Monday, October 18, 2010

Book Ten - Bleak House - Part Five

Charles Dickens
From The Classic Literature Library
When presented with both a pleasant and an unpleasant task, I prefer to complete the unpleasant task first so that I might completely enjoy the pleasant one. Since I made the somewhat rash declaration that I wouldn’t read another word of Guernsey until I’d finished Bleak House, I spent much of Saturday doing just that. In the end, I enjoyed the book. It was one of those books that I had to sit and read for a while before I became truly absorbed, but once I was in full Victorian mode I flew through it. I had to find out what happened and how all of the loose ends were resolved.

Since Dickens wrote most of his novels as periodicals, at times I thought chapters seemed like they could stand alone and were written primarily for the periodical rather than as part of a larger story. The next thing I knew, he connected those very stories in an unexpected way! That was lovely.

Dickens appears to like the too-good-to-be-true character; Tiny Tim is a good example. He has a handicap yet is good and kind and always happy. Esther is that person in Bleak House. Esther has the handicap of her birth yet she is good and kind and industrious. She sorta makes me sick, not because she’s good but because she’s a bit of a doormat. She is so happy to be rescued from the prospect of poverty that she has few thoughts of her own and is willing to submit her entire being to the person who saved her from that fate. I realize poverty was a very real possibility for her and how terrible that poverty would have been, but I believe it is possible to be grateful yet aware of your own mind at the same time. Most of the book is written in third person while Esther’s narrative is written in first, highlighting the fact that Esther sees life only from her perspective while a reader of Bleak House has the advantage of witnessing the unraveling of her mystery from all points of view. Still, I wanted her to show a little gumption.

To Dickens, industrious = good, indolent = bad. Perhaps he saw people who were one or the other, but aren’t most of us both at different times? I suppose Dickens’ moral is that it’s okay to be indolent in the evenings after being industrious all day. Well, for men anyway. They can retire to the growlery while the women must continue their needlework until it is time for bed. A woman may never relax her industry. And the thing is, there are only so many things to needlepoint. I’ve done needlepoint, cross stitch and all that stuff and there are only so many pillows to make or samplers to stitch. Being busy for the sake of being busy seemed the order of the day in Victorian times, but then that was before they had radio or television. (Though I try to leave my 21st century mindset behind when I read a novel set in the past, clearly I don’t always manage it.)

The “Growlery,” by the way, is a place in Bleak House reserved for Esther’s guardian, the master of the house. When an “ill wind” blows, Esther’s guardian retires to his growlery and everyone knows to leave him alone so he can get his mood right. I love this idea!

Dickens is brilliant in the use of names. You can probably tell whether the following characters are sensible or foolish -- Mr. Skimpole, Mr. Turveydrop, Mr. Guppy, Mrs. Jellyby, and Mrs. Pardiggle (whose name reminds me of Mrs. Piggle Wiggle). Yeah, it’s pretty easy to tell. And Mr. Vholes, unsurprisingly, is a rodent. Dickens also manages to interweave description and humor seamlessly. One of my favorites, from Chapter 20, “In the matter of gravy he is adamant.” How many things can you tell about this man from that one simple statement? Eight words and you pretty much have the measure of him, don’t you?

In the Some Things Never Change Department, from Chapter 46 in which “Tom” is a collective name for the poor --

Much mighty speech-making there has been, both in and out of Parliament, concerning Tom, and much wrathful disputation how Tom shall be got right… In the midst of which dust and noise there is but one thing perfectly clear, to wit, that Tom only may and can, or shall and will, be reclaimed according to somebody's theory but nobody's practice.
A sweet and somewhat surprising part of the novel has to do with something I daresay affects us all – the desire to be loved for who we are and not for any external factor. Dickens led me on for several hundred pages wondering what would happen. As I inwardly cheered for true love, I realized this is a Victorian novel and the Victorians were all about duty, were they not? He masterfully resolved this and other questions in a completely unexpected manner. He pretty much knew what he was doing, did Dickens. I don't recall being as impressed with him when I read A Tale Of Two Cities, but that may have more to do with me than with Dickens' writing.

A very sweet passage from the last chapter-
We are not rich in the bank, but we have always prospered, and we have quite enough. I never walk out with my husband but I hear the people bless him. I never go into a house of any degree but I hear his praises or see them in grateful eyes. I never lie down at night but I know that in the course of that day he has alleviated pain and soothed some fellow-creature in the time of need. I know that from the beds of those who were past recovery, thanks have often, often gone up, in the last hour, for his patient ministration. Is not this to be rich?
Yes, I believe it is, Mr. Dickens.

Thank you for reminding me that people don’t change, not really, not in any considerable way. No matter who we are or where we are or when we live, we want basically the same things and each generation has basically the same problems as each preceding generation.


  1. This book is on my list, and I look forward to it now! I've little experience with Dickens so far. Thanks for showing where he shines. :-)

  2. One of the best things about my edition of Bleak House was a notation on where each of the individual installments ended. Originally, I had planned to read on the original publication timeline, but decided to do the readalong instead. I'm glad I did, because I know there is no way I'd have lasted 18 months with this book!!