Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Bleak House: Analysis

A few years back I watched the excellent version of Bleak House on PBS, starring Anna Maxwell Martin and Carey Mulligan and Gillian Anderson.  Since Dickens’ novels are just about free for Kindle, I downloaded it and finished it.  It is quite long, of course, and has at least 30 characters and subplots galore, but I enjoyed it and was so disheartened when it was over.
Bleak House is the story of, well, many people, but the main character and one of the two narrators is Esther Summerson, who would be a little too good to be true if she didn’t have a sense of irony and a sense of humor, especially when it comes to the men who want to marry her.  Esther narrates maybe 40%of the book, and Dickens does a great job with the woman’s voice.  I felt consistently that her voice is sustained and he doesn’t digress from it. 

The other narrator is an omniscient third person one who writes in present tense.  I’m indifferent to that method, though I have used it myself.  I guess it makes sense for some stories, but for a novel from 170 years ago, it seems less appropriate. This voice or narrator is the critical eye.  It does not just observe, but editorializes pretty often.

The narrators go back and forth in a straightforward time chronology, with no flashbacks or jumps in time.  Since Dickens wrote installments for periodic distributions, I can see the people of the East Coast at the water coolers of their day wondering when they would get the next chapter.  There are a number of cliffhangers designed to bring them back for more.  I knew how it ended, having seen the miniseries, and I felt that way.  No one tells an engaging story like Dickens. 

No one has a vocabulary like him, either.  He actually uses the word “refrigerator” in referring to a character’s moral coldness.  I always assumed that word came into existence with electric refrigerators in, say, the 1920s.  I was shocked to see it in a book written in the 1850s.  I use this also as an example of how varied his word usage is.  Granted, by today’s standards of fiction writing, he commits massive overkill in description.  But it’s so luscious, so rich. 

The story is part satire, part domestic drama, part social commentary, part Greek tragedy, part political diatribe.  The inequities, inefficiencies, and injustice of the English court system are on trial here.  The famous line, “The one great principle of English law is to make business for itself,” sums up Dickens’ attitude.   The story of an interminable court case around a disputed family inheritance that results in all the assets being eaten up by the court costs and lawyers (solicitors) symbolizes his frustration and anger.  

That is the social situation, and all the many characters are somehow affected by it (except the Jellybys and Turveydrops, mentioned below).  Esther Summerson is an orphan whose guardian, John Jarndyce, also takes into his care another young woman, Ada Clare, who is also his cousin.  Another cousin, Richard Carstone, is attracted to Ada.  The three cousins are at least potential heirs to the Jarndyce estate, but the guardian, who is probably in his sixties, wants nothing to do with it and is well off enough.  Richard and Ada are falling in love in the early chapters.  Esther’s place is to be a companion to Ada; the girls are devoted to each other.  Esther is also a sort of overseer of John Jarndyce’s home, so the four are living a happy existence in Bleak House (an odd name). 

Unfortunately, Richard cannot settle on a career and firmly believes he will come into a fortune when the case is settled.  He eventually breaks with John Jarndyce because Richard cannot accept his direction to, basically, get a job and quit pinning his hopes on the nonexistence inheritance.  Richard, after stints as a doctor and a lawyer in training, enters the military.  He is no good with money and gets more and more in debt, eventually leaving the military to pursue the court case full time with the help of a lawyer.   Although he, in time, gets Ada to marry him and they try to live off of her inheritance, he dies from the 19th century disease I call "conveniencia."  He needs to die so she can get on with her life and Dickens can get on with the plot.  He apparently just wears himself out with the hopeless case. 

Lawyers come off very badly in the book.  Dickens probably would have agreed with Shakespeare:  The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.  As do child labor in Oliver Twist and debtor’s prison in Little Dorrit, the lawyers get the full brunt of Dickens’ wit and vocabulary.  These parts can be funny but fall into the “tell don’t show" mode that fiction writers are warned against. He can get off on tangents here.

But back to the plot.  Concurrently with the above action, we have the stories of Lord and Lady Dedlock (what a name), Leicester and Honoria, the aristocracy of the neighborhood around Bleak House.  They have, of course, a country home, Chesney Wold, and a town home.  Honoria is beautiful, gracious, admired, charming, but not exactly vivacious.  Clearly a mantle of sadness lays over her, but Lord Dedlock loves her deeply and sees no fault in her.  Lord Dedlock appears for much of the book to be one-dimensional, but his character fleshes out later in the book.  His lawyer, Tulkinghorne, haunts the story and Lady Dedlock, because Tulkinhorne is always looking for information (but in a way to keep his hands clean) and comes into some intelligence that changes the lives of most of the characters. 

The third plotline has to do with a former soldier and his associates.  The soldier, Mr. George, owns a shooting gallery and a place for training in fencing and swordsmanship.  Richard is one of his clients as he trains for military service (obviously gentleman went into the military in an entirely inefficient way back then).  Mr. George also  is friends with a former fellow soldier and his wife, “the old girl” and children.  And of course, Mr. George has secrets of his own.  What would an English novel be without secrets in the past?

The fourth plotline has to do with a junk man who rents rooms to Miss Flite, one of the potential heirs.  Miss Flite has twenty-some birds in her room, does nothing but go to court, and is very poor.  The other rentor is dead at the beginning of the book. He is a law-copier, and in his room are found some letters to, well, an Honoria.  Is it the same Honoria? This plotline is complicated when the junk man dies through spontaneous combustion (yes, you read that right), and his weird family that all seem to have tuberculosis or some bone disease takes over his shop, also trying to make money from the letters they find.  Mr. Tulkinghorne wants them as well. 

Related to this plotline is perhaps another, that of brickmakers and street urchins in the city.  The brickmakers abuse their wives; the street urchin, Jo, is pursued by Tulkinghorne because he helped Lady Dedlock find the grave of the lawcopier.   However, Lady Dedlock had dressed up like her lady’s maid to disguise herself.  A detective gets involved; he is at first rather a bad guy but redeems himself in the end.  Tulkinghorne pretends to be concerned about the reputation of the Dedlock family and is willing to protect Honoria—to a point and until he can use it against her.

The fifth plotline really seems to have little to do with any of the rest of it.  A family named Jellyby is befriended by Esther and Ada through their guardian’s previous knowledge of them.  Mrs. Jellyby is only concerned about some benighted tribe in Africa and spends all day writing letters to raise funds for them. She treats her teenaged daughter like a slave secretary, and ignores the rest of the family and the home, which is in total disarray (her ineffectual husband still manages to get her pregnant, though).  The daughter, Cady, is befriended by Esther and Ada and starts to have a life.  She meets a young man whose father runs a dancing school and eventually marries him.  The father doesn’t really run the dancing school.  He is a dandy who named his some Prince after the Prince Regent and does absolutely nothing but make sure he’s dressed nicely.  The son, Prince, does all the work, as does Cady when she marries. 

I really have no idea why this plotline is in the book, other than for Dickens to satirize the do-gooders of his time who were more concerned about people they didn’t know 1000 miles away but not the poverty and need under their own noses in England.  The do-gooders associate with other progressive types, such as feminists and suffragists.  Dickens, I think, wrote some wonderful female characters but I think he also liked his women submissive; if they had to be strong, they were strong in character and service to family and community, not troublemakers. 

So, with all these plotlines, you can see why there are so many characters.  The key relationship, however, is that Lady Dedlock had a child out of wedlock (ha, that rhymes, doesn’t it?) before meeting Lord Dedlock and becoming his pride and joy.  And of course no one knows this.  She is told that the baby died when it was born, but it did not.  Her sister took the baby and hid it, having it raised by another woman; her sister later married one of Lord Dedlock’s neighbors (who had constant disputes over land boundaries). 

It’s not hard to guess who the baby ended up being, but actually it's quite a shock in the story context. Some of the characters note the resemblance, but no one could imagine such a thing of Lady Dedlock.  When Lady Dedlock finally learns the truth and confesses it to Esther, she demands that Esther never tell anyone or act like they are mother and daughter.  Esther takes this in stride; she realistically does not express great grief over this, since she had never known her anyway.

Esther has four admirers in the book.  First, Mr. Guppy, a lawyer in training, who proposes to her, and she refuses him.  After she suffers through smallpox and loses her looks from it, he makes sure that she does not hold him to the proposal.  This is quite funny.  Then she becomes engaged to Mr. Jarndyce, despite the differences in their ages, but he never really seems to want to go through with it.  Mr. George admires her, but that doesn’t go anywhere and he lets her off the hook so she can marry someone else in the end.  Finally, she marries Alan Woodcourt, a doctor who distinguished himself as a hero during a shipwreck while serving as ship’s physician.

And of yes.  Mr. George is really the long lost son of the Dedlock’s housekeeper.  His brother is an industrialist who wants his son to marry Lady Dedlock’s maid. I had a professor who talked about the magic in the web; that is Dickens, with all its interconnectedness of life and relationships and how movement in one part affects it all.

Wow, you say.  Yes.  And here’s a list of the characters.

Esther Summerson

Ada Clare

John Jarndyce

Richard Carstone

Mr. Skimpole and his wife and four daughters (a freeloading friend of Jarndyce’s; his point seems to be as a drag on Richard’s money)

Miss Flite

Mr. George

Phil, Mr. George’s assistant

The Bagnets, George’s friends (five of them)

Mr. Rouncewell

Mrs. Rouncewell

Lady Dedlock

Lord Dedlock

Volumnia Dedlock (his sister, again, what a name)

Lady Dedlock’s French maid, Hortense

Lady Dedlock’s little companion/surrogate daughter, Rose

Cady Jellyby

Mrs. Jellyby

Mr. Jellyby (and their kids)

A young man who is Cady’s supposed suitor

Prince Turveydrop

Mr. Turveydrop

Jo, street urchin

Mr. Bucket, detective

Junk Man, Krook, who explodes

Mr. Guppy

Mr. Guppy’s friend Weevil

Junk man’s wife’s family (five of them), the Smallweeds


Conversation Kenge (Guppy’s boss)

The brickmakers (two men and their wives)

Mr. Woodcourt, doctor

Mrs. Woodcourt, his mother

Mr. Vholes (Richard’s solicitor)

Mr. Snagsby (stationer)

Mrs. Snagsby

Guster, their epileptic maid

Mr. Chadband, a fat, talkative preacher

Mrs. Chadband, his wife, who had known Lady’s Dedlock’s sister and figured out about Esther

Mr. Boythorn, Jarndyce’s neighbor who hates the Dedlocks

So, how long did it take me to read it? A month. And I don’t read in long bursts. 

Other than to satirize and skewer the legal system, I have to wonder if Dickens also was asking, why should Lady Dedlock suffer so much for her sin and lose everything because of having a child out of wedlock?  Did Dickens have a feminist streak in him, noting the injustice toward her?  She runs away when her secret is revealed—and oh, yes, Tulkinghorne is murdered, but not by her or George, the suspects—and this leads to a frantic chase by Bucket and Esther to find her mother, who is found dead from exposure near the grave of her lover.  Lord Dedlock has apparently had a breakdown or stroke over her departure, but wants her back. He truly loves her above all else, even if he can’t see beyond his social class.  (Tulkinghorne is murdered by the French maid.)

I have started reading novels from the 19th century.  It probably isn’t good for my own fiction writing, because the sentences are too long and convoluted (apparently even the “common” people could read that kind of thing for pleasure back then).  The experience, however, is the epitome of getting lost in a book. 

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