Saturday, August 2, 2008

Bleak House


I've just finished Charles Dickens' Bleak House, and I've enjoyed it so much. Except for reading Hard Times about ten years ago as a Teaching Assistant, I hadn't read Dickens for decades, until I decided last summer to read Great Expectations as a complement to reading Lloyd Jones' Mister Pip. I'm not sure why that should be so; I remember reading my way through many Dickens' novels in my early teens, primarily, I think, for their rich characterization and their elaborate, suspenseful, and satisfying plots. (And yes, I was very much a bookworm, and can't imagine how I would have got through to my twenties without the escape and solace books provided me -- I think I read all the Dickens because Miss Ellison, our Children's Librarian in New Westminster, hadn't yet given me the early access she would soon allow me to the adult section, and I'd almost exhausted the children's holdings.)

But I'm sure I've never read Bleak House before, because I know I would have retained at least a vestigial memory of this deeply affecting novel. The secondhand Signet Classics paperback edition I found at our department's fundraising book sale this spring (with the quaint price of $1.25 on its cover) rings in at just over 900 pages and they're rather dense pages, but it's quick to read nonetheless. Not only does the reader hurry along to find out the truth of Esther's parentage, the fate of Richard and Ada, and what kind of matrimonial happiness might be in Esther's future, but there is wit and satire and lyrical description to delight all along the way.

What most impresses me, though, is the way Dickens moves between excoriating indictment of "man's inhumanity to man" and celebration of the goodness that can be found in the most surprising places. He's scathing about those of us who ignore the needy almost underfoot while concentrating our efforts on "telescopic philanthropy." When poor Jo, homeless and continually chivvied to move along, falls ill, the narrator notes that he is not an African or Indian mission charity,
not softened by distance and unfamiliarity; he is not a genuine foreign-grown
savage; he is the ordinary home-made article. Dirty, ugly, disagreeable to all
the senses, in body a common creature of the common streets, only in soul a
heathen. Homely filth begrimes him, homely parasites devour him, homely sores
are in him, homely rags are on him; native ignorance, the
growth of English soil and climate, sinks his immortal nature lower than the
beasts that perish.
When Jo succumbs to his illness, the narrator calls on every level of society to pay attention: "Dead, your Majesty, Dead, my lords and gentlemen, Dead, right reverends and wrong reverends of every order. Dead, men and women, born with heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us every day."

Dickens' call for social justice is compelling because, as well as being very moving, it is so fair. He makes fun of the pompous Lord Dedlock in all his "majesty," but shows the man's greatness of spirit in the constancy of his love for his Lady after the supposed sins of her earlier life have been exposed. While criticism is most heavily aimed at the upper class, generous, good-hearted gentlemen offer hope throughout while brickworkers' wives fear their brutish husbands. For his day, women get satisfyingly active roles and reasonably fair representation. Indeed, despite the caricatures associated with the novel's satire (especially regarding lawyers), there's a wealth here of rich characterization clearly sketched by someone who appreciates humanity and is ever hopeful than we can do better.

A couple of favourite passages:
I love the narrator's analysis of responses to any attempts to amend the legal system, with the possible result that lawyers such as Mr. Vholes might lose work. When those with an investment in the status quo argue that Vholes' father, reliant on his son's aid, might perish, or Vholes's daughters might have to turn shirt-makers or governesses, the narrator makes this analogy: "As though, Mr. Vholes and his relations being minor cannibal chiefs and it being proposed to abolish cannibalism, indignant champions were to put the case thus: Make man-eating unlawful, and you starve the Vholeses!"

And to close on a pastoral note, this description of Mr. Boythorn's garden must inspire horticultural enthusiasts everywhere:

He lived in a pretty house, formerly the parsonage house, with a lawn in front, a bright flower-garden at the side, and a well-stocked orchard and kitchen-garden in the rear, enclosed with a venerable wall that had of itself a ripened ruddy look. But, indeed, everything about the place wore an aspect of maturity and abundance. The old lime-tree walk was like green cloisters, the very shadows of the cherry-trees and apple-trees were heavy with fruit, the gooseberry-bushes were so laden that their branches arched and rested on the earth, the strawberries and raspberries grew in like profusion, and the peaches basked by the hundred on the wall. Tumbled about among the spread nets and the glass frames sparkling and winking in the sun there were such heaps of drooping pods, and marrows, and cucumbers, that every foot of ground appeared a vegetable treasure, while the smell of sweet herbs and all kinds of wholesome growth (to say nothing of the neighbouring meadows where the hay was carrying) made the whole air a great nosegay. Such stillness and composure reigned within the orderly precincts of the old red wall that even the feathers hung in garlands to scare the birds hardly stirred; and the wall had such a ripening influence that where, here and there high up, a disused nail and scrap of list still clung to it, it was easy to fancy that they had mellowed with the changing seasons and that they had rusted and decayed according to the common fate.

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