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bleak house

24 november 2015

Bleak House is the most flawed of Charles Dickens's better novels. It is too big for its own good, stocked with enough characters to populate three or four other novels. Half of it is narrated by the unbearable Esther Summerson – an inexplicable structural decision. The wheels of the massive plot grind surely but often reflect the inertia that is one of the novel's themes, as if the torpid litigation of Jarndyce & Jarndyce infected the narrative method of Bleak House itself. I have long admired Bleak House, and this is at least my fourth time through the novel, but I may not read it again. I no longer find it sufferable enough to sit through in its entirety. That said, there are some amazing things in it, and if you've never read it, you should.

At the heart of Bleak House is the premise that an unmarried woman who bears a child ever after bears such abyssal guilt that she cannot risk the exposure of her secret. She must give up her child and even after learning that the child (the aforementioned Esther) is alive and thriving, she must meet her only once and then behave as if the meeting had never happened.

Now, Dickens is not a sex-positive writer (one of his few lifetime flaws), and he was not only "of his time" as a patriarchal and prudish Victorian, he was beyond and above his time, and helped in no small part to set the Victorian tone of sex-negativity. You have to be beyond squeamish to be at the cutting edge of Victorian prudishness, but Dickens somehow managed it. He makes the Brontës look salacious and Trollope look like a libertine. He makes George Eliot look like Anaïs Nin (and I don't even mean her private life, I mean The Mill on the Floss and Middlemarch).

This doesn't matter in some of the great novels where sex and desire are marginal themes when they appear at all, as in Martin Chuzzlewit or David Copperfield. Even Great Expectations, where Pip's love for Estella is a significant engine of the plot, is not really about consummated sexuality: in fact the whole book is about deferred or frustrated desires, a theme Dickens was quite able to deal with.

But Bleak House depends on real sex, or at least a woman having had sex in her youth, long before her apparently asexual marriage. Once Lady Dedlock's secret has been revealed, she has no recourse except to die. She dies not even suicidally and frantically, like Emma Bovary or Anna Karenina; she just wanders out into the night and perishes, apparently out of atonement alone. Having inexplicably made this his central theme, Dickens is stuck with it. The awkwardness of the situation gives the novel some perverse energy, but I'd stress the "perverse" part of it. Lady Dedlock's lack of an objective correlative makes Hamlet look positively well-motivated.

The best things in Bleak House are the innumerable and unforgettable characters. Skimpole, whose innocence becomes the basis of his grifting; Vholes, the predatory lawyer who excuses himself because he's always working on behalf of his family; Miss Flite, "expecting a judgment shortly." As usual Dickens represents a range of characters – disabled, retarded, mentally ill, depressed, unable to cope – that we just don't see in other fiction, even to this day in many "general" novels about middle-class life. That great compassion for those who have a hard time just negotiating a day's demands compensates to some extent for the appalling prudery of the general theme.

Although on the other side of the scale lies Dickens' utter lack of sympathy with married women who can't cope with housekeeping. Mrs. Jellyby, who lets her household go to ruin while she tries to find emigrants for Borrioboola-Gha, is the novel's primary villain, worse than Skimpole or Vholes, or even the sinister Tulkinghorn (the lawyer who keeps threatening to expose Lady Dedlock and ends up dead for his troubles, though not at her hand). Mrs. Jellyby's lack of domestic involvement is the pattern of England's troubles in Bleak House, even more than Jarndyce & Jarndyce. She contrasts to Esther herself, the "Dame Durden" who so loves cheerful housekeeping, but parallels a number of other sluttish situations (the Skimpoles, Krook's, Richard Carstone's fecklessness) that undermine the national will.

As I say, it's worth reading, if only for Skimpole, who is one of Dickens' astonishingly convincing creations (and apparently modeled directly on the poet Leigh Hunt, with very little retouching). But it's unpleasant about women unless they are busy scrubbing and immaculately bearing children. I have a mind to demote it from the top ranks of my Dickens canon (which will spoil a certain symmetry I'd set up with five on each shelf, unless I can find another to replace it). I need to re-read Dombey and Son, but I don't recall that one being pleasant about the fair sex either.

Dickens, Charles. Bleak House. 1853. iBooks.