Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Back to School: A Victorian faerytale


I had debated whether or not I should count this towards my Back to School challenge, since I’ve already read one Dickens, but in the end I thought it best to tack it on as it was 1,000 pages long – and a damn good novel at that. Charles Dickens’s Bleak House is an intricate and immense look at the court system of London in the 19th century, a fascinating analysis on the effect of class on day-to-day activities, and a document that showcases women’s independence and forthrightness even before they had suffrage.

In short – although no Dickens novel can really be described in short – it is the tale of Esther Summerson, a woman who is raised not knowing who her parents were. As she is told incessantly by her original guardian, ‘Your mother, Esther, is your disgrace, and you were hers.’ Chance bestows her though when her guardian dies and she’s brought under the auspices of a Mr John Jarndyce, an amiable man who sole intent is to make his companions happy. Living in Bleak House – a wonderful place despite the name – he attends to Esther and her two companions, Ada and Richard, cousins and wards of court.
And court is central to the story as Ada, Richard, and John are all tied to the outcome of the most infamous case in Chancery Court’s history: Jarndyce and Jarndyce – a case that has ruined lives and has cost more than it’s worth. Richard slowly becomes more involved as he sees his aspirations tied to it; whereas John Jarndyce has distanced himself from it entirely so as not to become bogged down, villainous, moneyhungry, or lecherous.
Even now to describe this I’m realising that I can go on and on, as Dickens captures so many intricacies, so many locks and just as many keys, to Victorian society. There are scores of characters, each with a strong identity. And above this all sits Lady Dedlock, a mysterious, somber woman who holds many secrets and many answers to the situations at hand. Her secrets though are being pulled out into the open by her husband’s lawyer, Mr Tulkinghorn, who is uncovering something that could tear the Dedlock name.
This is a much more mature narrative than that of Nicholas Nickleby, which was my last Back to School book. The characters aren’t as hot headed, their decisions are poignant – whether for good or ill. There is idealism, as Richard shouts, ‘I will begin the world’ while he plunges further into his case and thus into madness. There is romance, satire, intrigue, detective plots (with arguably the first detective in all English literature), and spontaneous combustion - all of which creates a story of the highest order with characters completely memorable and relatively three-dimensional. Lady Dedlock remains to me one of the more vivid creations I’ve come across in my reading.
Dickens, when it doesn’t feel like overdone pathetic fallacy, aptly captures all the information we need to know from each scene; his description of the fog that pervades this entire narrative is masterful. (One would even like to say that it might have influenced TS Eliot when he wrote ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’.) For instance, the novel slowly begins with a journalistic description of London, autumn’s coming to an end, and it seems like some elephantine mythical beast is roaming the streets of London. Then: ‘Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping, and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty city). Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships…’ It goes on for several lines, but it reminds us that we cannot escape one another, that each deed we do affects the next, that atmosphere does seep into our skin whether we want it to or not.


Kathleen said…

Okay first of all you have the same name as my son so that got my attention. Second I really enjoyed the review. Third, you reminded me that I joined this challenge and have done nothing, read nothing for it! I have Bleak House on my shelves so I should read it!

Kari said…

That sounds intense, Sal. I shudder at 1,000 pages of Dickensian language.

And don't worry Kathleen – I JUST finished my first book for the challenge about an hour ago!

Salvatore said…

The new BBC miniseries of this novel is pretty fantastic. It simplifies things without making them feel simple. I was rather impressed with it.

Earthshakerbooks said…

I read Bleak House lately, and was immediately drawn in by the description of the fog and mud of London streets. I quickly realized that all that fog and mud had something to do with the English court system.

Good review.