Readalong: Bleak House, instalment 1, ch1-4

Tonight we’re going to party like it’s March 1852!

We’re making a start on our Book Club group readalong of Bleak House, by Charles Dickens. This month, we’ll read Chapters 1 to 4, and discuss it here in this forum topic thread. Next month (January 2023), we’ll read the next chunk, and discuss that in a new topic thread, which will be opened on or shortly after the first day of the month.

When this instalment of Bleak House was first published, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte had recently proclaimed a new constitution for the French Second Republic, and, in London, the first British public toilet for women had opened and the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children had admitted its first patient. Charles Dickens was one of the early fundraisers for the hospital, but I’m not aware that he had any involvement in the other two events. :wink:

If you have yet to obtain a copy of the text, you can download the full novel from Project Gutenberg or Standard Ebooks. Audiobook versions are available from LibriVox. But, as always in our Book Club, any edition will do.

Chapters 1 to 4 at the ready, let’s go!

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I have found parts of this first instalment to be absolutely gripping. I love the atmospheric descriptions of fog and mud, and of landscape and city, and of Lady Dedlock’s being bored with Lincolnshire. The representations of Chancery, the cast of characters frequenting that establishment, and the baffling intricacy of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, are as vivid and as promising of legal intrigue as you could possibly hope to find in the most hyped of today’s television dramas. Mrs Jellaby makes me laugh, with her tunnel-visioned focus on a pet project amidst the chaos and neglect of her household.

Some of the language and turns of phrase are fantastic, so the reading itself is a joy. But I also want to know more about most of these storylines and characters. If I were reading Bleak House in a monthly magazine today, as when it was originally published, I could certainly see myself subscribing at this stage, to find out what happens next.

Esther, however, is quite annoying in a “poor little unworthy me” sort of way, and I can’t help wondering whether Victorians actually liked that sort of thing.

This seems to be a Dickens staple: the woman who self-sacrificingly does good and is a dutiful (daughter, ward) who doesn’t realize that she does good, sees only her own flaws, and never dares ask or seek what she personally wants (see Amy in Little Dorrit, and to a lesser extent Agnes Wickfield in David Copperfield.) This paragon is eventually rewarded for doing good and being dutiful by an unexpected and wildly happy marriage.

I’m not as disturbed by it as others in this thread seem to be—if only because I’m old enough and raised in a conservative enough community to have been trained that way. Yes, of course Dickens sees that as the ideal woman; what else is new? I still occasionally struggle with the guilt of not following this paradigm (how dare I have won a scholarship to a technical university, and have moved half a continent away from parents to whom I was… not very dutiful? The idea!)

Yeah, Victorians probably ate that stuff up.

OK… I’ve finished the first tranche, Chapters 1-4.

Thoughts so far: the first two chapters, narrated anonymously in the present, are very good, with a nice wry (if not downright sarcastic) demolition of the chancery process. I really like these chapters.

Then chapter 3 arrives and we are introduced to a new narrator, Esther. Esther is convinced she is a truly terrible human being, something she lets us know by telling us in detail of every single occasion in her entire life that someone has told her how good, kind, angelic, beautiful and downright perfect she is, the rascals.

If this is Dickens playing games – that we are intended to see that Esther is an irritatingly manipulative, irrititatingly longwinded, irritatingly selfserving, irritating flibbertigibbet – then OK. He’s done a very good job. I was duly irritated and will keep a watchful eye on Little Miss Hypocrite for the rest of the book to see her exposed to public shame and ridicule.[1]

More seriously, there’s a lot to enjoy in chapters 3 and 4: the scathing description of the puritan inhumanity of Dear ‘Aunt’ Barbaric; the chaotic inhumanity of Mrs African Charity towards her own family; the genteel poverty of Old Mrs Litigant and so on. This is good, powerful writing.

And yes, I do know Esther is a damaged human being after the horror of her upbringing – that comes across well. But, goodness, if she’s this irritating as a narrator after only two chapters, what will she be like after 850 pages?[2]

Perhaps we should read Bleak House like many people read War and Peace[3]: read only the bits by Sarky Anonymous Narrator?

[1] Which she won’t be.

[2] As previous voyages on the Good Shop Bleak House foundered about Chapter 12, mainly because of Iceberg Esther, I do have a reasonable idea about the answer to this one.

[3] I.e. Instead of reading the interminable sentimental nonsense about inconsequential adolescent crushes among minor Russian nobility, concentrate on the fascinating discussion of the events of the 1812 invasion of Russia from the perspective of some of the protagonists. [4]

[4] Though, of course, neither War nor Peace fans ever read the 50 pages on the Meaning of History at the end.

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I’ve read the first four chapters. :slight_smile:
(Note that in order to catch up, given the level of language I resorted after the first chapter to rather read a French translation. I’m cheating ? perhaps ; but I’d otherwise never catch up… :stuck_out_tongue: – Also note that I am reading the translation from 1857. Not some modern adaptation bullshit. Since I had already read the first chapter, and reread it in French right after, I can say that it is quite word for word the very same thing.)

This said:
I find Dickens to be amazing in his descriptions. He somehow manages to make long descriptions seem short, keeping interest high and constant, never bloated.
I also like very much how coming to the psychological description of his characters in the early pages, he crescendos from noble quality to noble quality, only to hit you with a brick, as the last and most noticeable one is of actually being a despicable person. (lol)

Onto chapter V

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Great to hear that you’re joining in, @Vincent_Vincent. And it’s perfectly fine to read a French translation – not cheating at all! :grinning: I hope that you enjoy the next instalment.

I agree entirely with your comment on Dickens’s descriptions. They are beautifully crafted, and some of them are highly memorable. If only more writers could pull that off!