Follow by Email

Friday, May 22, 2015

Bleak House

I've been reading one Dickens novel a year the last few years, and after the most famous ones they're getting a little tougher. This year's book is Bleak House, which was Dicken's jeremiad against the British legal system. It has its moment of greatness, but it took me a long time to get through, and I sometimes found myself reading for pages without comprehending anything.

The over-arching plot in the book is a legal case, Jarndyce and Jarndyce, that has been going on for years: "This scarecrow of a suit has, in course of time, become so complicated that no man alive knows what it means. The parties to it understand it least, but it has been observed that no two Chancery lawyers can talk about it for five minutes without coming to a total disagreement as to all the premises." Lawyers depicted in the book are either out and out villains or morally bankrupt.

Two houses provide the dual plots that are connected by a secret birth. Bleak House, of the title, is owned by Mr. John Jarndyce, who at one time was an heir to the suit (it involves conflicting wills) but has his own means and has sworn off it, declaring that it destroys any man who succumbs to the greed involved. He is a very kind man, and takes in two cousins, Richard Carstone and Ada Clare, who also happen to be in love with each other. They are the current heirs to the case. With Ada is her companion, an orphan, Esther Summerson, who narrates much of the book and is one of the most stolid and good-hearted heroines in all of Dickens.

The other house is Chesney Wold, in Lincolnshire, ancestral home of the Dedlocks. Leicester Dedlock is described thusly: "Sir Leicester is generally in a complacent state, and rarely bored. When he has nothing else to do, he can always contemplate his own greatness. It is considerable advantage to a man to have so inexhaustible a subject." Sir Leicester is married to a much younger woman, Lady Dedlock, who also happens to be Esther's mother, though neither know it, as Lady's sister told her the baby died. This was when she was having an affair with a Captain Hawdon, who later took the name of Nemo (Latin for "no one," not named after the Captain or the fish), who dies of an opium overdose at the book's beginning.

The plot is exceedingly complicated, but is set in motion by the greed or treachery of lawyers. Most prominent is Mr. Tulkinghorn, Sir Leicester's lawyer, who has no more scruples than a reptile. There is also Mr. Guppy (love those Dickensian names), a sort of Uriah Heep-like character who loves Esther and finds out her parentage. He's the kind of guy who proposes to a woman, and then after he's turned down, still stalks her, and then when she gets small pox sores, retracts his proposal.

There are many other vivid characters flitting through the book. Harold Skimpole, a man who hides his frequent lapses of dignity and humanity by professing he is just a child; Mr. Smallweed, a money lender who is only interested in money; Mr. Bayham Badger, a man who brags about his wife's previous two husbands, and Mr. Boythorn, a landowner who is in a perpetual battle of a right of way with Sir Leicester.

Really what we have here is a melodrama under the shadow of Dickens' indictment of Chancery court, which is sort of related to the American civil court (as opposed to criminal court). I don't want to spoil it, even if it is a book that is over a hundred-fifty-years old, but the case is resolved, even if the lawyers have gotten all the money. But there are pleasures to the book, such as those names (we also have Snagsby, Turveydrop, Jellyby, and Inspector Bucket, who is along to solve a murder, thus becoming one of the first detectives in fiction).

And who can turn a simile as well as Dickens: "with a sharp nose like a sharp autumn evening, inclining to be frosty towards the end." Or a description of a character like this: "Mr. Chadband is a large yellow mean with a fat smile and a general appearance of having a deal of train oil in his system...[he] moves softly and cumbrously, not unlike a bear who has been taught to walk upright."

No comments:

Post a Comment