Tuesday, August 28, 2012

What I'm Reading Now: Bleak House by Charles Dickens

Bleak HouseBleak House by Charles Dickens

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Bleak House is on my personal challenge list, meaning that I should be chiseling away at some book from that list or I'll keep putting them off forever and never read one.

Having been surprised by how much I loved A Tale of Two Cities and having heard that Bleak House is Dickens' best, it is the next of his books I thought I'd try. However, it is so intimidatingly hefty that I've had the book on hand for several months before finally launching myself at it. (I'm about halfway through this 800+ page book at the moment.)

Dickens begins by introducing several strands of story and then settling on a first-person narrator, Esther Summerson, at least for this section. At this point we are just meeting Mrs. Jellyby and I actually laughed aloud. I know a Mrs. Jellyby. Don't we all? So much engaged in her African cause that she ignores the very real want in her own family gathered around her. I love the way that everything Esther picks up or tries to use garners the comment, "It was dirty." Children fall down stairs unnoticed, the carpet is coming off the stairs in a most dangerous fashion, dinner is almost raw, and all the while Mrs. Jellyby "fixed her fine eyes on Africa again."
However, as she at once proceeded with her dictation, and as I interrupted nothing by doing it, I ventured quietly to stop poor Peepy as he was going out, and to take him up to nurse. He looked very much astonished at it, and at Ada's kissing him; but soon fell fast asleep in my arms, sobbing at longer and longer intervals, until he was quiet. I was so occupied with Peepy that I lost the letter in detail, though I derived such a general impression from it of the momentous importance of Africa, and the utter insignificance of all other places and things, that I felt quite ashamed to have though so little about it.
I laughed aloud reading this.

Meanwhile, the fog is everywhere. One wonders if that fog which makes lawyers focus on details in the Jarndyce case until the money is gone although they are still making a fine living, is the same which clouds Mrs. Jellyby's vision. It is easy to ignore the real significance of life around you when focusing on the intangible elsewhere gives us the excuse to ignore the immediate demands we find less attractive, like a filthy home or crying baby. It adds a disturbingly eerie element.

I must concede Will Duquette's contention that Dickens characters can be very unrealistic. But who would give them up for the realistic ones? And Dickens does realistic very well, when he needs to. Esther is realistic. Mr. Guppy also ... although so amusing while one is sorry for him. And then there is Mr. Bucket. Possibly one of the best detectives I've ever seen (at this admittedly early point in the book) ... how is it I didn't know Dickens wrote a detective? And one so canny and good at blending in?"

You know, I expected that I'd read a few pages (slogging through them) and intersperse them with a newer book. But I'm hooked. I can never possibly convey how great, how riveting I am finding this book. It is a mystery, a horror novel, a romance, a look at character (or the lack thereof), and much more ... all laced with a self awareness that I find startlingly modern. O Dickens. And here I thought A Tale of Two Cities was sublime. How little I knew...

As a result of my amazement at how good this book is, it will be the November book for A Good Story is Hard to Find podcast. 900 pages of solid goodness. Ladies and gentlemen, start your reading now!


  1. There's a time when saying, "I told you so," isn't insufferably annoying; and this it. "I told you so." :-)

  2. I am just finishing this up... why oh why did I wait so long? I agree it is one of his finest, at least of those I have read. Why is it not so widely read? I have a theory (and it is not its heft - some Harry Potter episodes are longer)... I suspect it is because this particular story is more overt in its Christian references and more explicit in its politico-social commentary than his others (that's not a spoiler, if you've read so far as to Mrs. Jellyby you've already been exposed to such commentary). I thoroughly enjoyed every veiled reference... but don't worry, Dickens doesn't bash you about the head & shoulders with it, it's just a little less subtle than other of his works... enjoy!

  3. A Tale of Two Cities is one of my favorites! And Bleak House is on my list as well, even though I cheated and watched the BBC mini-series before reading the book. I'm more motivated to tackle the book after reading your post. :) Thanks!