I’ve reached the half-way mark in my odyssey through the novels of Charles Dickens – his most ambitious work, and the one which is widely held to be his masterpiece: Bleak House.

Dickens began writing Bleak House in November 1851, towards the end of the year of the Great Exhibition, that symbol of the high-water mark of Victorian Britain.  Looking back on the year, the Manchester Guardian asserted that were ‘good grounds for satisfaction, for hope, and for self-approval’.  Dickens did not concur.

The period during which Bleak House was written and serialized, Dickens was involved in what was, even for him, a remarkably energetic whirl of activities – not only literary, but much of it concerned with social reform.

During the first three years of the 1850s, Dickens was editing the weekly literary magazine Household Words, launched in March 1850, writing his A Child’s History of England, and touring the country with theatrical productions.  At the same time he was deeply involved in reforming causes. He was actively engaged in the running of Urania Cottage, the home for homeless women that he had set up with Angela Burdett Coutts in Shepherd’s Bush in 1847; he was an active supporter of the Ragged School movement; and he promoted reforming causes through public speaking and a stream of articles in Household Words.

Inevitably, these interests found their way into the new book he was writing, one whose darkness of tone was at odds with the national mood of complacency and self-congratulation.  The sombre mood of Bleak House no doubt derived, too, from the tragedies that Dickens experienced in his personal life at this time: the death of his father, followed only two weeks later by the death of his infant daughter Dora.

The novel brings us to Bleak House, a metaphor for cosy Victorian England, a home ruined by the machinations of a legal system that had become ‘a by-word for delay, slow agony of mind, despair, impoverishment, trickery, confusion, and insupportable injustice’ (as Dickens wrote in Household Words). But although Bleak House was once ‘a dreary place’, since being inherited by the generous and good-hearted John Jarndyce it has been transformed into a place of comfort, light and warmth.  Jarndyce has inherited the place from his great-uncle Tom who, caught up in the cogs of the endless case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce in Chancery, had finally blown his brains out, leaving ‘the signs of his misery upon it’.

It had been called, before his time, the Peaks. He gave it its present name and lived here shut up, day and night poring over the wicked heaps of papers in the suit and hoping against hope to disentangle it from its mystification and bring it to a close. In the meantime, the place became dilapidated, the wind whistled through the cracked walls, the rain fell through the broken roof, the weeds choked the passage to the rotting door. When I brought what remained of him home here, the brains seemed to me to have been blown out of the house too, it was so shattered and ruined.

Yet, despite its ‘light and warmth, and comfort’, and its picturesque qualities, this place of contentment is beset by the ‘east winds’ that Dickens sees swirling through moribund mid-century Britain: the unreformed ills of industrialization, corruption, and smug self-satisfaction.

Central to Dickens’ vision in Bleak House is how rich and poor are inextricably bound to one another, and how contagion – both physical and mental – can quickly spread. Though the overall tone is sombre, the novel is illuminated by the satire through which Dickens expresses his anger at social inequality and hypocrisy, and his sympathy for the plight of the poor.  All of Dickens novels have relevance today, but Bleak House is probably the one which offers the most wide-ranging, most insightful treatment of themes that remain pertinent: compassion and lack of it; corruption and greed; the inhumane treatment of the poor; the irrelevance of Tweedledum and Tweedledee politics at Westminster; the way in which those responsible for destitution distance themselves from the actions which cause it:

A ruthless set of bloody-minded villains… perfect savage… superlative blackguards…Damn the Tories – they will win here, I am afraid.
– Dickens writing in 1835 to Catherine Hogarth, soon to be his wife.

The novel’s opening must be one of the greatest in literature: the fog that envelops London being Dickens’ metaphor for the state of British society and, in particular, his main target – the Court of Chancery, with its labyrinthine practices that bring misery and ruin to its victims and riches to unscrupulous lawyers who feed upon its outmoded procedures:

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. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits 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; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ‘prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.

Gas looming through the fog in divers places in the streets, much as the sun may, from the spongey fields, be seen to loom by husbandman and ploughboy. Most of the shops lighted two hours before their time—as the gas seems to know, for it has a haggard and unwilling look.

The raw afternoon is rawest, and the dense fog is densest, and the muddy streets are muddiest near that leaden-headed old obstruction, appropriate ornament for the threshold of a leaden-headed old corporation, Temple Bar. And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln’s Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery.

G K Chesterton wrote of the opening paragraphs of Bleak House that ‘Dickens’s openings are almost always good; but the opening of Bleak House is good in a quite new and striking sense’:

The description of the fog in the first chapter of Bleak House is good in itself; but it is not merely good in itself … Dickens begins in the Chancery fog because he means to end in the Chancery fog. … The beginning is alpha and omega: the beginning and the end. He means that all the characters and all the events shall be read through the smoky colours of that sinister and unnatural vapour. … Almost everything is calculated to assert and re-assert the savage morality of Dickens’s protest against a particular social evil. …The fog of the first chapter never lifts.

Another thing about that opening: its grammatical modernity that intensifies the atmosphere of constant action and movement, the swirl of juxtaposed activities in the big city fog. Beginning with a verb-less, one word sentence. The absence of finite verbs.  The insistent dangling participles that convey a feeling of continuous action. The unusual present tense narration which invests vividness and immediacy, suggesting that things are happening right now – as we watch.

As we read on we become aware, too, that Dickens has employed a unique narrative structure.  The story is told both by an omniscient, third-person narrator and a first-person narrator, Esther Summerson. The third-person narrator speaks in the present tense, ranging widely across geographic and social space (from the aristocratic Dedlock estate to the desperately poor Tom-All-Alone’s in London), and gives full rein to Dickens’s desire to satirise the English chancery system.

Esther Summerson tells her own story in the past tense (like David in David Copperfield or Pip in Great Expectations), and her narrative voice is characterised by modesty (‘I have a great deal of difficulty in beginning to write my portion of these pages, for I know I am not clever’), consciousness of her own limits, and willingness to disclose to us her own thoughts and feelings. Yet, as her narrative develops, she displays astute moral judgement and satiric observation.

The front cover of No. 1, March 1852
The front cover of No. 1, March 1852

Satire and social criticism is at the heart of Bleak House. Re-reading it made me realise that it was this element of overt satire that was missing from John Lanchester’s novel Capital, a few years back. Set against the background of the imminent banking collapse of 2008, it was often described as ‘Dickensian’ for the social range of its characters.  What it lacked, however, was Dickens’ savage satire.

And Dickens is at his most savagely satirical in his portrayal of Chancery – the court that adjudicated in disputes over land-ownership, debts, inheritance and trusts, which by the 19th century had become synonymous with expense, delay and inconclusiveness.  There had been repeated parliamentary inquiries, but no reform.  Instead, its bureaucratic culture and exploitative court fees continued to blight many innocent lives.  Dickens had himself experienced Chancery’s corruption in 1844 when, having successfully blocked publication of a pirate edition of A Christmas Carol, instead of damages he was faced with costs of £700.

The overarching metaphor of the novel is the suit of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce whose costs are steadily beggaring its litigants. It’s a metaphor for corruption and decay not confined to the area of London around the Inns of Court but spreading throughout the land:

The Court of Chancery, which has its decaying houses and its blighted lands in every shire, which has its worn-out lunatic in every madhouse and its dead in every churchyard, which has its ruined suitor with his slipshod heels and threadbare dress borrowing and begging through the round of every man’s acquaintance, which gives to monied might the means abundantly of wearying out the right, which so exhausts finances, patience, courage, hope, so overthrows the brain and breaks the heart, that there is not an honourable man among its practitioners who would not give—who does not often give—the warning, “Suffer any wrong that can be done you rather than come here!”

In another passage we feel the full force of Dickens’ satirical anger:

The one great principle of the English law is to make business for itself. There is no other principle distinctly, certainly, and consistently maintained through all its narrow turnings. Viewed by this light it becomes a coherent scheme and not the monstrous maze the laity are apt to think it. Let them but once clearly perceive that its grand principle is to make business for itself at their expense, and surely they will cease to grumble.

The names of the birds kept by the Chancery supplicant Miss Flight are another expressive metaphor for the blight which afflicted litigants at the court:

Hope, Joy, Youth, Peace, Rest, Life, Dust, Ashes, Waste, Want, Ruin, Despair, Madness, Death, Cunning, Folly, Words, Wigs, Rags, Sheepskin, Plunder, Precedent, Jargon, Gammon, and Spinach.

Krook’s Rag and Bottle Warehouse – the site of the novel’s most memorable episode, Krook’s spontaneous combustion – offers yet another metaphor for Chancery, this time as parody. In his shop Krook collects junk and old paper. The neighbours call him the Lord Chancellor, and his shop, the Court of Chancery. The shop is described as being cluttered with sacks of old rags, piles of parchment scrolls and heaps of mouldering, discoloured dog-eared law papers. Any old rubbish is bought by Crook, not least waste paper:

Everything seemed to be bought and nothing to be sold there. […] The shop had in several little particulars the air of being in a legal neighbourhood and of being, as it were, a dirty hanger-on and disowned relation of the law.

It is here Lady Dedlock’s letters to Esther’s father turn up, and where he dies. Upstairs, Miss Flite keeps her captive birds that will be released only when the case is closed. The illiterate Krook hoards documents but cannot read them, a parody on the court that wastes interminable amounts of time on legal briefs, only to become more and more confused by them. At the court, huge sacks of papers are carried out of at the conclusion of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, echoing the mounds of junk in Krook’s shop.

At the end of the first chapter, the narrator observes, as a case in Chancery is adjourned:

A battery of blue bags is loaded with heavy charges of papers and carried off by clerks; the little mad old woman marches off with her documents; the empty court is locked up. If all the injustice it has committed and all the misery it has caused could only be locked up with it, and the whole burnt away in a great funeral pyre – why so much the better.

Krook's spontaneous combustion illustration by Phiz (Hablot Knight Browne) from Bleak House
Krook’s spontaneous combustion: illustration by Phiz (Hablot Knight Browne)

In the novel’s terrifying symbolic scene it is Krook, the ‘Chancellor’, who is consumed by fire, his spontaneous combustion described as

The Lord Chancellor of that court, true to his title in his last act, has died the death of all lord chancellors in all courts and of all authorities in all places under all names soever, where false pretences are made, and where injustice is done. Call the death by any name your Highness will, attribute it to whom you will, or say it might have been prevented how you will, it is the same death eternally – inborn, inbred, engendered in the corrupted humours of the vicious body itself, and that only – spontaneous combustion, and none other of all the deaths that can be died.

Bleak House 'consecrated ground' by Phiz
Jo and Lady Dedlock at the graveyard, by Phiz

But Dickens’ indictment of British society ranges much wider than Chancery. Targets in the novel include ‘telescopic’ philanthropists who sanctimoniously do good abroad whilst being blind to the condition of the poor at home (Mrs. Jellyby); slum housing (Tom All-Alone’s where Jo the crossing-sweeper lives); overcrowded and insanitary urban graveyards (such as the one to which Jo leads Lady Dedlock); neglect of contagious disease (the brick-makers’ hovels); electoral corruption (the Coodle and Doodle campaign); pompous, hypocritical preachers (Mr Chadband); scheming, exploitative lawyers (Tulkinghorn et al); class divisions (a host of impressions from the huge cast of characters – from the landed aristocracy of the Dedlocks of Chesney Wold, to the noveau-riche iron-master Roundwell, to the brick-makers and their wives and, ultimately, Jo the crossing-sweeper); and the educational needs of the poor (Krook copying words which he does not understand, or Jo, again):

Don’t know that Jo is short for a longer name. Thinks it long enough for HIM. HE don’t find no fault with it. Spell it? No. HE can’t spell it. No father, no mother, no friends. Never been to school. What’s home? Knows a broom’s a broom, and knows it’s wicked to tell a lie. Don’t recollect who told him about the broom or about the lie, but knows both.

Tom-all-alones: illustration by Phiz
Tom-All-Alone’s: illustration by Phiz (Hablot Knight Browne)

Some readers, including Dickens’ friend and future biographer John Forster, were disturbed by the outspoken nature of Dickens’ attack on social ills.   Nevertheless, sales of the serialized parts were higher than for David Copperfield, helping to make him one of the richest men in Britain.

The novel not only presents a social critique; it also emphasises the interconnectedness of rich and poor, the way that rich and poor lived in close conjunction, walking the same streets, sharing the same malodorous air.  In Household Words, Dickens had written of ‘the startling depths of mental ignorance and neglect concealed beneath our hollow shows of civilisation’.

All of this is brought together in the pitiful figure of the illiterate crossing sweeper, Jo who lives in the neglected, decaying and disease-ridden slum Tom-All-Alone’s. Although Dickens’s description of the poverty and unsanitary conditions in Tom-All-Alone’s is fictional, it was all true, based on his reading of Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, published in 1851, the year in which Dickens began Bleak House:

Jo lives – that is to say, Jo has not yet died – in a ruinous place, known to the like of him by the name of Tom-all-Alone’s. It is a black, dilapidated street, avoided by all decent people; where the crazy houses were seized upon, when their decay was far advanced, by some bold vagrants, who, after establishing their own possession, took to letting them out in lodgings.

From the enormous cast of characters that populate the social landscape delineated by Dickens in Bleak House, I will just pick out the figure of Inspector Bucket of the Detective, since Bleak House is been cited as the first novel in which a detective plays a significant role.

England’s first Detective division had been founded in 1842, just a decade before the novel’s publication. Bucket was based on a real detective, a friend of Dickens, Charles Field.  He had been one of the first detectives recruited, and had taken over management of the division in 1846.  During his fourteen year stint as Chief of the Detective Branch, Field would often accompany Dickens on his late night walks around London. Fields retired in 1852 and worked as a private investigator until 1865.

Bucket is, perhaps, the only figure in Bleak House able to see through the impenetrable fog that envelops its characters. With his ‘attentive face, and his hat and stick in his hands, and his hands behind him’, he notices absolutely everything. Bucket can fade right into the background, whether as an observer or as a ‘composed and quiet listener’, sometimes lurking in the street ‘in the guise of a pedestrian’. He has an often-noted characteristic: a large index finger, often ‘in an impressive state of action’:

Mr Bucket and his fat forefinger are much in consultation together…. When Mr Bucket has a matter of this pressing interest under his consideration, the fat forefinger seems to rise, to the dignity of a familiar demon. He puts it to his ears, and it whispers information; he puts it to his lips, and it enjoins him to secrecy; he rubs it over his nose, and it sharpens his scent; he shakes it before a guilty man, and it charms him to his destruction. The Augurs of the Detective Temple invariably predict that when Mr Bucket and that finger are in much conference, a terrible avenger will be heard of before long.

Frontispiece and title-page of Bleak House
Frontispiece and title-page of Bleak House

Taking an overview of the novel in his study Dickens, Peter Ackroyd argued that despite some talk of Bleak House inaugurating Dickens’ ‘dark period’, the novel is not significantly different in tone to episodes in earlier books, such as Oliver Twist.  What is different, he writes, is ‘the way in which he closely packs together all the aspects of his vision’. Bleak House is ‘more closely written than its predecessors’ conjuring forth

A world in which people are tightly bound together – in ties of duty, ties of love, ties of charity, ties of relationship, ties of debt so that the novel grows dark with the mass of lives fluttering together within it.

For Ackroyd, Dickens’ writing in Bleak House is ‘filled with power, containing the language of sentiment as well as the rhetoric of political satire, the cadence of polemic and the expression of wonder.’

In her survey of Dickens’ work, Jane Smiley writes that in Bleak House,

He created a new sort of English novel, one that explores and questions the construction of English culture and society as a whole rather than merely certain institutions.

Smiley observes how Dickens locates the tragedies of his characters ‘in institutions outside of their control and then analyses how some characters fail while others manage to cope.’

Overall, Jane Smiley casts Bleak House in a darker light than Ackroyd:

Bleak House is the most unhopeful of Dickens’ novels. Characters such as Esther and Jarndyce at best succeed in holding off decay rather than transcending it, as characters in earlier books succeeded in doing (such as the Micawbers going off to a new life in Australia in David Copperfield).

As well as having seen and thoroughly enjoyed Andrew Davies’ BBC TV dramatisation, this is my third reading of Bleak House. It remains a favourite of mine.  Maybe the fascination that the novel has had for me has something to do with early childhood experience.

I grew up in the middle house in a terraced row of cottages in a Cheshire village. If I turned right out of the front door I would cross an unadopted and unsurfaced lane that petered out in fields, now lost beneath tracts of suburban houses. At the bottom of that lane, behind high hedges, stood a dark and mysterious house, reputedly inhabited by a lady who lived alone and was rarely seen. The name on the gate was ‘Bleak House’.

On the bookshelf at home was a row of the complete works of Dickens, bound in red and engraved  with gold lettering, published around 1910. As a very young child, knowing the house just along the road, I would stare at the title on the spine – Bleak House –  and wonder what mystery was contained within its covers.

Charles Dickens' Bleak House, Broadstairs
Charles Dickens’ house in Broadstairs: he named it Bleak House

One thought on “Re-reading Dickens: Bleak House

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