It’s like asking if I like New York. It’s big! A lot of different things are in it. Some things are monumental and wonderful, some things have an offhand arresting beauty, some things smell bad.
Minor thoughts after break — this book just came out 165 years ago and I want to spare you spoilers.
- The court case, Jarndyce and Jarndyce, that makes up the center of the book, promises the person who masters it great power, but it insidiously and inevitably corrupts everyone who comes in contact with it. In other words I sort of see it as the basis for the Ring in Tolkien! And in the end the person most fully corrupted by it ends up participating in its destruction.
- A lot of space in this book is taken up by the question of “What is the right way to be a woman? What is the right way to be a man?” Dickens offers you a lot of pretty different examples of men he sees as properly manly; the gentle and endlessly patient John Jarndyce, the simple-yet-deeply-good-and-loves-his-mother-a-lot soldier George, the selfless do-gooder Woodcourt, the comically presented and finally viewed as noble Lord Dedlock, and so on. But in this book there is one and only one way to be good at being a woman, which is reiterated again and again — not to make trouble. Not to ask for anything, not to disagree, to make of oneself a kind of item of service. Here’s Inspector Bucket, praising Esther Summerson in much the same kind of language she uses aspirationally about herself:
“Lord! You’re no trouble at all. I never see a young woman in any station of society — and I’ve seen many elevated ones too — conduct herself like you have conducted yourself since you was called out of your bed. You’re a pattern, you know, that’s what you are,” said Mr. Bucket warmly; “you’re a pattern.”I told him I was very glad, as indeed I was, to have been no hindrance to him, and that I hoped I should be none now.“My dear,” he returned, “when a young lady is as mild as she’s game, and as game as she’s mild, that’s all I ask, and more than I expect. She then becomes a queen, and that’s about what you are yourself.”
- The character of Skimpole is the best thing in this, maybe because he’s one of the few characters who’s not a fixed type. He’s charming and innocent, until he’s not. Bucket again: “Whenever a person proclaims to you ‘In worldly matters I’m a child,’ you consider that that person is only a-crying off from being held accountable and that you have got that person’s number, and it’s Number One.”
- There’s a spontaneous combustion in the middle of this book! Better still, before the spontaneous combustion reveal, there’s twenty pages of characters wandering around saying things like “my goodness, it certainly does smell like greasy smoke tonight, they must be cooking mutton at the pub.” In the very last scene before Krook’s charred body is discovered, another character, directly upstairs from Krook’s room, puts his hand on the windowsill and finds it covered with a foul oily yellow ichor. The whole thing is extremely metal.
In the section that follows there’s a weird and kind of boring catalog of contemporary accounts of spontaneous combustions, which is apparently there because scientists hassled Dickens about the ridiculousness of the scene and he felt the need to defend himself in the subsequently published chapter.
- Lots of sentence fragments in this book, moody description in a telegraphic style I think of as more modern than the 1850s (did Dickens invent this?) Here’s the opening:
London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes — gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers.
- And here’s the closing, which lands again on this question of “what does it mean to be good at being a woman”:
“My dear Dame Durden,” said Allan, drawing my arm through his, “do you ever look in the glass?”
“You know I do; you see me do it.”
“And don’t you know that you are prettier than you ever were?”
“I did not know that; I am not certain that I know it now. But I know that my dearest little pets are very pretty, and that my darling is very beautiful, and that my husband is very handsome, and that my guardian has the brightest and most benevolent face that ever was seen, and that they can very well do without much beauty in me — even supposing —.
I struggle with this paragraph on a purely literal level. I don’t understand the final sentence fragment. What is elided? Even supposing what?
I’ve read Bleak House twice, though it’s been a while, and I’m looking forward to the third. Each time I consider tackling a Dickens novel that I haven’t read before I have to calculate the opportunity cost of not just reading Bleak House again. Next time I imagine I will be a bit more conscious of the gender stuff.
Here’s Harold Bloom on that last paragraph (hopefully the link will work): https://books.google.com/books?id=GjIlriah_2EC&pg=PA150 I think modern practice would be to leave out the final period.
Oops, too fast on the post button. That was D. A. Miller on that last paragraph, in a book edited by Harold Bloom.
I was going to ask you just that the next time I ran into you, especially because I read A Tale of Two Cities a few years ago and wasn’t completely positive. I wrote this to my siblings:
“I finished the novel last night. It was an engaging story, despite the problems I had with the uneven writing quality, especially in the middle third. (There are also complaints about historical accuracy, and I noted a very narrow view of the revolution — it almost appears that the Defarge’s are running the whole show.) The heroic ending seems uniquely romantically British, and even Shakespearian, in character.”
[Actually, I later read a Dumas novel with a very similar kind of ending. I’m sure that someone borrowed from the other; I haven’t taken the time to find figure out who.]
I’m also interested because after reading Les Miserables unabridged, and several of Dumas’ multi-volume works (totaling thousands of pages each), I’m looking for big novels that I can get lost in for a while. I still have Proust on my list, but I’m hung up on which edition to read.
The original edition of Nicholas Nickleby featured a Seguin as an opera singer. Seguin was written out of the novel in later editions as he lost favor. According to an article I unexpectedly found in some classical guitar literature, this Seguin was in fact a real person, and was Irish (?!). (I suppose a French guy could have moved to Ireland, married, and had a kid.) He later went to America and got involved with a Native American tribe.
[…] Oct 2018: Bleak House, by Charles Dickens […]