Every year, I pull from the reading pile a book from the Great Canon, what the Left-Wing Politically Correct (Leftus pcius) once referred to as the work of Dead White Males, an attempt to wrap one restrictive view of art with another straitjacket.
Fortunately, that petty fever passed and besides, I think this is a good idea for all writers—yes, I mean you writing that Da Vinci Code with Zombies sequel--and especially for serious writers who want more than a cult on Amazon.
Most of the time, I end up liking, admiring, even loving these tomes—David Copperfield, Don Quixote, War and Peace and The Complete Fiction of Jorge Luis Borges.
But not always. As I patiently felt my way through Bleak House by Charles Dickens (in a two-volume, illustrated edition from David D. Nickerson & Co., no date, likely the early 1900s), I looked at my bare bedroom wall and sighed.
There is a lot to like. Bleak House opens smashingly, with vivid passages that rival Pynchon's Gravity’s Rainbow in intensity, descriptions of fog that sink into your spongy skin. Dickens’ omniscient narrator (one of two) is passionate, gruff, poetic, angry, often sarcastic, as he describes, with eye-watering detail, fog-shrouded London as it might have been in the 1800s at the coal-smeared dawn of the Industrial Revolution:
“Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits [islands] and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping, and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights . . . .”
Dickens’ narrative hand slowly draws the murk aside to expose the Gordian knot of this baggy, tangled narrative: a court case called Jarndyce and Jarndyce, a generations-long estate suit that snails through the Court of Chancery, one of Great Britain’s oldest courts, (founded in the 1300s to deal with estate and property matters).
We travel through the cloudy hallways of court and case, through satiric passages that date quite a bit (as satire will do), but the atmosphere is so pungent and palpable that noir fans might pleasurably pull their collars up and inhale the fog as though it were sun-honeyed air—what waits around that beckoning black corner up ahead, that open hungry alleyway? It’s a hard world where menace and danger await every step, from around every red-bricked corner, a noirish dream.
The story congeals even more in Chapter Two, which introduces one of the main parties—and central mystery--to the Jarndyce suit, the distant, imperious Lady Dedlock, a wealthy beauty encrusted on a homely estate in a loveless childless marriage with Sir Leicester Dedlock, 20 years her senior. This couple is truly deadlocked in all aspects of their fashionably circumvented lives.
One day, while looking over some hand-copied transcripts in Jarndyce, My Lady’s frosty facade cracks and melts and she faints away to her room. Why? And what will the Dedlock’s sinister attorney-at-law in Jarndyce, Mr. Tulkinghorn--the real power in the Dedlock family--do to ferret out yet another scandalous Dedlock secret to hold close to his blackmailing heart?
Blackmail is the main plot-pin of this story, which revolves around some mysterious letters which contain the same handwriting that causes Lady Dedlock’s soul to swivet and spin, writing from a dead man’s hand.
As the plot weaves its broad web, branching and doubling back, a huge gallery of colorful characters sweep across the pages, enough, I think, to populate two London suburbs: there is Miss Flite, an elderly lady who’s been driven mad by the Chancery system and keeps dozens of birds, caged like herself, in a tiny grubby room she rents from Mr. Krook, an evil pack rat who possesses documents central to the Bleak House mystery and who, with charming anachronism, meets a hellish fate via spontaneous combustion.
We also encounter Mrs. Jellyby, a self-styled social activist who frets away the days worrying about children thousands miles away, while her own little ones starve at her feet; her presence reveals a surprising qualification to Dickens’ legendary progressivism.
There’s also Jo, the doomed street waif, driven to despair by nearly everyone around him; and, finally, the morally ambiguous, but ultimately good-hearted Inspector Bucket, considered to be the first portrait of a detective in a full-length novel.
My own favorite character is Harold Skimpole, an infuriating. childish, manipulative con man who sponges his way through the world while claiming to know nothing of it—a “helpless child” too “innocent” and “special” to concern himself with anyone’s troubles but his own. His calculating eye makes him complicit in some of the novel’s most criminal deeds. Skimpole’s bright eyes and boyish personality are a perfect disguise for villainy. I looked forward to his every appearance to see what excuse to be an all-around bastard he would conjure next.
Dickens handles the mystery plot entertainingly, too. The moment Mr. Bucket starts investigating the murder that takes place late—quite late—in the narrative, forces gather and the story barrels vividly on to a tragic dénouement.
Still, I have two issues with this colorful but difficult novel. The first relates to Dickens’ uneven style. Magnificent and poetic as it sometimes is, Dickens’ evocation of London fog combined with the fogginess of the story and its whirl of passions too often become an incomprehensible blur. Dickens style, consisting of long incantory sentences strung into multiple clauses, often becomes tangled. The punctuation seems absolutely incorrect in places, with clauses hanging in the middle of nowhere. Some passages I read several times and was still unable to comprehend them (even when I moved my lips).
Whether this was due to Dickensian self-indulgence coupled with 19th-century standards of editing and proofreading can’t be determined here. The edition I read is not only undated, but contains an uncredited introduction and is slackly produced for a hardcover; the pages were poorly cut and trimmed—every ten pages or so, I had to tear two pages along the outside edge to continue reading (probably ruining whatever miniscule collector’s value it had). Repeated Google searches turned up no information on David D. Nickerson Publishers. (Even so, it cheers me to say that the Internet still doesn’t know everything.)
My second—and major--problem relates to the novel’s other main narrator, Esther Summerson, the pivotal character and main key to the mystery of Bleak House.
While I’m not a Dickens maven, I’ve read enough of him—Christmas Carol, Great Expectations and David Copperfield—to be aware that sentimentality in a Dickens novel is a high-running river, as it is said to run high in all Victorian literature. Over the years, I’ve trained myself to allow for this.
But with the impossibly modest and virtuous Esther, Dickensian sentiment bursts the banks to become a life-threatening flood.
Esther is another in the long parade of orphans that are said to populate nearly all of Dickens’ dozen-plus novels. With her appearance, Bleak House runs into major trouble with me. Esther is as sappy and sentimental a creature as I have met in anywhere in decades of reading. Next to Esther and her creator, Charles Dickens, even Bram Stoker writes like Richard Stark.
Dickens starts out having Esther write in baby talk. She’s supposed to mature as the novel progresses, but Dickens has laid a tonal trap from which Esther never really escapes. She seems to love—or make excuses for—everyone who passes by, no matter how awfully they treat her, and every one around. At times she comes off as a distant cousin to the delightfully contemptible Skimpole (or, we used to growl back in the Midwest: “Wouldn’t say ‘shit’ if she had a mouthful”).
From the first pen stroke, Esther’s every word tastes of briny tears, and the drip drip drip never stops. Her narration clouds an already very complex narrative with a distorting lens of weeping and snuffling, crying and bawling, caressing and kissing. Characters fall into each others arms and, thus entwined, collapse across mahogany tables and chaise longues, or crumple in heaps on the floor like rugby scrums.
A Freudian reader might find all this a mite carnal and suggestive of serious boundary issues. Those with a “hard-boiled” outlook, well, you won't make it that far. You won’t have the stomach for it.
Actually, though, I think Dickens just wanted his loyal Victorian-Era readers to cry. And then cry some more. And cry, I guess, they did; even now, Bleak House is called a major masterpiece by many. Vladimir Nabokov, in his lecture notes for the novel (published in Lectures on Literature) stoutly defends Dickens against the charge of sentimentality, calling it “the real thing, keen, subtle, specialized compassion, with a grading and a merging of melting shades, with the very accent of profound pity in the words uttered, and with an artist’s choice of the most visible, most audible, most tangible epithets.”
God bless you VN, but I must resist. Like Steven Spielberg at his worst, Dickens goes much too far by my lights; he seems determined to choke every last tear—unearned or not—from the eyes of his hapless patient readers. Never use a gentle hand, he seems to believe, when a throttling will do.
Of course, it may be just a matter of me, a 21st century man, a product of a computerized, hyper-rational times, peering through the telescope of old literature at a distant age and distant values. The question recalls to me a passage from one of Henry Miller’s lovely autobiographical accounts of life at the dawn of the Industrial Age. Though my memory is unable to pinpoint where, Miller (who was born near the end of the Victorian Era) wrote how emotional the New York males of his father’s era were, how they hugged each when they met and how they wept upon parting. There was no shame in feeling among men, no post-modern, self-conscious jokes about “bromancing.”
After two particularly horrible wars, the Nuclear Age and our relentless sense of dread, it’s fair to ask, how much better and wiser are we now? Literary complaints aside, part of me feels a light brush of regret for not liking Bleak House more than I did.
Copyright 2011 by Thomas Burchfield
Photo by author,
Thomas Burchfield can also be read at The Red Room website for writers. He can also be friended on Facebook, tweeted at on Twitter and e-mailed at tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net.