Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Book Review: Bleak House (Charles Dickens, 1853) Continued...

This is not the first time I've waded through this book.  I remember feeling bogged down like a wanderer in a misty wood, wondering who these characters are and how I should feel about them.  This time was better, although it helps to write names down.

Dickens was a master of pulling in a variety of characters who hover on the fringe of a storyline, each adding their part at the right time.  That's even more interesting considering how Dickens wrote.  You probably know his books were serialized.  Each month another chapter would be published in a magazine.  But wait, here's the catch.  He wrote them as he went along.  When he published chapter 12, chapter 13 wasn't written.  Pretty cool, right?  But I'll talk more about that in a post about Dickens.

Back to Bleak House.  It's long, it's rambling, but it does have a good story.  And if you're one of those who like morals in their reading, you can dig out one or two here.  Plus, we've got the makings of a mystery on our hands.  Early on you'll get hooked in to find out who Esther's parents are.  Then, Dickens gives us these hints, and he gives us details of unrelated characters who might just be related after all.  Many of his characters are harsh.  But many of them are so stereotypical, shallow and predictable that you want to pluck their eyes out.  They're like balloons that someone forgot to blow up.

Esther is the main character, she's so friggin' good you want to hate her but you are supposed to love her for being good.  Her "pet" is Ada.  Gosh, golly gee, can we have a more pathetically drawn straight-out-of-Disney's-old-fashioned-pretty-princess-lineup than Ada?  She's a bubble headed blonde (not that blondes are naturally bubble headed).  Her main draw is she is pretty.  You see, in good ol' Victorian times, that was your cue that she was good and sweet and wholesome (no brains need apply).  She reminds me a lot of Dora Spenlow, the first wife in David Copperfield.  Only Dora Spenlow was a beautifully drawn "child-wife".  Ada isn't so much a child-wife in that she's not silly.  She just isn't...well, much of anything.

Here's an example.  I know this is long, but reading it tells you all you need to know about Ada.  This is narrated by Esther.  Skip it if you want.  I picked out a few phrases to show you.

"My darling Esther!" murmured Ada. "I have a great secret to tell you!" 
A mighty secret, my pretty one, no doubt! 
"What is it, Ada?" 
"Oh, Esther, you would never guess!" 
"Shall I try to guess?" said I. 
"Oh, no! Don't! Pray don't!" cried Ada, very much startled by the idea of my doing so. 
"Now, I wonder who it can be about?" said I, pretending to consider. 
"It's about—" said Ada in a whisper. "It's about—my cousin Richard!" 
"Well, my own!" said I, kissing her bright hair, which was all I could see. "And what about him?" 
"Oh, Esther, you would never guess!" 
It was so pretty to have her clinging to me in that way, hiding her face, and to know that she was not crying in sorrow but in a little glow of joy, and pride, and hope, that I would not help her just yet. 
"He says—I know it's very foolish, we are both so young—but he says," with a burst of tears, "that he loves me dearly, Esther." 
"Does he indeed?" said I. "I never heard of such a thing! Why, my pet of pets, I could have told you that weeks and weeks ago!" 
To see Ada lift up her flushed face in joyful surprise, and hold me round the neck, and laugh, and cry, and blush, was so pleasant! 
"Why, my darling," said I, "what a goose you must take me for! Your cousin Richard has been loving you as plainly as he could for I don't know how long!" 
"And yet you never said a word about it!" cried Ada, kissing me. 
"No, my love," said I. "I waited to be told." 
If you skipped reading it, key phrases are "my pretty one", "kissing her bright hair", "so pretty to have her clinging to me in that way, hiding her face", "my pet of pets".  And in a line I didn't include was "bashful simplicity".  Ada is like a child, but sort of like a pet.  A favorite little poodle that everyone loves because she's so pretty and cute and sweet and...blech!  Disgusting.  Give me more depth!

Here's another tidbit.

...I said to Ada, "Now, my darling, let us have a little talk about Richard!" Ada laughed and said— 
But I don't think it matters what my darling said. She was always merry.

That's right, it really doesn't matter what she says.  I couldn't have put it better myself.

More later.  And don't worry, there are plenty of well drawn characters in this story to make up for Ada and a few others.

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