Bleak House

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Bleak House
Bleakhouse serial cover.jpg
Cover of first serial, March 1852
Illustration from the New York Public Library Berg Collection
AuthorCharles Dickens
IllustratorHablot Knight Browne (Phiz)
Cover artistHablot Knight Browne (Phiz)
CountryEngland
LanguageEnglish
SeriesMonthly: March 1852 – September 1853
GenreNovel, Social criticism
PublisherBradbury & Evans
Publication date
1853
 
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For other uses, see Bleak House (disambiguation).
Bleak House
Bleakhouse serial cover.jpg
Cover of first serial, March 1852
Illustration from the New York Public Library Berg Collection
AuthorCharles Dickens
IllustratorHablot Knight Browne (Phiz)
Cover artistHablot Knight Browne (Phiz)
CountryEngland
LanguageEnglish
SeriesMonthly: March 1852 – September 1853
GenreNovel, Social criticism
PublisherBradbury & Evans
Publication date
1853

Bleak House is a novel by Charles Dickens, published in 20 monthly instalments between March 1852 and September 1853. It is held to be one of Dickens's finest novels, containing one of the most vast, complex and engaging arrays of minor characters and sub-plots in his entire canon. The story is told partly by the novel's heroine, Esther Summerson, and partly by a mostly omniscient narrator. Memorable characters include the menacing lawyer Tulkinghorn, the friendly but depressive John Jarndyce, and the childish and disingenuous Harold Skimpole, as well as the likeable but imprudent Richard Carstone.

At the novel's core is long-running litigation in England's Court of Chancery, Jarndyce v Jarndyce, which has far-reaching consequences for all involved. This case revolves around a testator who apparently made several wills. The litigation, which already has taken many years and consumed between £60,000 and £70,000 in court costs, is emblematic of the failure of Chancery. Dickens's assault on the flaws of the British judicial system is based in part on his own experiences as a law clerk, and in part on his experiences as a Chancery litigant seeking to enforce copyright on his earlier books. His harsh characterisation of the slow, arcane Chancery law process gave memorable form to pre-existing widespread frustration with the system. Though Chancery lawyers and judges criticised Dickens's portrait of Chancery as exaggerated and unmerited, his novel helped to spur an ongoing movement that culminated in the enactment of legal reform in the 1870s. In fact, Dickens was writing just as Chancery was reforming itself, with the Six Clerks and Masters mentioned in Chapter One abolished in 1842 and 1852 respectively: the need for further reform was being widely debated.[1] These facts raise an issue as to when Bleak House is actually set. Technically it must be before 1842, and at least some of his readers at the time would have been aware of this. However, there is some question as to whether this timeframe is consistent with the themes of the novel. The English legal historian Sir William Holdsworth set the action in 1827.

Synopsis[edit]

Sir Leicester Dedlock and Honoria, Lady Dedlock (his junior by more than 20 years) live at his estate of Chesney Wold. Unknown to Sir Leicester, Lady Dedlock had a lover, Captain Hawdon, before she married Sir Leicester – and had a child by him, Esther Summerson. Lady Dedlock, believing her daughter is dead, has chosen to live out her days 'bored to death' as a fashionable lady of the world.

Esther is raised by Miss Barbary, Lady Dedlock's spartan sister, who instills a sense of worthlessness in her that Esther will battle throughout the novel. Esther doesn't know that Miss Barbary is her aunt, thinking of her only as her godmother. When Miss Barbary dies, the Chancery lawyer Conversation Kenge takes charge of Esther's future on the instruction of his client, John Jarndyce. Jarndyce becomes Esther's guardian, and after attending school in Reading for six years, Esther moves in with him at Bleak House, along with his wards, Richard Carstone and Ada Clare. Esther is to be Ada's companion.

Bleak House

Esther soon befriends both Ada and Richard, who are cousins. They are beneficiaries in one of the wills at issue in Jarndyce and Jarndyce; their guardian is a beneficiary under another will, and in some undefined way the two wills conflict. Richard and Ada soon fall in love, but though Mr. Jarndyce doesn't oppose the match, he stipulates that Richard (who is inconstant) must first choose a profession. Richard first tries the medical profession, and Esther first meets the newly qualified Dr. Allan Woodcourt at the house of Richard's prospective tutor, Mr. Baynham Badger. When Richard mentions the prospect of gaining from the resolution of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, John Jarndyce beseeches him never to put faith in what he calls "the family curse".

Meanwhile, Lady Dedlock is also a beneficiary under one of the wills in Jarndyce and Jarndyce. Early in the book, while listening to her solicitor, the close-mouthed but shrewd Mr. Tulkinghorn, read an affidavit aloud, she recognises the handwriting on the copy. The sight affects her so much that she almost faints, which Tulkinghorn notes and thinks should be investigated. He traces the copyist who turns out to be a pauper known only as "Nemo" who has recently died. The only person to identify him is a street-sweeper, a poor homeless boy named Jo.

Consecrated ground

Lady Dedlock also investigates the matter disguised as her French maid, Mademoiselle Hortense. She pays Jo to take her to Nemo's grave. Meanwhile, Tulkinghorn is convinced that Lady Dedlock's secret might threaten the interests of his client, Sir Leicester Dedlock, and watches her constantly, even enlisting the help of the maid, who detests her.

Esther meets her mother at church and talks with her later at Chesney Wold – though, at first, neither woman recognises the tie that binds them. Later, Lady Dedlock realises that her abandoned child is not dead and is, in fact, Esther. She waits to confront Esther with this knowledge until Esther survives an unidentified disease (possibly smallpox, as it permanently disfigures her), which she got from the homeless boy Jo after Esther and her maid Charley attempted to nurse him back to health. Though they are happy to be reunited, Lady Dedlock tells Esther that they must never acknowledge their connection again.

Esther recovers, but her beauty is supposedly ruined. She finds that Richard, having failed at several professions, has ignored his guardian and is wasting his resources in pushing Jarndyce and Jarndyce to conclusion (in his and Ada's favour). Further, he has broken with his guardian, under the influence of his lawyer, the odious and crafty Mr. Vholes. In the process of becoming an active litigant, Richard has lost all his money and is breaking his health. In further defiance of John Jarndyce, he and Ada have secretly married, and Ada is carrying Richard's child. Esther experiences her own romance when Dr. Woodcourt returns to England, having survived a shipwreck, and continues to seek her company despite her disfigurement. Unfortunately, Esther has already agreed to marry her guardian, John Jarndyce.

Hortense and Tulkinghorn discover Lady Dedlock's past. After a quiet but desperate confrontation with the lawyer, Lady Dedlock flees her home, leaving a note apologising for her conduct. Tulkinghorn dismisses Hortense, no longer any use to him. Feeling abandoned and betrayed by Lady Dedlock and Tulkinghorn, Hortense kills Tulkinghorn and seeks to frame Lady Dedlock for his murder. Sir Leicester discovers his lawyer's death and his wife's flight, and he suffers a catastrophic stroke but manages to communicate that he forgives his wife and wants her to return to him.

Attorney and Client

Inspector Bucket, who up to now has investigated several matters on the periphery of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, accepts the commission of the stricken Sir Leicester to find Lady Dedlock. He suspects Lady Dedlock, even after he arrests George Rouncewell (the only other person known to be with Tulkinghorn on the night of the murder and to have quarrelled with him repeatedly). Bucket asks Esther to help search for Lady Dedlock. By this point, Bucket has cleared Lady Dedlock by discovering Hortense's guilt, but Lady Dedlock has no way to know this and wanders the country in cold weather before dying at the cemetery of her former lover Captain Hawdon (Nemo). Esther and Bucket find her there.

Developments in Jarndyce and Jarndyce seem to take a turn for the better when a later will is found which revokes all previous wills and leaves the bulk of the estate to Richard and Ada. Meanwhile, John Jarndyce cancels his engagement to Esther, who becomes engaged to Dr. Woodcourt. They go to Chancery to find Richard and to discover what news there might be of the lawsuit's resolution. To their horror, they learn that the new will has no chance to resolve Jarndyce and Jarndyce, for the costs of litigation have consumed the estate. Richard collapses, and Dr Woodcourt determines that he is in the last stages of tuberculosis. Richard apologises to John Jarndyce and dies, leaving Ada alone with their child, a boy she names Richard. Jarndyce takes in Ada and the child. Esther and Woodcourt marry and live in a Yorkshire house which Jarndyce gives to them. In time, they have two daughters.

Many of this intricate novel's subplots deal with the minor characters and their diverse ties to the main plot. One of these subplots is the hard life and happy though difficult marriage of Caddy Jellyby and Prince Turveydrop. Another focuses on George Rouncewell's rediscovery of his family at Chesney Wold and his reunion with his mother and brother.

Characters in Bleak House[edit]

As usual, Dickens drew upon many real people and places but imaginatively transformed them in his novel. Hortense is based on the Swiss maid and murderess Maria Manning. The "telescopic philanthropist" Mrs Jellyby, who pursues distant projects at the expense of her duty to her own family, is a criticism of women activists like Caroline Chisholm. The "childlike" but ultimately amoral character Harold Skimpole is commonly regarded as a portrait of Leigh Hunt. "Dickens wrote in a letter of 25 September 1853, 'I suppose he is the most exact portrait that was ever painted in words! ... It is an absolute reproduction of a real man'; and a contemporary critic commented, 'I recognized Skimpole instantaneously; ... and so did every person whom I talked with about it who had ever had Leigh Hunt's acquaintance.'"[2] G. K. Chesterton suggested that Dickens "may never once have had the unfriendly thought, 'Suppose Hunt behaved like a rascal!'; he may have only had the fanciful thought, 'Suppose a rascal behaved like Hunt!'". Mr Jarndyce's friend Mr Boythorn is based on the writer Walter Savage Landor.

The novel also includes one of the first detectives in English fiction, Inspector Bucket. This character is probably based on Inspector Charles Frederick Field of the then recently formed Detective Department at Scotland Yard.[3] Dickens wrote several journalistic pieces about the Inspector and the work of the detectives in Household Words, his weekly periodical in which he also published articles attacking the Chancery system. The Jarndyce and Jarndyce case itself has reminded many readers of the thirty-year Chancery case over Charlotte Smith's father-in-law's will.[4]

Major characters[edit]

The little old lady

Minor characters[edit]

Analysis and criticism[edit]

Much criticism of Bleak House focuses on its unique narrative structure: it is told both by an unidentified, third-person narrator and a first-person narrator, Esther Summerson. The third-person narrator speaks in the present tense, ranging widely across geographic and social space (from the aristocratic Dedlock estate to the desperately poor Tom-All-Alone's in London), and gives full rein to Dickens's desire to satirise the English chancery system – though this narrator's perceptiveness has limits, stopping at the outside to describe characters' appearances and behaviour without any pretence of grasping or revealing their inner lives. Esther Summerson tells her own story in the past tense (like David in David Copperfield or Pip in Great Expectations), and her narrative voice is characterised by modesty, consciousness of her own limits, and willingness to disclose to us her own thoughts and feelings. These two narrative strands never quite intersect, though they do run in parallel. Nabokov, after describing the ways Esther's voice changes as the novel progresses, concluded that letting Esther tell part of the story was Dickens's "main mistake" in planning the novel[8] Alex Zwerdling, a scholar from Berkeley, after observing that "critics have not been kind to Esther," nevertheless thought Dickens's use of Esther's narrative "one of the triumphs of his art".[9]

Tom All Alones

Esther's portion of the narrative is an interesting case study of the Victorian ideal of feminine modesty. She introduces herself thus: "I have a great deal of difficulty in beginning to write my portion of these pages, for I know I am not clever" (chap. 3). This claim is almost immediately belied by the astute moral judgement and satiric observation that characterise her pages, and it remains unclear how much knowledge she withholds from her narration, or why someone who has chosen to relate the story of her life should be so coy about her own central place in it. In the same introductory chapter, she writes: "It seems so curious to me to be obliged to write all this about myself! As if this narrative were the narrative of MY life! But my little body will soon fall into the background now" (chap. 3). This does not turn out to be true.

For most readers and scholars, the central concern of Bleak House is its riveting and insistent indictment of the English Chancery court system. Chancery or equity courts were one half of the English civil justice system, existing side-by-side with law courts. Unlike law courts, which heard actions for legal injuries compensable by monetary damages, Chancery courts heard actions having to do with wills and estates, or with the uses of private property. By the mid-nineteenth century, English law reformers had long criticised and mocked the delays of Chancery litigation, and Dickens found the subject a tempting target. (He already had taken a shot at law-courts and that side of the legal profession in his 1837 novel The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club or The Pickwick Papers). The fame and critical success of Bleak House have led many readers and scholars to apply its indictment of Chancery to the entire legal system, and indeed it is the greatest indictment of law, lawyers, and the legal system in the English language.[citation needed] Scholars – such as the English legal historian Sir William Searle Holdsworth, in his 1928 series of lectures Charles Dickens as a Legal Historian published by Yale University Press – have made a plausible case for treating Dickens's novels, and Bleak House in particular, as primary sources illuminating the history of English law.

Dickens claimed in the preface to the book edition of Bleak House (it was initially released in parts) that he had "purposely dwelt upon the romantic side of familiar things". And some remarkable things do happen: One character, Krook, smells of brimstone and eventually dies of spontaneous human combustion, attributed to his evil nature. Using spontaneous human combustion to dispose of Krook in the story was controversial. The nineteenth century saw the increasing triumph of the scientific world-view and of technology rooted in scientific advances. Scientific and technological research and discovery were regarded as among the highest forms of human endeavour. Scientifically inclined writers, as well as medical doctors and scientists, rejected spontaneous human combustion as legend or superstition. When the instalment of Bleak House containing Krook's demise appeared, the literary critic George Henry Lewes criticised Dickens, accusing him of "giving currency to a vulgar error".[10] Dickens vigorously defended the reality of spontaneous human combustion and cited many documented cases, such as those of Mme. Millet of Rheims and of the Countess di Bandi, as well as his own memories of coroners' inquests that he had attended when he had been a reporter. In the preface of the book edition of Bleak House, Dickens wrote: "I shall not abandon the facts until there shall have been a considerable Spontaneous Combustion of the testimony on which human occurrences are usually received."

George Gissing and G. K. Chesterton are among those literary critics and writers who consider Bleak House to be the best novel that Charles Dickens wrote. As Chesterton put it: "Bleak House is not certainly Dickens' best book; but perhaps it is his best novel". Harold Bloom, in his book The Western Canon, considers Bleak House to be Dickens's greatest novel. Daniel Burt, in his book The Novel 100: A Ranking of the Greatest Novels of All Time, ranks Bleak House number 12.

Bleak House has been cited as "the first novel in which a detective plays a significant role".[11]

Bleak House, Kent[edit]

Bleak House in Broadstairs, Kent, where Dickens wrote David Copperfield and other novels.

Bleak House in Broadstairs, on the far northeast tip of Kent adjoining Margate, is where Dickens stayed with his family for at least one month every summer, from 1839 until 1851, when he was becoming established as a successful writer. Fort House, located on top of the cliff on Fort Road, was renamed Bleak House after his death, in his honour.[12]

Bleak House, St Albans[edit]

Dickens locates[citation needed] the fictional Bleak House in St Albans, Hertfordshire, where he wrote some of the book. An 18th century house in Folly Lane, St Albans has been identified as the location of the story since the time of the book's publication[citation needed] and was known as Bleak House for many years.[13]

Film, TV or theatrical adaptations[edit]

In the late nineteenth century, actress Fanny Janauschek acted in a stage version of Bleak House in which she played both Lady Dedlock and her maid Hortense. The two characters never appear on stage at the same time. In 1876 John Pringle Burnett's play, Jo found success in London with his wife, Jennie Lee playing Jo, the crossing-sweeper.[14] In 1893, Jane Coombs acted in a version of Bleak House.[15]

A 1901 short film, The Death of Poor Joe, is the oldest known surviving film featuring a Charles Dickens character (Jo in Bleak House).[16]

In the silent film era, Bleak House was filmed in 1920 and 1922. The latter version featured Sybil Thorndike as Lady Dedlock.[17]

In 1928, a short film made in the UK in the Phonofilm sound-on-film process starred Bransby Williams as Grandfather Smallweed.[18]

The BBC has produced three television adaptations of Bleak House. The first serial, Bleak House, was broadcast in 1959 in eleven half-hour episodes.[19] The second Bleak House, starring Diana Rigg and Denholm Elliott, aired in 1985 as an eight-part series.[20] In 2005, the third Bleak House was broadcast in fifteen episodes starring Anna Maxwell Martin, Gillian Anderson, Denis Lawson, Charles Dance, and Carey Mulligan.[21]

Original publication[edit]

Like most Dickens novels, Bleak House was published in 20 monthly instalments, each containing 32 pages of text and two illustrations by Phiz (the last two being published together as a double issue). Each cost one shilling, except for the final double issue, which cost two shillings.[citation needed]

InstalmentDate of publicationChapters
IMarch 18521–4
IIApril 18525–7
IIIMay 18528–10
IVJune 185211–13
VJuly 185214–16
VIAugust 185217–19
VIISeptember 185220–22
VIIIOctober 185223–25
IXNovember 185226–29
XDecember 185230–32
XIJanuary 185333–35
XIIFebruary 185336–38
XIIIMarch 185339–42
XIVApril 185343–46
XVMay 185347–49
XVIJune 185350–53
XVIIJuly 185354–56
XVIIIAugust 185357–59
XIX–XXSeptember 185360–67

References[edit]

  1. ^ James Oldham, A Profusion of Chancery Reform, Law and History Review
  2. ^ Page, Norman, editor, Bleak House, Penguin Books, 1971, p. 955 (note 2 to Chapter 6).
  3. ^ Site of Dr Russell Potter, Rhode Island College Biography of Inspector Field
  4. ^ Jacqueline M. Labbe, ed. The Old Manor House by Charlotte Turner Smith, Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview Press, 2002 ISBN 978-1-55111-213-8, Introduction p. 17, note 3.
  5. ^ Vladimir Nabokov, "Bleak House," Lectures on Literature. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980. p. 90.
  6. ^ Singh V. (2010). "Reflections: neurology and the humanities. Description of a family with progeria by Charles Dickens". Neurology. 75(6):571. doi:10.1212/WNL.0b013e3181ec7f6c PMID 20697111
  7. ^ "Dickens' London map". Fidnet.com. Retrieved 15 February 2013. 
  8. ^ Nabokov, Vladimir, "Bleak House," Lectures on Literature. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980. pp. 100-102.
  9. ^ Alex Zwerdling. "Esther Summerson Rehabilitated" PMLA, Vol. 88, No. 3 (May 1973), pp. 429–439
  10. ^ Hack, Daniel (2005). The Material Interests of the Victorian Novel, p. 49. University of Virginia Press.
  11. ^ Roseman, Mill et al. Detectionary. New York: Overlook Press, 1971. ISBN 0-87951-041-2
  12. ^ "What the Dickens? Author's Bleak House holiday home up for sale at £2m". London: www.dailymail.co.uk. Retrieved 17 June 2013. [dead link]
  13. ^ 'Bleak House', Folly Lane, St Albans St Albans Museums, Photo numberG1087. Accessed Sept 2013
  14. ^ Jennie Lee, Veteran Actress, Passes Away. Lowell Sun, May 3, 1930, p. 18
  15. ^ Mawson, Harry P. "Dickens on the Stage." In The Theatre Magazine, February 1912, p. 48. Accessed 26 Jan. 2014.
  16. ^ "Earliest Charles Dickens film uncovered". BBC News. 9 March 2012. Retrieved 9 March 2012. 
  17. ^ Pitts, Michael R. (2004). Famous Movie Detectives III, pp. 81-82. Scarecrow Press.
  18. ^ Guida, Fred (2000; 2006 repr.). A Christmas Carol and Its Adaptations, p. 88. McFarland.
  19. ^ ""Bleak House" (1959)". IMDb.com. Retrieved 15 February 2013. 
  20. ^ ""Bleak House" (1985) (mini)". IMDb.com. Retrieved 15 February 2013. 
  21. ^ ""Bleak House" (2005)". IMDb.com. Retrieved 15 February 2013. 

Sources[edit]

External links[edit]

This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainWood, James, ed. (1907). "article name needed". The Nuttall Encyclopædia. London and New York: Frederick Warne.