Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Bleak House in an Adirondack Chair

I picked up my copy of Bleak House, which I last blogged on in December, and snuck it out to the back yard to read in the sun. The Adirondack chair is split up the back and down the arms after being out all winter, but so far so good--it didn't actually collapse--and we will replace it with a cheap plastic chair.

Why Bleak House again?

It is Dickens's best novel. It is akin to a day at the spa.  It is a desert-island book.   I love the rich rhetorical language of Bleak House, the satire of the law (beware of the legal system and the people who abuse it), Dickens's endearing humor, empathy, and the heterogeneity of his truly original characters.  I love and admire the courage and charm of Esther Summerson, whose narrative takes up a big chunk of BH.

The characters' relationship to the legal case Jarndyce and Jarndyce, which has shuffled on for generations, defines and shapes the action of the novel. 

"Jarndyce and Jarndyce drones on.  This scarecrow of a suit has, in the course of time, become so complicated, that no man alive knows what it means.  The parties to it understand it least; but it has been observed that no two Chancery lawyers can talk about it for five minutes, without coming to a total disagreement as to all the premises.  Innumerable children have been born into the case; innumerable young people have married into it; innumerable old people have died out of it.  Scores of persons have deliriously found themselves made parties in Jarndyce and Jarndyce, without knowing how or why; whole families have inherited legendary hatreds with the suit."

Dickens, while trashing the injustice of Chancery law, teach us morals and how to behave. Morality is detached from the law as practiced in Jarndyce and Jarndyce in Victorian England. The heroes and heroines resist the bureaucracy and greed that drive the judicial system and the lawyers to divide and conquer the heirs and drain money through legal costs; but some very good, ethical characters, like the mad Miss Flyte, spend their lives haunting the court with their papers and (imaginary) cases. (Miss Flyte, an eccentric little woman who befriends the main characters, says she will free her pet birds when her case is settled, and wistfully hints that her friends should avoid Chancery.)  Esther and Ada, two of the three wards of John Jarndyce of Bleak House, understand that Jarndyce and Jarndyce will never be resolved, but the third ward, the charming, weak Richard, cannot settle down to a profession because he believes that he will one day inherit money. 

The villains are truly villainous, and some are connected with the law.  The evil Mr. Tulkinghorn, a well-connected lawyer, misogynously persecutes the beautiful, silent, proud Lady Dedlock, the wife of one of his clients, for no better reason than that he can.  Guppy, a law clerk, also attempts to blackmail her, and is abashed when his evidence burns.  Some characters die, directly or indirectly, through their connection with the law.  

Some of the characters have alter egos or doppelgängers, in David Copperfield. Esther, like David, is a writer, though her writing, of course, is private, while he becomes a professional.  Skimpole, a cold, witty man who claims  he is a "child" in money transactions, leads Richard into penury, actually kills a boy, and claims he has no responsibility for debts or to people like John Jarndyce who pay his debts.  Skimploe is the doppelgänger of the eccentric, good-natured Mr. Micawber in DC, who is genuinely helpless about money matters and preaches the hazards of debt to David.

Dickens is not only is the best writer in the English language, but also promulgates ethics through this novel of social realism.  He examines the complexity of the ties of family--the best families are artificial and extended, like John Jarndyce and his wards, or the Turveydrops after Caddie's marriage--the unjust persecution of unwed mothers and the poor, the hypocrisy of Mrs. Jellaby's philanthropy--and I can't help thinking of the tangled web of Greg Mortenson's Three Cups of Tea (which I haven't read) and the two (?) people in Montana who are suing him for the price of his books, and though I don't know the facts of this sad case, a class-action suit by readers seems a greedy and frivolous response.

Bleak House is like life.  

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