A new year dawns, and with it we start reading our next instalment of Bleak House, by Charles Dickens. In January, we will be reading just three chapters — that is, Chapters 5 to 7 — which were originally published in April 1852.
Read along with us, and let us know what you think of the book. How are the characters developing in this second instalment? Is the plot thickening? Is this work an example of “sentimental guff”, or are you gripped by the compelling descriptive passages, sense of atmosphere and intricate relationships?
If you want to comment on the earlier instalment, you can find our discussion of Chapters 1 to 4 here, and a general introduction here.
And if you haven’t started reading yet, there is plenty of time to catch up. You can download the full text of Bleak House from Project Gutenberg and Standard Ebooks, and audiobook versions are available from LibriVox.
I’m a bit late starting this month’s chunk of Bleak House, but I’ve just caught up with the very enjoyable Chapter 5.
There is a lot of brilliant characterisation work going on here, with wonderful and detailed portraits being painted through the characters’ dialogue and turns of phrase. Most characters are portrayed as idiosyncratic, and the little old lady’s description of her landlord, Krook, could easily be applied to many: “He is a very eccentric person. He is very odd. Oh, I assure you he is very odd!” – a case of the pot calling the kettle black, if ever there was one.
Dickens vividly creates the chaos of the Jellaby household by a combination of understatement (“Peepy was lost for an hour and a half, and brought home from Newgate market by a policeman”) and visual detail (“The children tumbled about, and notched memoranda of their accidents in their legs, which were perfect little calendars of distress”, and “all the other children got up behind the barouche and fell off, and we saw them, with great concern, scattered over the surface of Thavies Inn as we rolled out of its precincts”).
Some of the mental images are very poignant. The little old lady, for example, keeps caged birds with the intention of restoring them to liberty when she achieves her long-awaited legal judgment, but “They die in prison, though. Their lives, poor silly things, are so short in comparison with Chancery proceedings that, one by one, the whole collection has died over and over again”. She wonders whether she herself will be found “lying stark and senseless” as she has found so many birds – this is the first crack we have seen in her unfounded optimism regarding her legal hopes.
There are inklings of potential clues to future plot developments. The illiterate Krook has noted the shapes of the letters making up the words “Jarndyce” and “Bleak House” and had their meaning identified. Krook’s second lodger is apparently a law writer – has Krook been spying on his lodger’s work? Or are the bundles of paper that Krook has been lowering into a well in the floor actually Jarndyce legal documents?
I’m looking forward to Chapters 6 and 7.
Well, Chapters 6 and 7 of Bleak House rip along at a good pace. Again, packed full of very visual description and vivid characterisation, and lots of questions raised.
I was surprised to find that the “wards in Jarndyce” are not to be treated equally by their benefactor, John Jarndyce (whom I presume to be one of the parties in the court action). Why does Esther immediately get landed with the role of unpaid housekeeper, without consultation of any sort? Clearly too much of a “wind blowing in the east” for Cousin John in that conversation! And why is the assumption that she will take this role portrayed as an honour, emblematic of great trust, and not as something of an imposition if Ada is not similarly burdened?
Why does Richard take it on himself to decline John Jarndyce’s offer of remuneration to cover Esther’s share in bailing out the odious Skimpole, as well as his own share? When he had donated a lesser sum than Esther, of money that he had been given and that meant nothing to him, whereas she had donated a greater sum that had taken years of effort (and anxiety) to accumulate?
I think I am meant to like Richard and Ada, but I’m afraid I don’t (at least, not much).
Back in rainy, dreary Lincolnshire, more questions. Who is Lady Dedlock, and why does Mr Guppy recognise her? Will we learn more of Mrs Rouncewell’s sons — particularly her second son, the inventor/industrialist, of whom I would like to read more?
And there is a ghost story, with an actual ghost, heard walking on the terrace!
“I will walk here, though I am in my grave. I will walk here until the pride of this house is humbled. And when calamity or when disgrace is coming to it, let the Dedlocks listen for my step!”
What doom awaits?
I think it’s important to note here that Esther is NOT a “ward in Jarndyce,” but an indigent young woman engaged to be Ada’s “companion” (read: chaperone.) While there’s no mention of her being compensated as chaperone or housekeeper, it’s clear that she stands to get nothing from the case. I believe this would put her at a lower social status. So yeah, I can see that she might view being both chaperone and housekeeper and indicative of greater trust.
Think for a moment what Esther faces after both Ada and Richard come of age. Having “housekeeper” on her resume would fit her to be an upper servant like Mrs Rouncewell. Given her background, she may welcome this.
Just an aside, as I’m not reading along: my wife’s grandparents lived in Bleak House in St Albans—one of the strong candidates for Dickens’ inspiration—before WW2. When the war started it was requisitioned, and when the war ended it was bought by the Council for a meagre sum under a compulsory purchase order.
My wife’s aunt did manage to get a look round about thirty years ago and took my wife… I wasn’t free. It must have been a beautiful house.
What a fantastic family link to have, Mark! Thank you for sharing that.
I very much like the description of the interior of Bleak House in the book:
It was one of those delightfully irregular houses where you go up and down steps out of one room into another, and where you come upon more rooms when you think you have seen all there are, and where there is a bountiful provision of little halls and passages, and where you find still older cottage-rooms in unexpected places with lattice windows and green growth pressing through them.
It is very evocative of the unpredictable ways in which older buildings can evolve through successive waves of extension and conversion and modernisation.
Thank you, Siren (on the forum I’ll keep your real name to myself!). As I didn’t get to go with them, I don’t know of any details of the interior and whether it was like that inside. I’m afraid I’ve never been able to get into Dickens—I tried to read Bleak House 15–20 years ago but didn’t get past a couple of pages. I think Christmas Carol is the only one that I wouldn’t abandon, but I’m not even sure I’ve ever read it rather than just having seen it on the small screen!
Could it stem from having part of Pickwick Papers read to me in 45 minute chunks over a whole term as an 8 year-old in boarding school. It bored me to death, but it wasn’t the only one!
Funnily enough, my mother is currently reading The Pickwick Papers. Early on, she kept telling me how good it was – laugh-out-loud funny in places, apparently (although that is not how I remember the book, at all!) – but her enthusiasm has definitely been waning as the book progresses, and she is now having to force herself to pick it up each evening. I think exposure to it as an 8-year-old would be enough to put anyone off Dickens!
It is too off-topic to go further on this, but let me just say that it wasn’t just the Dickens; that “class” and the selection read to me put me off reading fiction completely for the whole of my 10+ years at school and on into early adulthood!