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Monday, 27 February 2012

Book Review: Bleak House by Charles Dickens

Bleak House is one of those books that you look at and consider it to be your weapon of choice if a burglar happens to break in one night. My Penguin Classics edition weighs in at just under 1000 pages (without introduction or appendices) and it really felt as though I wasn't moving forward at all as I was going through it. That said, I wasn't particularly eager for it to end.

The story of Bleak House is complicated by so many characters that it's difficult to put into a short sentence. I suppose this is the closest I can get: a long-running court case brings together an odd collection of characters (and that's paraphrasing the blurb slightly). The case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce provides the backdrop for the novel but (thankfully) the exposition regarding it that permeates the beginning of the novel soon disappears and leaves the characters to muddle through proceedings as best they can. The spectre of the case looms at all times, particularly having an impact on the young lovebirds in the novel, Ada and Richard.

It's difficult to articulate what I enjoyed most about Bleak House. Seemingly all of the characters were memorable in one way or another (and this is the novel that contains the famous spontaneous combustion!), from the pompous but well-meaning Sir Leicester Dedlock down to the brickmaker's wives, Jenny and Liz. Some of them will linger longer than others: there is Mr Smallweed who is most content throwing cushions at his wife and being conveyed from place to place on a chair and Miss Flite who haunts the courts like the mad old woman she has become. I adored the connections between the characters, guessing who was going to encounter who and getting very excited when characters with no previous connection stumbled across each other. Because of the length of the work I'm finding it difficult to isolate specific scenes but the most famous one is probably the one that will stick with me the longest. After all, it's not everyday you read about a case of spontaneous combustion, is it?

"Here is a small burnt patch of flooring; here is the tinder from a little bundle of burnt paper, but not so light as usual, seeming to be steeped in something; and here it is - is it the cinder of a small charred and broken log of wood sprinkled with white ashes, or is it coal? O Horror, he IS here! and this, from which we run away, striking out the light and overturning one another into the street, is all that represents him." (p519)

Bleak House is worth reading for the lead-up to this discovery alone. However, it's a thoroughly enjoyable book in every respect, alternating between infuriating, funny and heartbreaking. There really is a character to appeal to every reader inside, from the saintly Esther Summerson down to Jo the inarticulate crossing-sweeper.

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