Bleak House


Bleak House was serialized from March 1852 to September 1853 in his magazine Household Words. While this is his ninth novel, it is the first to be published in his own new magazine and is the first that scholars call his panoramic novels, the others being Little Dorrit and Our Mutual Friend.

Panoramic means that the author covers several story lines and wrestles with numerous issues. Panoramic can also be taken to mean big. Bleak House weighs in at a substantial 377,076 words. I purchased this Wordsworth Edition from Amazon for five dollars. It contains two modern introductions to help us understand the novel more easily. There are also 348 footnotes “translating” words and phrases long out of use.  Example: woolsack–cushion stuffed with wool, the Lord Chancellor’s seat in the House of Lords.  There are also 30 full page ink drawings throughout the story.

I first read Dickens in high school English in the condensed version of our literature book. It was Great Expectations and I loved it, but then, I also liked the full version of Crime and Punishment.

The opening paragraph is 178 word long, describing the muddy streets. The next paragraph, slightly shorter, describes the fog. After a couple of short paragraphs, we read: Never can there come fog too thick, never can there come mud and mire too deep, to assort with the groping and floundering conditions which this High Court of Chancery, most pestilent of hoary sinners, hold, this day, in the sight of heaven and earth.

And after another five or six hundred words we see the title of a lawsuit called: Jarndyce and Jarndyce. This is to be repeated throughout the book because it plays a central role in the lives of several key characters. The case is so old that none of the original litigants are still alive.

Dickens suffered through a small case in the Chancery Court and knew of many others that became gold mines for the lawyers who worked the cases. One case was settled in the 1840s only after the lawyers had collected all the net worth of 150,000 pounds sterling. Dickens hoped this book would lead to changes, but they did not come until a couple of decades after his death.

In this time of Covid, a book this massive may be just the ticket. But for the record, David Copperfield was Dickens’ personal favorite. I took two breaks after a few hundred pages to read the two books reported on before this post. This is not a beach read. Not a read when you’re tired or sleepy. You need to gear up for this one.

The cast of characters will drive you crazy. You never know how important someone will be. You may meet someone on page 67 and not see him again until 594, and he will walk in like you should remember him. But don’t worry, just keep reading. Dickens himself changed the first name of a character when he appeared much later.

Dickens often pointed out what was wrong with London as he does here, but he has included a mystery and frequent bouts of humor.

Mike Lawrence

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