‘London. Michaelmas Term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets, as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill.’ The stunning, strangely modern introductory sentences of ‘Bleak House’, the novel many consider to be Dickens’ masterpiece, grabbed my attention straightaway. Not only that, but they set the tone for the rest of the book faithfully: unorthodox in style, rambling in parts, amusing but ultimately concerned with the grim repercussions of the cases in the law court at Chancery.
‘Bleak House’ follows the interlinking stories of such diverse characters as the proud, bored Lady Dedlock, the lowly crossing-sweeper Jo and the flamboyant law clerk Mr Guppy. It is narrated partially in the form of a memoir told through the eyes of the dutiful orphan Esther Summerson and partially in the present tense from the perspective of an omniscient narrator. When I first learned of the structure, it sounded so unusual that I thought I would become thoroughly confused, but somehow Dickens made it work and I can only admire the way he played with the rigid conventions of Victorian novel-writing. The book transcends so many different genres – social satire, legal drama, romance, comedy, murder mystery, coming-of-age – that it is no wonder it takes up over 800 pages in most editions.
It was an enjoyable read; I appreciated both the serious critique of the corrupt legal system, demonstrated most forcibly by the unravelling of Richard Carstone, and the comedic passages, such as Mr Guppy’s unprecedented proposal to Esther. However, the finest parts of the novel were those in which social criticism and comedy were blended, for example in the characters of Mr Skimpole, who judged every external event by its effect on his wellbeing, and Mrs Jellyby, who was so obsessed with her missionary work in Africa that she neglected her own children to the point of abuse.
‘Bleak House’ was not perfect: sometimes the strings of coincidences connecting the characters were difficult to accept, and there were several passages which could easily have been cut out. The fact that I watched the BBC mini-series before reading the novel also removed much of the mystery. However, I would still recommend it as a stunningly innovative and engaging example of Victorian fiction.