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A complex work of genius
on 31 October 2005
"Bleak House" opens with an astonishingly atmospheric description of a London fog … an imagery which has come to dominate our vision of 19th century London. Think how many films and television productions use this image! But fog, for Dickens, is not just a meteorological phenomena - it describes much of human life, particularly the actions and inactions of the law and lawyers which form the backbone to this novel. At the heart is the court case of Jarndyce versus Jarndyce, a family squabble which has dragged on for decades and kept many a lawyer in employment. Dickens slowly unravels this mystery for us.
'Bleak House' has a huge cast of characters and its plot is as extensive and complex as the London Underground system. It also employs a double narrative - one of the characters, Esther, acts as narrator and comments on the personal and emotional world of its characters, while an unnamed, third person narrator comments on the social and economic ills of the era. We get, therefore, a paralleling of the individual and the social. The Court of Chancery and the aristocracy are presented as a social fog - deadening, confusing, misleading, a blight on the world. Dynamism comes from the individual's emotions, hopes and fears.
While the impersonal narrator writes in the present tense and comments ironically on corruption, greed, abuses of power, and the plethora of social ills Dickens exposes and satirises in this work, Esther's account is written in the past tense, a diary reflecting on her life with optimism and hope. Dickens thus gives his reader a sense of the triumph of the individual - a comparatively lowly young woman - over the dead hand of an archaic, oppressive social system.
Esther is an orphan who seeks to discover her real identity and learn who she is - a major theme in the book is the abdication of parental and familial responsibility. She feels a sense of purpose in life - unlike the philanthropists Dickens exposes, who rush around interfering in the lives of the poor and destitute, oblivious to the unhappiness and misery of their own families. Esther genuinely cares about others - it is no fashionable pretence. Dickens emphasises the social nature of life - no one is alone or apart from society, all its peoples and institutions are interconnected. 'Bleak House', therefore, becomes a metaphor for the complexities of life and society.
In terms of the sophistication and complexity of its plot and style, 'Bleak House' can be seen as Dickens masterpiece - though less well known than other works. It is written in an astonishingly visual style - from the opening fog, Dickens doesn't obscure his world, he lays it open as moving tableaux. At times the writing can be a trifle dense and overly precise for modern tastes, but this is a master of language at work. Dickens draws his characters with deceptive ease. He ruthlessly exposes their flaws and foibles, yet reserves a tender affection for them.
It's a brilliantly written, brilliantly worked, vast world of a novel. Complex - no idle read this, you will need to concentrate to remember who the many characters are and what they are up to. A very visual, very socially concerned, very dynamic book, if you can get into Dickens's style it's likely that this will be one you'll want to read again. Indeed, it may be a book you have to read twice to appreciate its depth. Now revitalised by an epic BBC production, a viewing of the novel as television drama may be a stimulus for many to read the book. It is an extraordinary read and one to be commended to anyone with a love of language or fascination with Victoriana … or who simply loves a great tale, told by a master.