The Little People, Writ Large

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.

By the early 1850s Charles Dickens was almost certainly the most famous living novelist, not just in the English-speaking world, but in the world, period. In a decade and a half he had published one hugely successful book after another -- "The Pickwick Papers," "Oliver Twist," "The Old Curiosity Shop," "A Christmas Carol," "David Copperfield" -- and had achieved popularity and acclaim such as has been awarded to few writers in any time or place. He was a dynamo, not merely writing fiction (and nonfiction) at an incredible pace but also editing magazines, doing public readings at home and abroad, and leading a lively social life.

A century and a half later, Dickens still addresses that most eternally pertinent subject: how we live. He remains one of the brightest stars in the world's literature: a great humorist and social satirist, a compassionate advocate for (and portrayer of) the poor and dispossessed, a compelling storyteller, the creator of characters of incredible richness and humanity, the author of prose that is as readable and accessible as it was when first published. His books, published in thousands of editions, sell at a lively pace, not just to students required to read them but to those who are drawn to their utter timelessness. His influence on the world of letters, like Shakespeare's, is too broad and deep to be calculated.

Any of Dickens's books would be a fine candidate for a second reading, save the few I've never read, but "Bleak House" is the choice. One reason is that a friend whose judgment I value reported that a recent rereading of it had given him great pleasure; I wanted to see if I agreed. Another was that its central subject, the machinery of the law and those who abuse it, is -- or certainly ought to be -- of great interest to readers of The Washington Post. Another is that "Bleak House," at nearly 900 pages, is the longest of Dickens's novels -- okay, all of two pages longer than "Dombey and Son" -- and I was curious to see how well such forbidding length holds up today, when so much else competes for readers' time. Yet another is that the adaptation now running on PBS has brought "Bleak House" back into the public eye.

As has been true of a number of books in this series, a second reading of "Bleak House" showed me how little I remembered of it and how much I'd missed the first time around. As a teenager in the 1950s I plowed my way through a lot of Dickens, delighted by his humor and energy and irreverence, and those are the aspects of "Bleak House" that I recalled over the years. I'd forgotten its open sentimentality, one of its author's most characteristic traits, but more importantly I'd forgotten the darkness that colors much of what he wrote beginning in the early 1850s. I was right, though, to remember the novel fondly, for it holds up astonishingly well.

"Bleak House" was published in individual serials in 1852-53, and then collected as a finished book in 1853. It was Dickens who had pioneered serial publication (with "Pickwick" in 1836-37), and his loyal readers awaited each installment with the same excitement that viewers now bring to new episodes of popular television shows. In the United States the serials invariably were pirated, costing Dickens large amounts of money and making him a fierce supporter of international copyright laws, a cause about which he spoke out over and over again during his famous tour of the States in 1842.

"Bleak House" threw his fans something of a curve. It begins with rich humor and robust prose, in the style we know as "Dickensian," and certain characters sustain that mood throughout -- Skimpole, Guppy, Mrs. Jellyby and Mrs. Pardiggle -- but things get steadily darker as the novel lumbers toward its famously ironic and bitter denouement. "Bleak House" was a turning point in Dickens's long career (he was born in 1812, was writing professionally by his early twenties and wrote right up to his death in 1870), after which he portrayed the human and social effects of the Industrial Revolution with ever greater sorrow and anger.

Dickens was the great novelist of London. As Osbert Sitwell writes in his fine introduction to the Oxford Illustrated Dickens edition of "Bleak House," he was the "first novelist -- and the first poet -- of the great industrial city; the dark enormous cities dedicated to enshrouding a submerged proletariat, among which dwelt a whole nation of brutalized criminals and of the forgotten, feeble, and despised." This city and its inhabitants had appeared often in his work before 1852, but "Bleak House" was followed in rapid succession by "Hard Times" and "Little Dorrit," three epic novels to all of which the adjective "bleak" is justly applied, and in which the coming of socialism is foretold, though Dickens himself was no socialist.

Yet "Bleak House," rather miraculously, is never leaden or preachy. As just about every reader knows, it is the story of the case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce in the High Court of Chancery, though the actual unfolding of the case is never more than hinted at. Instead the story is of the lives touched by that case, some of them lives ruined or even ended, and thus of the vast injustices done in the name of justice. This is how it is described by John Jarndyce, the decent and long-suffering heir who may or may not ever see a penny from the estate ostensibly left to him:

"The Lawyers have twisted it into such a state of bedevilment that the original merits of the case have long disappeared from the face of the earth. It's about a Will, and the trusts under a Will -- or it was, once. It's about nothing but Costs, now. We are always appearing, and disappearing, and swearing, and interrogating, and filing, and cross-filing, and arguing, and sealing, and motioning, and referring, and reporting, and revolving about the Lord Chancellor and all his satellites, and equitably waltzing ourselves off to dusty death, about Costs. That's the great question. All the rest, by some extraordinary means, has melted away."

Chancery itself is a monstrosity, a torture chamber where "it's being ground to bits in a slow mill; it's being roasted at a slow fire; it's being stung to death by single bees; it's being drowned by drops; it's going mad by grains." Two of its victims are cousins, Richard Carstone and Ada Clare, both of whom are orphans approaching 20 years of age, both of whom are taken in as wards by John Jarndyce. They are scarcely among the novel's most interesting characters, for they serve more as representations of Chancery's cruel effects than as believable human beings. Dickens did not do caricature, as Sitwell correctly insists, but he did do oversimplification and sentimentalization when he was determined to press a point.

A third person of about the same age is of greater importance to the story and is more believable and sympathetic. Esther Summerson has never known her mother and has been reared by her uncaring godmother. She is a sweet, generous, self-sacrificing person who narrates a significant part of the novel. At first these chapters threaten to cloy because she seems simply too good, too trusting, too innocent, but gradually the hard truths of the world dawn on her, and she becomes more skeptical (and thus more interesting) about the characters and motives of some who cross her path.

The most important of these is Lady Honoria Dedlock, "as graceful as she was beautiful; perfectly self-possessed; and had the air . . . of being able to attract and interest any one, if she had thought it worth her while." She is married to the considerably older Sir Leicester, who, "when he has nothing else to do, he can always contemplate his own greatness," though in truth, despite his many mansions, the Dedlocks' "family greatness seems to consist in their never having done anything to distinguish themselves, for seven hundred years." Here Dickens clearly is mocking the aristocracy, but just as you think caricature is right around the bend, Lady Dedlock becomes likable in a fashion, and certainly pitiable; and in the end it is even possible to find a measure of sympathy for Sir Leicester.

This isn't to say that Dickens doesn't have sport with the privileged and celebrated, "the brilliant and distinguished meteors that are shooting across the fashionable sky in every direction," for indeed he does: "To be informed what the Galaxy Gallery of British Beauty is about, and means to be about, and . . . what Galaxy rumours are in circulation, is to become acquainted with the most glorious destinies of mankind." He also has sport with "charitable people," as embodied by Mrs. Jellyby and Mrs. Pardiggle, and the two classes into which they divide: "one, the people who did a little and made a great deal of noise; the other, the people who did a great deal and made no noise at all." Even those who have never read "Bleak House" probably can guess into which class Mrs. Jellyby and Mrs. Pardiggle fall.

Throughout the novel much fun is had of a distinctly Dickensian nature, but the story steadily spirals downward. A genuinely evil but believably human lawyer, Tulkinghorn, tracks Lady Dedlock with a quiet ferocity -- "he pursues her doggedly and steadily, with no touch of compunction, remorse, or pity" -- that inevitably leads to her downfall, but that has unhappy consequences for him as well. There is justice in what happens to him, but not in what happens to her. It is worth mentioning, in fact, that though Dickens sometimes is criticized for weak or stereotypical female characters, Lady Dedlock is anything but.

Like all of Dickens's greatest books (and there are many of them) "Bleak House" deals in big subjects -- hypocrisy, vanity, betrayal, injustice, honor, loyalty, compassion and kindness -- yet always in a profoundly human way. If any writer can be called the people's writer, it is Charles Dickens, and "Bleak House" -- for all its excessive length, its digressions, its sentimentality -- is one of his true monuments.

"Bleak House" is available in numerous editions as well as in libraries and used bookstores.

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is

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