Ok, let’s get this out of the way, let’s talk about Esther. There’s no denying that she is, initially, about as likeable as the organiser of a kitten-killers convention. As most people are aware, Bleak House alternates between Esther’s 1st person account of events and an omniscient 3rd person narrator. The opening chapter, with that famous description of London fog, is a candidate for the greatest beginning to any novel ever. Five pages in and I was pretty much madly in love. And then she poked her head over the trench and my face immediately went into spasm, as though someone had popped a mega sour sweet into my gob. Yet, Esther is perhaps more interesting than some give her credit for [I’m looking at you Charlotte Bronte]. Her instant [un]appeal is based on her apparent saccharine sweetness, her overwhelming mimsiness; Esther appears to adore everyone, see the best in everyone, find everything charming and delightful. Now, we all know that life ain’t always charming and delightful, it is quite often a hard kick in the bollocks; nor are people always well-intentioned. We know this, but Dickens knows it too of course.
Part of Esther’s role in the novel is to provide a contrast; she may be almost unrelentingly of a sunny disposition, but it is possible that without her the book would be too caustic and miserable because, make no mistake, Bleak House is pretty dark. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily make her less annoying. Indeed, there is something intriguing about people’s [and I include myself in this] reaction towards characters like Esther. Why are happy, optimistic characters so unbearable for some of us? The response is often that they are unbelievable, unrealistic, but, I’d wager, most of us know an Esther. Ok, maybe not someone so endlessly perky, but someone like her; people like her undeniably exist, and, yeah, they annoy me in real life too, but that is my hang-up, it can’t, or shouldn’t, be used as a stick to beat Dickens with.
In any case, when judging Esther it is worth remembering her situation. She begins her narrative with an admission that she was ill-treated as a young child, had only a doll for a friend. A stern and loveless upbringing is bound to have a profound effect upon you. In Esther’s case one could suggest that it creates an intense gratefulness for anything that she can interpret as kindness or goodheartedness. Not only that, but she is rescued from a potentially awful and terrifying future by a guardian, Mr Jarndyce, is given a home and shown affection. Wouldn’t someone in such circumstances be on their best behaviour? Wouldn’t they also want to overlook any potential faults in the significantly more pleasant people who now inhabit her world?
Furthermore, I believe that there is evidence that Esther is not quite as goody-goody as she appears to be at first glance. She does criticise people, but she does so in such a passive-aggressive way that it is easy to miss. Take her response to Mr Skimpole [who is, incidentally, one of the greatest characters in the history of fiction]. Early in the novel he asks her to pay a debt for him, and she excuses this behaviour as the innocent behaviour of a child. Now, I was close to trying to use the pages of the book to slit my wrists at this point. How could you possibly interpret someone asking a poor person, who has so little money of her own, to pay a debt as an act of innocence? It’s quite the opposite, of course. That Esther is seemingly incapable of seeing the act for what it is, and the man for who he is, is infuriating. But, then, about a 100 pages later she says something along the lines of maybe Skimpole isn’t a perfect child, an innocent, maybe he just wants to convince people he is in order to avoid responsibility for his actions. Fucking yes! That’s exactly it! She immediately adds something like, of course I’m wrong, he is a perfect child no doubt, but the cat is already out of the bag; she has given us a glimpse of what she really thinks.
Now, lets talk about the wackness, the flaws, the shit, because there is more of it than I expected. I explained what a boom moment is in my Infinite Jest review, but I’ll reiterate it here for those who missed it. It is when a boom mic becomes visible during a TV show or film, thereby reminding you that what you are looking at isn’t real and has been staged. It is, for want of a better phrase, a breaking of the spell. And boom moments in literature work in the same way. It is when the author does something so senseless or stupid or naff or irritating that it draws you back, brings you back into the room, and makes you aware of your surroundings, your aches and pains or whatever. Of course, generally speaking, Dickens is about as subtle as being fisted by Lady Gaga, but, still, even by his own standards, there are some pretty big boom moments in Bleak House.
The most glaring examples, for me, were the times Esther and her gang of bozos would randomly drop in on a poor family to, er, sympathise, or some shit. The problem with these scenes is that they are so incredibly heavy-handed; although they serve the purpose of introducing new characters I still felt that the scenes themselves were clumsy and badly executed; I felt that they were written primarily to enable the author to point and say look at these poor people, aint it terrible how they live! And, yeah, it is terrible, and, yeah, fair play to the man because he was one of the few, certainly the most popular, writers to highlight the plight of the working/under class. But that doesn’t make it good literature, and you’d expect better from a genius, which Dickens undeniably was, because he could have made the same point[s] in a more subtle manner and introduced the characters a little more seamlessly. There’s no doubt about it, his moralising, his satire, is of the sledgehammer kind; you’re not forced to work to tease out the meaning, for Dickens bludgeons you over the head with it and leaves you for dead.
Bleak House is often written or spoken about as the quintessential London novel, and, as i know the place well, I might be in a position to to say whether this is the case. Certainly, the grime and the poverty evident in Dickens’ novelistic world could be considered part of the capital experience, but that could equally be said of anywhere. Nabokov, that famous Londoner, wrote that Bleak House has nothing to tell us about London at the time it was written; that the book doesn’t serve as a kind of social commentary. I don’t know if that is the case, for I know very little about London during Dickens’ time. However, I’d say that matters little as a writer doesn’t have to have journalistic inclinations to be able to capture the essence of a place. One could say that what Dickens gave us is a fantasy London, his London, much like Joyce’s Dublin in Ulysses. Dickens’ success as a writer, and Joyce’s too, is to make you believe in his world, is to convince you that the book encapsulates something of the essence of a place even if it what you’re reading doesn’t actually resemble the reality of life at that, or this, time.
However, having said that, I did see some of what I hated about the place in what Dickens wrote. Whether those things I hated are particular to that great city, well, I don’t know. Certainly, they were particular to my experience of it. What I’m talking about is the sense of self-importance; almost everyone I came across thought that they were doing something significant or were on the cusp of something significant. Dickens’ city isn’t full of scenesters and hipsters, models, and musicians, like mine was, but many of his characters appear to share the same belief that I encountered in many of the people I met there. Furthermore, probably the defining aspect of my time there was the understanding [and it didn’t take me long to acquire it] that everyone would crawl over your still-twitching carcass in the pursuit of their own wants and desires; and that attitude is definitely apparent in Bleak House in a large number of the cast [Esther and her pals aside]. Also, Skimpole struck me as particularly London-esque character. God, I met loads of Skimpoles; y’know, people who are essentially wasters, but like to clothe this lazy, self-serving, attitude in pseudo-poetic hippy-ish ramblings as though having a soul too delicate for this world excuses everything and gives them a right to lay about doing fuck all.
Finally, it was only in London where one could walk the length of one street and find the richest people imaginable at one end and the poorest at the other. Those extremes of situation, the disparity between social classes living so closely together, has only ever struck me in London, nowhere else, and Dickens captures that in his book. Of course, the evils of money and money-chasing is one of Dickens major themes in Bleak House, as is people who live with a sense of entitlement.
Speaking of themes, I haven’t encountered anything less likely to make me want children, less optimistic about the parent-child dynamic, since Eraserhead. There isn’t a parent-child relationship in Bleak House that isn’t dysfunctional. The richer characters all neglect their children or abuse/use them in some way. On that, there is a very funny scene when a lady, whose name escapes me, explains how her children all willingly give their pocket money to charity, when in fact it is made clear that the mother forces them to do so and they couldn’t be more resentful or unhappy about the situation. Dickens deals with the poorer characters less savagely, and yet there is very little joy in their relationships with their children either. In one instance a mother wishes her child dead because she pities the situation it will grow up in; in another passage a baby actually dies; and, although her circumstances improve, a young girl, Charley, is left to fend for herself and her brothers when the father of the family kicks the bucket. The only reasonably happy family in the book, funnily enough, is the one put together by Jarndyce [a sort of foster family, if you like], when he becomes the guardian of Esther and takes Ada, his niece, into his home. He also takes Richard in, a character who I liked very much, perhaps because he reminded me of myself. Richard can’t stick to anything, can’t seem to find his feet. He is for a while engaged to Ada, even though they are cousins. Which is cool and all, even though their children would probably end up looking like The Thing.
All we have to do when reading Bleak House is to relax and let our spines take over. Although we read with our minds, the seat of artistic delight is between the shoulder blades. That little shiver behind is quite certainly the highest form of emotion that humanity has attained when evolving pure art and pure science. Let us worship the spine and its tingle.
The above is what Nabokov had to say about Bleak House. Now, Vlad was a picky bugger, and that is some high praise, right there. So, the book must be good, right? Joyce also spoke about his admiration for the great man, and I saw plenty of Ulysses, in particular, in Bleak House. Not only superficially, as a large novel about a major city, but stylistically too. In fact, there is a lot in the book that pre-empts what the famous modernists are praised for. Take page 147, where Dickens writes something like, Why, Mrs Piper has a good deal to say, chiefly in parenthesis and without punctuation and then proceeds to write a paragraph in that style. Then there is the playing around with first and third person narrators; and the rambling nature of the thing, the seemingly disconnected episodes. And surely Pynchon is a fan, because Bleak House reads like his wet-dream. Funny names? Yep. Long, complex? Uh huh. Technical language? Yeah. Crazy-zany characters? Indeed. And this is without even mentioning the police procedural aspect, which Dickens is credited with making popular. In fact, Bleak House is so forward-looking that you could probably mistake it for Thomas Edison from a distance.
As I near the end of my review I’d like to give praise to Dickens’ wonderful cast of supporting characters. His world is populated by oddballs and Bleak House is inhabited by some of his most memorable and amusing. My favourite is Mr Turveydrop, who is obsessed with deportment, and considers himself to have been patronized by the Prince Regent, despite clearly coming from a somewhat lowly background. And what about the Frenchwoman Hortense? Yes, I was very much taken with her; she is a spiteful, catty, broad who eventually sees Mr Tulkinghorn get his comeuppance. In a novel with quite a few prissy women she was the proverbial breath of fresh air. I’ve read that some people find this abundance of eccentrics tiresome, but that, to me, is almost like complaining about having too much money or getting too many blowjobs.
Roberto Bolano, in 2666 I believe, wrote about how people are often drawn to the perfect novels, books like Madame Bovary, but that the better, or certainly more satisfying, works are the less lauded ones, the [mostly] longer, darker, and messier novels [often by the same great writers]. As I recall he actually listed a few titles, and he didn’t mention Bleak House, but you could certainly add this book to the list. No, it isn’t as tight and flawless as Great Expectations, but it is more ambitious, experimental, and perhaps more human.