This is one of those books that I tried to read several times, but failed. In this case, it was mostly due to one of the major points of the book, but more on that later. However, after having seen the fabulous (imho) BBC production of Bleak House with Gillian Anderson et al (the full cast is amazing), I decided I had to read the book. That was over a year ago and it was so good, I’ve just read it for the second time.
Back to the reason I had difficulties reading this: One of the main points Dickens was making when writing this was that the justice system at the time was slow to function, costly and not necessarily just. To illustrate this, he goes on and on (and on…and then on some more) about how the various members of the Chancery and legal system pass the buck from one to the other, each taking their fee, until finally nothing was done and there is no money left totake. His makes his point quite well with the unfortunate side effect that it can be very difficult to wade through this and get to the actual story which is brilliant.
Esther Summerson is an orphaned girl who grows up with her evil godmother, but despite her upbringing, has a good heart. Once her godmother dies and she finishes school, she is brought together with Ada and Richard, two wards in the famous Jarndyce and Jarndyce case. Together they travel on to live with John Jarndyce, a kindly older gentleman, who has offered them all a home with him at Bleak House. Esther becomes his housekeeper and friend to Ada while Richard is encouraged in two things by John Jarndyce: one to find an occupation he can carry out for the rest of his life, the second is to at all costs avoid getting sucked into the Jarndyce case. He knows from personal experience that it ruins men.
Meanwhile, there is a mystery afoot. Lady Honoria Dedlock, wife to sir Leichester Dedlock Baronet, has come across legal letters presented to her husband by the family lawyer, Mr. Tulkinghorn. She recognizes the handwriting and asks Mr. Tulkinghorn if he knows who wrote them. This simple inquiry makes Mr. Tulkinghorn suspicious and he sets off to find out why Lady Dedlock is interested in who wrote the letters, ostensibly because he feels himself dedicated to preserving the Dedlock honour, but mostly because he likes the feeling of power it gives him.
This race to find the man who wrote the letters and why he is so important is tangled up with many different lines that run through the novel. There is the question of Esther’s parentage, who her godmother was and why she was so convinced that it would have been better had Esther not been born. Mr. Guppy comes into play when he sets out to find the answer before Mr. Tulkinghorn in an attempt to impress both Esther and Lady Dedlock. Since all those involved are also involved in Jarndyce and Jarndyce does that mean there is a connection between the two? In essence, within all of the social critique and simple stories, there is an element of mystery that keeps the reader hooked.
In addition to the Jarndyce/Dedlock/Summerson story line, there are many, many sub-plots. So many that it’s actually quite difficult to separate them, especially as most of them are bound together at one level or another. Dickens introduces so many extraordinary characters like Harold Skimpole (I will never forgive Nathaniel Parker for playing him so well that I find it hard to like him any more), Mrs. Flite, Krook Guppy and Smallweed (same to Phil Davis – it’s your own fault I associate you with villans now Phil!). It’s amazing how much of life Dickens managed to capture in all these characters. I often find myself thinking of them when I meet people who share characteristics or in situations where you can just picture then taking part.
There’s only one thing I don’t like about the book but I won’t mention it here since it would spoil it for those who haven’t read the book. I will say that it pertains to Lady Dedlock and that is arguably the more appropriate than my preference would have been (if you’ve read the book/seen the movie, you’ll understand what I mean). If you haven’t read the book, what are you waiting for?!? If you can’t get through the book, treat yourself to the 2005 BBC mini-series. You won’t regret it.
The is definitely and well deservedly a 5 out of 5 book.