Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Book Review: Bleak House (Charles Dickens, 1853) First Look

I'll have a few posts about this book.  I wanted to throw out some initial thoughts on it.

The first two chapters are boring.  I'm not going to lie to you.  But you have to get through them to understand what the heck is going on.  Or I can just tell you.  Chancery court is where they haggled over disputed wills, divorces, alimony and that sort of thing.  Big deal, right?  Well, Victorian Britain had huge problems with their Chancery court, with cases lasting for years and years.  Sometimes decades.  The lawyers got rich, much like here in America.  In the end, the actual individuals - plaintiffs or defendants - ended up with junk.  They got smack, zip, nada.  Dickens was using this for his social commentary.

The suit in question is Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce.  This is the plot device used to drive this story and its characters.  There's not a whole lot you have to understand about it.  Just know that it involves a will and a lot of money from a previous generation.  People who were not born at the time stand to gain money from the final decision of this case.  Those people are the main characters.  Now we can move on.

After that, I'd like to point out the vernacular will, as always, be a slight problem.  Take the opening paragraph.
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. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another's umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.
Wonderful description.  It's typical Dickens, sketching out the scene in fine details.  But I understand a lot of people will read that and put the book down.  It's not how people talk today, and can turn some readers off.

Chapter 3 we meet Esther.  The book jumps between 3rd person narration and Esther's narration.  Poor Esther.  Her childhood was just awful, enough to melt the heart of any modern day reader.  She is truly unloved and does all she can to deserve love, and is told in no uncertain terms she is wicked just because of how she was born, and she needs to understand that.  The driving force behind her unjust treatment is the so-called high-minded ideals of right vs. wrong.  I'll throw in a spoiler, so if you don't want to know why she's so hated by the people who raise her then skip to the next paragraph.  The reason they hate her is she was conceived out of wedlock.  So the woman who raised her does not love her.  There's more to it than that, but at this point just understand she's considered "bad" because her parents were not married.

Being unloved is at the root of Esther.  She strives to be good enough to be loved, but fails.  That will drive all that is right, and wrong, about her character for the rest of the book.  And believe me, there is a lot wrong with Dickens' character of Esther.

More later.

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