A 500+ page book with a focus on an obscure aspect of 19th century British law doesn’t exactly sound gripping and yet Dickens brings it all to life in a story filled with humour and emotion. In many ways, all of Dickens’ best elements are on display in Bleak House. He is wickedly funny, completely scathing in his portrayal of lawyers and chancery law, and full of a cry for justice in his depictions of those living in poverty.
The story alternates between a third person narration and the first person narrator of Esther Summerson. Esther is a young woman of unknown parentage who comes under the guardianship of John Jarndyce, master of Bleak House. At the same time, Jarndyce also takes guardianship of two distant relatives, Ada and Richard (distant cousins of each other). Jarndyce and Ada and Richard are at the centre of a long-running case in the chancery court, Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce. Even though chancer is known for its never-ending system of law, Richard becomes obsessed with the possibility of winning the case, even more so when he and Ada fall in love. (Yes, they’re cousins. Yes, they call each other cousin. No, this isn’t the relationship in the book that made me the most uncomfortable. I had to keep in mind that my modern perspective would not have been the perspective of Dickens’ original readers.)
At the same time, there is a mystery involving the cold and beautiful Lady Dedlock, one that will draw Esther into its centre and many of the characters into its orbit. And the story is filled with a wide variety of characters. Here Dickens truly shines. There is Mrs. Flite, obsessed with the chancery court and present there every day, living with her flock of birds with their horrible names. There’s Mr. Guppy, a young lawyer who thinks he is helping his love along but is a pawn for more powerful men. Caddy Jellyby, the put-upon daughter of a philanthropist, who searches out more for her own life. George, the former military man with a heard of gold. Mrs. Bagnet (my personal favourite) who, with her raincoat and umbrella can find her way home from anywhere. And Mr. Tulkinghorn, the sinister lawyer with powerful connections.
These are only a few of the many memorable characters that Dickens creates. Honestly, at the beginning it felt like a lot and I cynically thought Dickens was taking advantage of his book’s publication in serial format where he was paid by the world. But as the book progressed I found myself more and more drawn in and the role of each character became clearer.
Dickens’ writing and his sense of justice is especially poignant when he writes of the poor. Embodied in the character of young Jo, continuously instructed to “move along”, we see all the miseries of poverty and all those never given a chance. In the character of Jenny and her infant child Dickens demonstrates the thin line that separates the wealthy class from the lower class and that good deeds are not limited by riches. As well, Dickens shows us the changing class system of England, particularly through the character of Lord Dedlock. There’s a very telling scene between Lord Dedlock and the son of his housekeeper which shows the changing winds of power and authority.
Esther herself makes a fine narrator though she verges on too sweet and has little agency in her own life. From a modern perspective, her story is uncomfortable and unlikely and yet I couldn’t help but like her and want good for her. Most of the women in the novel are fairly flat characters, with perhaps the exception of Lady Dedlock who has many shades of light and dark.
I just so happened to read the Norton Critical Edition of this book because I picked it up at a thrift sale. I was fortunate in this as it had extensive footnotes as well as an introduction on the basics of chancery law. (As well as a fascinating reproduction of the notes Dickens kept as he wrote the novel.) If you do read Bleak House (and I think you should), I do recommend finding a copy with some background info or at least reading up first on chancery law.