Thursday, August 27, 2009

Bleak House

London. Michaelmas Term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln's Hall Inn.... Fog everywhere. Fog up the river... fog down the river... fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights... The raw afternoon is rawest,and the dense fog is densest, and the muddy streets are muddiest, near the laden-headed old obstruction, appropriate ornament for the threshold of a leaden-headed old corporation: Temple Bar. And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln's Hall Inn, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in His High Court of Chancery.

Thus begins Charles Dickens' epic tale of the long-standing Chancery court case of disputed wills, dashed hopes, and damaged lives. Bleak House was originally published, over the course of nineteen months, in a magazine, Household Words, and was printed in volume form in 1853. It has remained a stirring classic ever since, and has been made by BBC into a phenomenal, 15-episode miniseries.

At the very heart of the fog stands the High Court of Chancery. At the heart of Bleak House lies the "monument of Chancery practice"-- Jarndyce and Jarndyce-- a 53-year-old case of several wills upon which no one can agree. And at the heart of Jarndyce and Jarndyce stand cousins Richard Carstone and Ada Clare, taken in by a distant cousin, Mr. John Jarndyce, one of the kindest and most benevolent fictional characters of Dickens' creation. A young lady of obscure birth, Esther Summerson, also finds herself drawn into the confusing case when called upon as a companion for Ada. Against Mr. Jarndyce's recommendation, Richard throws himself into the pursuit of his interests in the Chancery case, while Esther searches to know her hidden ancestory.

According to his own distinctive style, Dickens builds his plot around a wide variety of places, people, and circumstances. We find ourselves familiar with the depressed slum, Tom-All-Alone's; the great Lincolnshire house, Chesney Wold; the center of despair and misery, Lincoln's Hall Inn; and the cheerful haven, the house oddly enough called Bleak House, after which the book is named. We grow to love-- or hate-- Dickens' colorful characters: ice-cold Lady Dedlock with her haunted past; the hilarious clerk Mr. Guppy and "the image imprinted on his 'art"; the clever, indefatigable sleuth, Mr. Bucket (said to be one of British Literature's earliest detectives); the evil, prying, power-obsessed lawyer, Tulkinghorn; preoccupied Mrs. Jellaby and her Borrioboola-Gha project; the poor, illiterate crossing-sweeper boy, Jo; the eccentric but endearing Miss Flite, who looks forward to the "Day of Judgment" when all her little birds will be set free; the crooked, self-serving free-loader Skimpole... Rising above them are some of my favorite fictional characters ever: Esther Summerson, whose sweet humility, constant love, and selfless service are a model of a godly woman; and Alan Woodcourt, a doctor whose life is marked by Christlike character and unswerving love and compassion.

Dickens also mixes a huge variety of genres, as only Dickens can do; in Bleak House, we find the legal thriller, mystery, romance, tragedy, adventure, and satire. We see philanthropy and poverty, secret pasts and scandal, comedy and crime, and the undying virtues of love, humility, generosity, and true righteousness.

While Bleak House features a phenomenal storyline and cast, it requires a determined reader who is willing to undertake eight hundred pages of Dickens' very unique writing style which often consists of very long descriptions (for instance, nearly the whole first chapter describes the fog and the operations of the Court of Chancery, which I abbreviated at the beginning of this review) and confusing rabbit-trails (such as the discourse on Sir Leicester's political views in Chapter 28 and elsewhere). One of this novel's further singularities is that it alternates between two narrators: an unnamed narrator who writes in third person and in present tense, and Esther Summerson, who writes in first person and past tense. While at the same time entertaining, it can also be confusing and does disallow the interchange of scenes from all points of view. These challenges are gladly overlooked, however, in light of a wonderful, heart-stirring story.

When Dickens wrote this novel, the Court of Chancery was just as real, as controlling, and as ruinous as it appears to be in the story. At the time of writing, a suit stood before the court which had commenced nearly twenty years earlier, the costs of which had amounted to seventy thousand pounds (according the author's Preface, page 5). In addition, Dickens saw all around him the poverty and despair of places much like Tom-All-Alone's and of people much like Jo, the crossing-sweeper. Like Dickens' other novels, Bleak House shows life as it really was and is: it is not a bed of roses or a rag-to-riches existence; there are the very wealthy and there are the unbelievable poor; there are righteous people who choose to bless each life they touch, and there are cruel people who are determined to control or ruin the lives of everyone around them; there are the wrongs of this world, and there is "the world that sets this [world] right." Bleak House met with a society in desperate need of reform, and indeed, it succeeded in causing its readers, then and now, to consider what is important in life. I highly suggest you put this book on your list for winter reads. It is an adventure you will never forget.


For those who are still wary of undertaking the reading of such a long book, or who simply enjoy a good film adaption of a classic work, I recommend BBC's outstanding television adaption of Bleak House. With a screenplay written by Andrew Davies (Pride and Prejudice, Wives and Daughters), this phenomenal miniseries runs over 450 minutes and features stunning cinema- tography, a thrilling music score, and a star- studded cast which includes Gillian Anderson (PBS's Masterpiece Theater), Anna Maxwell Martin (North and South), and Carey Mulligan (Pride and Prejudice 2005). Guppy is absolutely slapstick hilarious; and Tulkinghorn's puffy eyes, low voice, and sinister looks are perfectly done. This adaption mixes and matches some of the scenes for a better and more understandable flow of the story line, and eliminates some of the unimportant events and characters (such as Mrs. Snagsby's suspicion of her husband regarding Jo, and the silly, painted cousin of the Dedlocks, Volumnia.) The book, however, sheds more light on some details, particularly on backgrounds and thoughts that are hard to express on film. Overall, it is an excellent adaption of an excellent story and I recommend it as highly as I do the book.


Marie said...

I;m currently 726 pages through Bleak House, and I absolutely love it!!!!! : )

But then, I love all Dickens. : )

How close to the story is the movie? I don't think I could stand watching it if it wasn't pretty much the same.

juli said...

Hmmm, interesting! Lady Dedlock has a creepy name to match her creepy past. :)

Melanie said...

Marie, That's fun that you are reading it too. :-)

Hmm... as to the closeness of the book to the movie... like I said in the review, it arranges the scenes a lot better than in the book (since, the book having two narrators, it jumps back and forth in time, and such); it definitely quickens the pace.

It leaves out all the stuff about Mrs. Snagsby since it doesn't really have anything to do with the plot; other characters it omits are Mr. Weavle, Mrs. Smallweed and Judy's twin brother, and the Bagnets; therefore, it has to edit some of the circumstances. The characters are portrayed EXCELLENTLY!!!!! and most of them correct with the book, except that Conversation Kenge isn't quite as longwinded. The screenwriter added one character-- a clerk named Clem who works for Mr. Tulkinghorn-- so that it would show Mr. Tulkinghorn's thoughts and plans through his words to his clerk. The actress for Lady Dedlock is SO PERFECTLY LADY DEDLOCK!!! I really like in the movie that it shows Esther realizing Skimpole's badness much earlier on than in the book. (It kind of frustrated me in the book how they were always talking about how "charming" he was when he was so obviously a nasty, self-seeking freeloader!!)
I think I actually like the movie a little better than the book, actually. :-P Maybe cuz I watched it before I read the book... :-P

Juli, Lady Dedlock actually isn't a creepy character at all, even though her name sounds very strange indeed! :-)

Rosebud said...