Thursday, December 02, 2010

Bleak House

I'm rereading Bleak House.  It is Dickens's best.  

Is it the best book ever?

Sometimes Russian novels are rewarding--I absolutely love Anna Karenina and Doctor Zhivago--but then comes an urge to settle into a big 19th-century English novel.  Dickens's voice is like no one else's.  There is no American Dickens.  There is no Russian Dickens.  There is no French Dickens.  And all the Dickens knock-offs in the world--Richard Flanagan's Wanting, Matthew Pearls' The Last Dickens, Dan Simmons's  Drood, etc.--don't equal the real Dickens.

Some love A Christmas Carol in December, but Bleak House has it all without alluding to Christmas.  The redemption of orphans, old bachelors, and chaotic children of working philanthropist mothers. The reunion, or reconciliation, however brief, of mothers with children.   The mimesis of family relationships among characters who come from abusive, neglectful, single-parent, or adoptive families. Of course many of Dickens's characters suffer and die without ever finding the happiness of Bleak House, and some choose to leave the happiness in search of false idols, money or the Court of Chancery, but Dickens renders the characters unforgettable and mostly sympathetic. 

Esther Summerson in the Masterpiece Theater version
Almost no one in Bleak House comes from a "normal" family.  Esther Summerson, whose lovely first-person narrative ("Esther's Narrative") is at the heart of the novel, is raised by a godmother who refuses to tell her the details of her parentage.  She devastates Esther by saying she would have been better off unborn.  Yet Esther, the most stable, filial character of all, grows up to be a beloved teacher and then the beloved housekeeper at Bleak House.  There is no one's voice I like better than Esther's.  She is perceptive, merry, cheerful, realistic, and strong.  She is the center of a group of orphans--Ada, Richard, Charley, and Jo. 

Here are a few sentences from the 2nd paragraph:

"Fog everywhere.  Fog up the river, where it flows among green airs 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 out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships..."
And there's more fog.  

If I had one book on a desert island, it would be Bleak House (or David Copperfield, or...).  It's hard to choose.  Bleak House would be one of them.  


Tony S. said...

I love "The Christmas Carol", but have not approached these longer dickens works. From you post,it seems that I should.

interpolations said...

I love David Copperfield, and that you connect it with Bleak House as your two favorite Dicken's novels has me decided: Bleak House, baby. I've medium-listed it, meaning I'll read it next year when I kick my Dicken's project off!

Frisbee said...

Tony, I need to reread The Christmas Carol. I keep meaning to read his other Christmas books.

I really, really love his long novels. A couple of the good ones are short: Hard Times is a favorite here.

Interpolations, Bleak House is great. I don't know if I really like it as well as David Copperfield. I tend to get carried away. BH is great and seems to be the Dickens of choice in critiques of classics, because it is more complicated than DC. Oh well, I don't know that that matters so much in great books. They're both so good it's six of one, half a dozen of the other.

Nabokov has an excellent essay on BH in Lectures on English Literature.

Anonymous said...

"A Christman Carol" is better than we realize. It's been ruined by the incessant way it's talked about and treated. Think of the lines: are there no workhouses ... decrease the surplus population ... ours is a competitive business, sir."

I love Esther Summerson too. I don't know which I think the greatest of these great Victorian novels. Lately it's been going in Eliot's direction (Middlemarch).

Nowadays I'm helped along to get into Dickens - I admit it! -- by Andrew Davies's marvelous film adaptations. I just bought myself Bleak House in order slowly to savor it.


Frisbee said...

Ellen, I love the movies of A Christmas Carol but haven't watched them or reread the book in years. It has become almost emblemetic of the sentimentalism of Christmas, but of course it's much more.