Holiday book report: Bleak House

By Charles Dickens, obviously. I have to admit, this isn’t really my idea of holiday reading: it’s just too long for that. But I half-inched it from a hotel I stayed at in Quito. It was either that or Harry Potter in Finnish.

It’s odd reading Dickens; sometimes he seems so dated — so sentimental, so cosy, so verbose, so typical of everything about the Victorians which has aged least well, like the Albert Memorial and majolica. In Bleak House, this is typified by ‘Esther’s Narrative’, those chapters, probably about 1/3 of the book, which are a first-person narrative in the voice of the angelic heroine of the story. I find the syrupiness of her portrayal unbearable. It sets my teeth on edge.

But at the same time there’s a thick vein of weirdness which is all his own. Dickens’s grotesquery is always tinged with a reassuring touch of comedy, but it’s a fag-paper from being something much more radical and scarier. Jarndyce and Jarndyce, the Courts of Chancery, and Miss Flite’s birds Hope, Joy, Youth, Peace, Rest, Life, Dust, Ashes, Waste, Want, Ruin, Despair, Madness, Death, Cunning, Folly, Words, Wigs, Rags, Sheepskin, Plunder, Precedent, Jargon, Gammon, and Spinach: it seems just a tweak in mood from being Kafka. And one particular chapter, the death of Krook, is not just grotesque, it’s genuinely and stomach-turningly nasty.

I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising that some aspects of a book age better than others, but I still find Dickens a bit schizophrenic. And I know Bleak House is one of his darker books, but even looking at his work generally I think that his enormous popularity, his firm place in the canon and his sentimentality tend to disguise the fact that he’s a much odder writer than his image suggests.

4 Comments

  1. 22 November 2006 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

    While my grandfather lay dying in a nursing home, my husband, the Floppy, and I visited him nightly, along with my aunt, with whom he had lived when he was well. To keep up morale, my aunt read Pickwick Papers aloud over the course of several weeks (also, it was one of very few books my grandfather could digest and reasonably well understand at that point). Dickens’ comedy, sentimentality, and indeed weirdness in that setting were all richly appropriate and much appreciated (by me at least). I haven’t read Bleak House, but you’ve reminded me to put in on my list.

  2. Harry
    23 November 2006 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    I haven’t read Pickwick Papers. I vaguely keep meaning to, but there are so many books to read.

  3. Rui
    26 November 2006 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

    Ooh…. Bleak House!…

    i read that for my A levels. My class got really excited about the appearance of a character called ‘Michael Jackson’ somewhere around pg. 700 (yes we got that far. and yes we were that bored). and i’ve always loved the death of Krook.

    Esther’s first-person narrative is nauseating, but psychologically realistic, i think. it *is* a common (female) defense mechanism to try to be sugar-sweet and oh-so-accomodating and good and patient in an attempt to be liked / loved. so yeah, childhood trauma and all that. can’t blame the poor girl though i admit that i don’t like the character.

  4. Harry
    27 November 2006 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

    I think BH is a poor choice for use in schools – it’s too long and too heavy. Much as I think that teenagers should be made to read things that will challenge them, with something like BH, if you don’t enoy it it becomes a hell of a slog. There are plenty of challenging short books to read, after all.

    As to Esther: realistic or not, I get the feeling that the Victorians just had a much higher tolerance for that kind of thing, and in fact actively enjoyed all the sugar. I mean it’s not just the sentimentality: I found it repetitive and heavy-handed. But presumably that’s what a lot of his audience liked.

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