Credit: Kathryn Hughes
Monthly serial, March 1852-September 1853
Dickens wrote his ninth novel at that perfect hinge in his career when he was finally able to channel his creative exuberance into a sustained and sophisticated piece of narrative art. All the usual fun is here, but it’s in the service of a sustained moral inquiry into the evil that manmade systems do to the people they’re supposed to help. I think it’s Dickens’s best book and, given that it’s all about Chancery, I’d like to call expert witnesses. So here they are, the very unalike GK Chesterton and Vladimir Nabokov, both of whom agree that Dickens never wrote better.
There’s that extraordinary opening, describing a murky November day in London where there is “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 so wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill”. It’s an extraordinary image, stretching and collapsing time in the outrageous notion of a prehistoric monster let loose in legal London. Anyone who thinks that the high Victorian novel is a synonym for plodding realism really ought to read this top-hatted version of Jurassic Park.
They should read Bleak House too if they’re convinced that omniscient narrators are the only kind you find in novels of the 1850s. To be sure, Dickens has one of these, an all-seeing, weighty cove who can hover over roofs and barge through walls and show us all the characters from Jo the crossing sweeper, to Miss Flite in her birdcage lodgings, to Mr Bucket, the inscrutable detective. But there’s another narrator too: Esther Summerson, as slippery and blind as any postmodern trickster. The two narratives wind round each other like a double helix, generating new kinds of mysteries between them.
Anyone too who likes to trot out that old line about Dickens not being able to do psychology, or women, or both, should try Bleak House. In Esther Summerson, the little busybody with the jangling keys and the plain face, he created an uncannily accurate portrait of how sanctimoniously awful someone with low self-esteem can be. Once you realise it’s OK to want to slap Esther around a bit, she becomes a wonder of psychological observation. Brilliant too is Caddy Jellyby, the neglected daughter of the “telescopic philanthropist” Mrs Jellyby, who is more interested in helping the African tribe of Borrioboola-Gha than attending to her adolescent daughter. Caddy’s fierce sulkiness, her miserable habit of hating the ones she loves the most, and her sweet redemption through love to an equally scarred child, Prince Turveydrop, strike me as absolutely real.
Of course there’s nothing new about Dickens being able to create wonderful characters. The difference here is that, while Harold Skimpole, Mr Tulkinghorn, Krook et al fizz with bright particularity, their job is to service the story – in Dickens’s earlier novels the endless cameos tend to derail the narrative. Bleak House represents the author at a perfectly poised late-middle moment in his extraordinary art.
Scandal. Secrets. Obsession.
Watch Dickens’ classic tale of inheritance, mystery and obsession, surrounded by three miles of bookshelves in Blackwell’s subterranean Norrington Room.
Esther does not know who she is by birth, but when her Godmother dies and she is sent to Bleak House, that’s when her life really begins…