentiate the characters from one another in the reader's mind and reveals as much about individual characters than even their actions. Snagsby's assortment of coughs, Bucket's wagging finger, Lady Dedlock's reserve and boredom, Esther's constant assertion of her humility (which at times gets too much but is consistent and therefore seems honest), Jarndyce's nervous assertions of the wind growing easterly--these all serve to embed the characters in our minds, transporting them off the page and into our collective unconscious. We know people like this. Read a single paragraph about Mrs. Jellyby, Caddy's mother, and her infatuation with helping the impoversished citizens of the (fictitious) African nation of Borrioboola-Gha while allowing her own children to live in squalor, and you'll recognize her instantly.
While this is a great novel, it has its flaws. Some plot points are too conveniently tied up offstage and later related by a character (Bucket does this at least once or twice too much). And some readers grow annoyed with Esther Summerson's narration (see above). But these are relatively minor quibbles. If you want to lose yourself in a fully-imagined world peopled with characters only slightly more exaggerated than those you find in real life, this is the Dickens for you.
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.