What I’m Reading: Bleak House by Charles Dickens

Bleak HouseBleak House by Charles Dickens

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Bleak House is on my personal challenge list, meaning that I should be chiseling away at some book from that list or I’ll keep putting them off forever and never read one.

Having been surprised by how much I loved A Tale of Two Cities and having heard that Bleak House is Dickens’ best, it is the next of his books I thought I’d try. However, it is so intimidatingly hefty that I’ve had the book on hand for several months before finally launching myself at it. (I’m about halfway through this 800+ page book at the moment.)

Dickens begins by introducing several strands of story and then settling on a first-person narrator, Esther Summerson, at least for this section. At this point we are just meeting Mrs. Jellyby and I actually laughed aloud. I know a Mrs. Jellyby. Don’t we all? So much engaged in her African cause that she ignores the very real want in her own family gathered around her. I love the way that everything Esther picks up or tries to use garners the comment, “It was dirty.” Children fall down stairs unnoticed, the carpet is coming off the stairs in a most dangerous fashion, dinner is almost raw, and all the while Mrs. Jellyby “fixed her fine eyes on Africa again.”

However, as she at once proceeded with her dictation, and as I interrupted nothing by doing it, I ventured quietly to stop poor Peepy as he was going out, and to take him up to nurse. He looked very much astonished at it, and at Ada’s kissing him; but soon fell fast asleep in my arms, sobbing at longer and longer intervals, until he was quiet. I was so occupied with Peepy that I lost the letter in detail, though I derived such a general impression from it of the momentous importance of Africa, and the utter insignificance of all other places and things, that I felt quite ashamed to have though so little about it.

I laughed aloud reading this.

Meanwhile, the fog is everywhere. One wonders if that fog which makes lawyers focus on details in the Jarndyce case until the money is gone although they are still making a fine living, is the same which clouds Mrs. Jellyby’s vision. It is easy to ignore the real significance of life around you when focusing on the intangible elsewhere gives us the excuse to ignore the immediate demands we find less attractive, like a filthy home or crying baby. It adds a disturbingly eerie element.

I must concede Will Duquette’s contention that Dickens characters can be very unrealistic. But who would give them up for the realistic ones? And Dickens does realistic very well, when he needs to. Esther is realistic. Mr. Guppy also … although so amusing while one is sorry for him. And then there is Mr. Bucket. Possibly one of the best detectives I’ve ever seen (at this admittedly early point in the book) … how is it I didn’t know Dickens wrote a detective? And one so canny and good at blending in?”

You know, I expected that I’d read a few pages (slogging through them) and intersperse them with a newer book. But I’m hooked. I can never possibly convey how great, how riveting I am finding this book. It is a mystery, a horror novel, a romance, a look at character (or the lack thereof), and much more … all laced with a self awareness that I find startlingly modern. O Dickens. And here I thought A Tale of Two Cities was sublime. How little I knew…

As a result of my amazement at how good this book is, it will be the November book for A Good Story is Hard to Find podcast. 900 pages of solid goodness. Ladies and gentlemen, start your reading now!

About Julie Davis
  • John Connery

    I do the same thing. Pick a classic that I haven’t read and make an attempt and then if it’s too boring to get through look for a good mystery or spy novel. The last classic I attempted was The Brothers Karamazov, which I abandoned after 20 pages and then picked up Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith. On your recommendation, I’ll give Bleak House a shot. Thanks.

  • http://dickensblog.typepad.com Gina

    Ah, we have a new Dickensian! :-) Welcome! You’ll never regret it.

    • willduquette

      As Julie already knows perfectly well, I’m not much of a Dickensian (I found David Copperfield rather tedious), but I love Bleak House. Very good stuff.

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com Thomas L. McDonald

    Bleak House is my favorite Dickens. There are also some very good adaptations of it from the BBC.

  • Sam Tomaino

    I spent the first 4 1/2 months of 2012 reading all the novels of Dickens, in the order of publication. Bleak House was a bit diificult to get through, at first. I found Esther just a bit too self-effacing, especially with what literally happens to her face.
    But just 300+ pages into the book, I encountered Mr. Bucket and was amazed. He was doing some Sherlock Holmes tricks 40 years before Holmes did. He might be the first detective in fiction.
    I did find one Dickens book that is unjustifiably obscure. Barnaby Rudge is Dickens’ other historical novel. It’s about the Gordon Anti-Catholic riots of 1780 when for nine days a mob ruled London. It makes a good companion to A Tale of Two Cities. I think all Catholics should read it. Be warned, it starts out slow, too.

  • Mikkel Lund

    I absolutely agree with Sam Tomaino about Mr. Bucket: along with Auguste Dupin and Sergeant Cuff, he is the first detective in fiction anticipating Sherlock Holmes 38 years as Bleak House was published in 1853 (serialised in 1852-3) and A Study in Scarlet was published in 1888 as a book (having been first published in Beeton’s Xmas Annual)! I also like Barnaby Rudge very much as it includes Highwaymen and murderers!
    Also The late Julian Symonds pointed out in his biography that Dickens “has almost as good a name as Edgar Allan Poe as father of the detective story. Bucket is probably the most human fictional detective before Sherlock Holmes”. So critics agree with us as far as this is concerned!

  • Mikkel

    I would just like to add that I have learned that “Dickensian Whodunnits” has been published written by Mike Ashley. This is a provoking book viewing all Dickens major novels as detective stories, which I, by the way, find refreshing!


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