by Charles Dickens
With apologies to any/all book blog contrarians out there ardently rooting for me to make it through yet another year without ever once cracking the spine of a lemming-friendly Victorian novel, I finally caved and sat down with my first Dickens chunkster since right about the dawn of the gaslight era. What's more, I actually enjoyed it, guv'ner! Whatever fuddy-duddy prose and overt Spielbergian sentimentality I was worried about encountering ahead of time, Bleak House gave me 914 pages worth of juicy reasons (mystery, plot twists, spontaneous combustion!) to suspect that maybe I--and not the legions of easily-satisfied Victorian fanboys and fangirls I often think of as my blogging nemeses--was the one who had gotten things all wrong for a change. A nice surprise: tone and atmosphere. In a novel in which an unending and not particularly interesting court case thankfully provides a convenient alibi for Dickens to offer up a cross section of London society and embed it in what's at once a love story and a page-turner of a thriller and a powerful denunciation of greed and poverty, I think it's fair to say that the guy just about nailed it in terms of the mixture of irony and gravitas on display. This winning tone, when coupled with humorous but presumably spot-on observations like "smoke, which is the London ivy" (142), made the atmosphere come alive for me in ways that even Dickens' apparently well-deserved reputation for characterization and description hadn't adequately prepared me for. An even better surprise: the dual narrators. Given the size of the canvas and the complexity of the detail laid down in sooty pen and ink within its pages, I have to attribute much of Bleak House's narrative charm and sophistication to its unlikely tag team of Esther Summerson, the likable first person narrator, and the mercurial third person narrator who delivers all the omniscient goods. Esther, a beacon of goodness, provides the light personal touch and the hope for a happy ending. The unnamed narrator? Well, let's just say that he often wields the hammer. Which brings me to what, in a really weird way, was the most pleasant surprise of all: Dickens, like God, doesn't hesitate to kill off some of his finest, most sympathetic characters without warning here--whether they are deserving or undeserving of such a fate in the reader's eyes. Why is that a good thing as far as the novel's concerned? 1) The ensuing unpredictability. 2) You're forced to become invested in what happens to the characters on a personal level. 3) Dickens, unlike God, does some of his finest work when addressing the death of innocents. As just one example, here's the non-Esther narrator chillingly addressing the reader directly after one poor wretch has just been snuffed out while reciting the Lord's Prayer: "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" (677). Not a happy moment to be sure. However, exactly the sort of moment that makes me realize I've underestimated Dickens for years. My bad.
Charles Dickens (1812-1870)
Thanks to Himadri and Tom for persuading me via assorted blog posts that I should give Dickens--and in particular Bleak House--another try after years of lack of interest in the guy. For more on the author elsewhere, please check out the "Dickens in December" event hosted by our pal Caroline of Beauty Is a Sleeping Cat and her pal Delia of Postcards from Asia.