Book Review: Bleak House by Charles Dickens

Bleak House – Charles Dickens (W.W. Norton & Co, 1977)

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.

14 thoughts on “Book Review: Bleak House by Charles Dickens”

  1. Oh, I’m so glad you were able to get some background on English law at the time. I think i mentioned that to you at one point. If I hadn’t known about the law, I would never have figured out what the big hulluballo is with the case that runs throughout the novel. Although she’s so vile, Mrs. Jellyby was my favorite character. She’s so beautifully captured in all her hypocrisy as she tries to help the “savages” in Africa, but her own children run around like wild animals and are sorely neglected.

    I know a lot of cousins used to get married to keep property and goods in one family, but doesn’t sometimes feel like they’re basically going, “Well, we grew up together and we’re already here, so…..” and then they get married?

    1. Yes, you did mention it to me and then I realized my edition had a section to explain chancery law better. So thank you because I probably would have skipped over it without your advice!

      Mrs. Jellyby is very well drawn. I did enjoy reading about her more than about Caddy, I have to admit. And the cousin thing…I know it was more common once upon a time but it still makes me feel uncomfortable. And yes, Ada and Richard do seem to have a relationship based more on proximity than anything else. Like, does Ada know any other young men?

  2. I tthink Tulkinghorn is my favourite character, though it’s hard to choose. The “Don’t go home!” scene is just so tense and dark. But little Miss Flite is a strong contender too, as is Lady Dedlock, and the spontaneous combustion scene is one of the best pieces of horror writing I’ve ever come across. Plus of course, despite all the people who erroneously claim the honour for Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, this is the first police detective novel in the English language. So glad you enjoyed it, but you forgot to menton that it’s the best book ever written. 😉

    1. Oh yes, that is creepy! Tulkinghorn is very well-written – creepy but scarily realistic. And the spontaneous combustion! I had to go back and re-read that chapter. And that moment when Miss Flite releases her birds almost brought me to tears. I loved the part with Bucket too and him and Esther following Lady Dedlock through the night.

      I still would say A Tale of Two Cities is my favourite Dickens but I also feel like maybe I need to go back and re-read it to see if I still feel the same.

  3. I was just saying this on FF’s latest Dickens post, but he’s one of the authors that I know I SHOULD read more of, but I most likely won’t. That kind of ‘classic literature’ doesn’t grab me like the mysteries and thrillers from back in the day. I have some Sherlock Holmes that I’ve put a hold on at the library coming up, so expect another ‘classic’ review from me soon too 🙂

    1. Dickens is more of a slow burn, I find. Once I’m into one of his novels, I really enjoy it but it can be a bit of work to get to that point. I’ll look forward to your Sherlock Holmes review!

  4. I’m so glad you liked this! I loved reading your review – it reminded me of all the great characters (and they’re fantastic names!). I think I have to read this again someday.
    It does take a bit to get into, but it’s totally worth it.

  5. I really struggled with Bleak House, so I stopped reading out of sheer frustration. But your review is making me want to give it another try, though I can’t say I’ll understand what’s happening. I do like the way Dickens depicts the poor, fleshing out themes of poverty and giving a voice to those who are trampled underfoot especially in Oliver Twist.

    1. It did take me quite a while to get into Bleak House. Probably about half the novel until I found myself excited to read it and then it moved much more quickly for me. So if you do try it again maybe that will be the case for you too. Dickens does do such a good job of portraying the poor of his time and making them real people that we care about, even the ones just shown briefly. I still think A Tale of Two Cities is his best work though! Thanks for reading!

    2. Ah, see, I don’t know if I have that much patience. I’m doing this thing where if a book can’t hook me in by page 50, then it’s just not going to happen. I really enjoyed A Tale of Two Cities, but found myself frustrated, I couldn’t see myself giving my life up for a woman who doesn’t love me back! Though, I can’t wait to watch Great Expectations, mostly for Dev Patel.

    3. That’s totally fair. I’m a firm believer that not every book is for every person. While I do think this one picks up well after 50 pages (partially because it’s so long!) the first 50 pages would give you a good sense of whether you want to keep going with it.

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