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The Great Book Adventure: Bleak House – Part Three

Whew! Well, really, what else can you say after reading a 360,947-word book in a little over a month?

To be clear, I’m a slow reader, but that has more to do with me reading carefully than any lack of intellect (or so I’m fond of telling myself). Nevertheless, I was mentally exhausted by the time I came within 100 pages of Bleak House‘s conclusion. As much as I was still interested in the story, and as much as I was surprised by some of the twists and turns it took, I was ready for it to finish long before it did. I think, however, this feeling had something to do with reading it all in one go, as opposed to the way it was originally presented.

Between March 1852 and September 1853, Bleak House was published as a serialization. Its 20 sections appeared once a month for nineteen months, with the last issue a double. The first edition of the single book form didn’t appear until late 1853, after the serials had made the rounds. It’s no wonder people are intimidated by Dickens, and no wonder I felt worn down by the scope of the novel.

The book’s first audience would have spent a year and a half on the story, rather than a few weeks. In retrospect, I think the novel might be more enjoyable if spread out more. There are so many characters so interconnected, it’s overwhelming to force them all through your consciousness so quickly.

With more time, the reader can become more invested in each of the various plot lines. It could even add some additional surprise in places, as small details are forgotten until their importance is brought out. Like watching a favorite TV series, the reader can become engrossed in the story, but still take a breather between episodes. Nevertheless, it’s worth pointing out that Dickens did not conceive the story in a piecemeal fashion, but as a coherent whole.

Aside from having a great logo, Penguin Classics also has a propensity for including illuminating commentary and information in their editions. In this case, they reproduced Dickens’ original outline of Bleak House as an appendix. It is fascinating to look at and a great follow up to the story.

The notes are relatively spare, especially given the size of the book, but all the major points are there. The author often asks questions of himself and then answers them. Things like “Miss Flite-Her friend? Not yet”, meaning he put off this particular character until a later chapter. Taken on the whole, it functions as something of a map, pinpointing when and to what extent the characters come and go. More importantly, however, it shows the author knew exactly what he was doing when he sat down to write. Oh, he may not have known the precise words, but he certainly knew what would happen.

In the notes for Chapter Three, he mentions one of the principal secrets of the book, the revelation of which pretty nearly marks the novel’s halfway point, and certainly defines much of the central action. As both a reader and a writer, the illumination provided by the notes only added to the esteem I felt for Mr. Dickens.

These days, some authors make it a point to explain their writing process in detail. Personally, I think writers lose something of their magic when they talk too much about their own writing. In this case, however, Dickens is such a towering figure and the notes are so brief, it only adds to the mysticism. It’s like finding the wizard’s spell book, but only recognizing every other word.

As I neared the end of the book, however, there was one criticism that continually niggled in my mind, despite my admiration. The more I read, the more difficult it became for me to find Esther Summerson believable. Esther is one of the main characters; indeed, she is one of the two narrators. She is writing as though she were telling the story of her life to an unknown someone.

What bothers me is that she shows almost no negative emotion of any kind. No anger, no bitterness, no regret. Her whole character is directed outward. She is a teacher, a housekeeper, and a mentor, constantly concerned for those around her. She refuses to let herself feel sorry or sad for her situation. She shows plenty of emotion — she sobbed more times than I could count — but it is always over the difficulties of others.

I’m probably going to sound like a cynic here, but she just ends up being too good, too caring. Having spent so much time with her and never seeing her truly let her guard down (which I suppose is the Victorian way) left me a little frustrated. While all the other characters experience change on some level, Esther’s personality stays relatively static. Of course, that may just be the point. Perhaps she remains so constant in order to serve as the axis, around which all the action rotates.

I understand now why so many people love Dickens. I understand, too, why so many others are afraid of him. In Bleak House, the writing is engaging and the story fascinatingly complex. So many lives become so interconnected that the reader can’t help but become one of them. At the same time, the novel has the power to overwhelm for those very same reasons. To the casual, modern day reader, a work this long seems out of reach. If you stop to consider its origins, however, and allow yourself to take your time, I think you’ll find the company of Bleak House and Mr. Dickens more than satisfactory.

About Chris Bancells

  • http://bookcrazy.wordpress.com BookCrazy

    I have unfortunately read only one Dickens – Hard times. I too thought that the story could have been shorter, though in the end I had no complaints.

    I have had ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ on my unread pile for quite sometime now. I guess I must pick it up soon

  • Scott Cunningham

    I just finished this, also read it in just under 2 weeks. I’ve been reading some criticism on it since finishing, and most of the negative comments are concerned with Esther’s character. I wonder though, if she isn’t written with tongue a bit in cheek.

    I know Dickens can write these idealized women totally straight (see Lucy Manette) but a few things about Esther make me wonder…. That she would so frequently make claims that the reader either knows very well are untrue, or soon finds out are untrue, or every other character denies are true, makes me think that Dickens is showing this excessive modesty to be more of an endearing character quirk than a model for how a woman should be.

    The last line especially, after Guppy has renewed his pursuit and Esther has become mistress of Bleak House, she almost slips into allowing a complement, but at the last minute equivocates. It’s just too much to read with a straight face, and I can’t believe that an author with such a highly developed sense of humor as Dickens has could have written it that way either.