When all was still, at a late hour, poor crazed Miss Flite came weeping to me and told me she had given her birds their liberty.
Bleak House is exactly the idea of Dickens that most people think they hate: 800 pages long, a title that must be moral and a plot line that is sufficiently well-known to breed contempt. Add to this an editorial voice that is painfully arch about the Polite World, and no wonder most people give up.
But just as anyone staggering past the opening monologue on dead pet ravens in Barnaby Rudge is rewarded with a terrifying psychological survey of mob rule and entrapment in the face of relentless evil, so anyone who endures Chapter 2 of Bleak House is in for a treat.
The main plot line is hardly a spoiler, as Dickens himself makes clear the futility of the legal battle, and his contempt for lawyerly wrangling, in the first chapter. The love story which is another key feature of the plot is also introduced early, although here Dickens is constantly teasing us with two outcomes, only one of which comes, leading to a perpetual build up and release of anticipation. However, the real pleasure is in abandoning yourself to the multiple worlds of diverse characters who slowly and inevitably begin to overlap, drawn together in tighter and tighter webs as the novel progresses.
In Esther, our main narrator, Dickens introduces a voice that is as direct as Jane Eyre and as sunny and entertaining as the heroes of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White or The Moonstone. Sometimes through Esther’s eyes and sometimes through third party narration we meet the terrifyingly impassive lawyer Mr Tulkinghorn, the self-absorbed Mrs Jellyby who is always saving Africa and ignoring her own family, the moneylenders and rag-paper sellers of the Tom’s-all-alone slum, the delightful military family the Bagnets (“Discipline must be maintained,” says Mr Bagnet, who is entirely and happily ruled by his wife), and Miss Flite who is mad and yet wise after so many years of following Chancery and who relays to Esther the moment Richard’s mind is seized by the lawsuit.
Of course it’s not perfect: Dickens was writing to a monthly deadline and Inspector Bucket changes character entirely partway through the book, whilst early chapters contain a few thundering lectures on the English school system and a case of spontaneous combustion. But who could mind that when Dickens is able to conjure up such atmosphere, whether of hot summers when a judge becomes a sunburned man in white trousers and white hat
who calls in at the shell-fish shop as he comes along and drinks iced ginger-beer
I recollect that it was neither night nor day, that morning was dawning but that the street-lamps were not yet put out…I recollect the wet house-tops, the clogged and bursting gutters and water-spouts, the mounds of blackened ice and snow over which we passed…
can sketch an inn like the best kind of letter-writers
[he] preceded me along the sanded passage to his best parlour, a neat carpeted room with more plants in it than were quite convenient, a coloured print of Queen Caroline, several shells, a good many tea-trays, two stuffed and dried fish in glass cases, and either a curious egg or a curious pumpkin (but I don’t know which, and I doubt if many people did) hanging from the ceiling.
and convey a father-daughter relationship with a few strokes of the pen:
“He comes here every evening”, returned Caddy, “and is so fond of sitting in that corner that it’s a pleasure to see him.” Looking at the corner, I plainly perceived the mark of Mr Jellyby’s head. It was consolatory to know that he had found such a place to rest it.
Most of all, Dickens is funny and that makes his books perfect for settling down with on an autumn evening to enjoy. Mr Badger respectfully reminding his dinner guests that his predecessor as Mrs B’s husband was Professor Dingo “of European reputation” must have made many readers laugh, along with Mr Skimpole chiding a debt collector for arriving on his blue-eyed daughter’s birthday. My favourite, though, must be this Cockney rant, still recognisable today, delivered to the interfering social worker and showing how far Dickens is from the popular stereotype of him as a stiff, conventional, preachy writer:
“Now you’re a-going to poll pry and question according to custom – I know what you’re a-going to be up to. Well! I’ll save you the trouble. Have I read the little book wot you left? No I haven’t read the little book wot you left. There an’t nobody here as knows how to read it and if there was, it wouldn’t be suitable to me. It’s a book for a babby and I an’t a babby. If you left me a doll I shouldn’t nuss it. How have I been conducting of myself? Why I’ve been drunk for three days and I’da been drunk four if I’da had the money. Don’t I never mean for to go for to church? No I don’t never mean to go for to church. I shouldn’t be expected there if I did; the beadle’s too genteel for me. And how did my wife get that black eye? Why, I give it her; and if she says I didn’t she’s a lie!