Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Bleak House Readalong, week 1

First of all, thanks to Amanda for organizing the Bleak House Readalong!  Every week I'll be posting my thoughts about this amazing book, my favorite Dickens novel, and one of my favorite books of all time.

I love this book.  It's my second reading, or actually, I should say listening.  I have the audio version from Naxos Audio books, which is excellent.  Audio is a great way to enjoy Dickens -- I think it really forces me to slow down and enjoy the writing.  Sometimes I tend to skim over long passages because I'm so intrigued by the plot, and there is so much great writing in Dickens!  His prose can be somewhat flowery and long-winded at times, but it's worth it.  

Bleak House is centered around a civil case Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, that's been languishing for years in the court of Chancery.  Dickens drew upon his own experiences -- first, as a court reporter, before he became a successful novelist; then again as a plaintiff in a civil case.  After the runaway success of A Christmas Carol, Dickens sued a publishing company that was selling a book which was a very thinly veiled knockoff.  He won the suit, but the publisher declared bankruptcy, and Dickens was forced to pay the court costs for himself and the defendant!  Talk about adding insult to injury!   Dickens had no love of the British court system.

Anyway, the Jarndyce case has been going on forever.  The two main stories at the beginning are related to the case.  First, we have the story of Esther Summerson, a young orphan aged about 20, who is the ward of Mr. John Jarndyce.  The reader learns her back story, and now she's on her way to live at Bleak House, Mr. Jarndyce's country estate.  Esther has never met her benefactor, but she's going to live with him to be the companion to Ada Clare, a young lady who is one of the possible beneficiaries of the Jarndyce case.  Her distant cousin, Richard Carstone, another ward of the Jarndyce case, is also going to live there.  Much of the action is about their arrival at Bleak House and their first impressions of it, Mr. Jarndyce, and of the colorful characters that surround him.

The other story is about the wealthy Dedlocks, who live in another grand estate, Chesney Wold, which is dark and depressing.  Lady Dedlock is also a possible heir to Jarndyce.  She's married to the much older Sir Leicester Dedlock, Baronet, who married her for love.  She's bored to death. 

Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock
So, somehow, these stories are connected.  The beginning of the book is mostly back story and character exposition.  It seems like a lot of unrelated stories, but since this is one of his longest, most complex works  (more than 900 pages long and was originally published in a serial format, from March 1852 to September 1853.)

My likes and dislikes so far -- well, I love how beautifully Dickens sets the scene.  Chesney Wold, the Dedlock estate, is so dark and dreary sounding, I can practically hear the rain dripping as I read it.  I also love his description of London, as young Esther first sees it -- it's so smoggy that she's convinced there are fires everywhere, and the gas lamps are lit quite early since it's so dark.  I can't imagine living somewhere so polluted.

Also, I love how Dickens creates his characters.  Mr. Jarndyce is sweet and benevolent, but sort of shy.  Some of the side characters, like Jarndyce's friend Harold Skimpole, and Mrs. Rouncewell, the housekeeper at Chesney Wold, are also very vivid (I especially love the description of Mrs. Rouncewell's corsets.  My biggest complaint is Esther -- she's really pretty saccharine.  I've read about half of Dickens' works and nearly all of them contain a sweet ingenue who is pretty and vapid and kind of annoying.  Esther isn't as bad as some, but the book also contains another ingenue, her companion Ada Clare, and everyone looooves her -- Esther's only known her a few days and always refers to her as "my darling."  Based on the book I can only surmise it's because she's sweet and has pretty golden curls. How shallow.  

Nevertheless, this book is worth sticking with.  Dickens creates some amazing supporting characters, some of whom are quite grotesque, but I'll get to those later as I continue my weekly updates.  This book has so much in it -- romance, mystery, satire, drama, wit.  I love this book as much the second time around as I did the first. 


  1. I wonder if I'd do better with an audio. It's really helped when reading Thomas Hardy with all his descriptions. I don't know if that's the book itself or the audio production though. Maybe Hardy just wasn't as descriptive in this one. I don't know.

  2. The audio is really good but it's going to take forever (sigh). I'm not in the car that much now so I'm mostly listening while I walk the dog. I guess I just need to walk longer!

  3. Great post, Karen! I'm a little behind and haven't posted yet, but I've decided to tackle this with a combination read/listen. So far, it's working well.

  4. JoAnn -- the read/listen combination works really well for me. It is such a long book -- I like to get a little jump on my reading with a few minutes of audio here and there. I find that if I do audio only I end up sitting in the driveway waiting for the end of a chapter!

  5. I'm totally fine with people not liking Dickens, I can even understand why, but it does make me happy when someone does love him like I do!
    I completely agree with you about Esther! I like that they toned it down a bit in the movie.

  6. Amanda from the Zen Leaf told me today that she's modeled after Jane Eyre -- but nicer. Dickens thought that Jane wasn't "grateful enough," so he made Esther a model orphan. I never thought of Dickens being influenced by other writers, but it makes sense. I can't see Mr. Jarndyce as Mr. Rochester, however.