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Monday, 13 June 2011

Bleak House - If It Was Emperor, It Would Be Naked

In recent times, the critical consensus has settled on Bleak House as Charles Dickens's masterpiece. The esteemed Harold Bloom, for example, cites it as Dickens's masterpiece in The Western Canon. According to The Oxford Reader's Companion to Dickens, BH received more critical attention in the second half of the 20th century than any other Dickens novel. This is quite an about-turn: I don't think anyone in Dickens's own time suggested BH was his best work. Rather they seemed most of all to enjoy the farcical humour of early Dickens, especially his first novel, The Pickwick Papers (1836-37), with Martin Chuzzlewit (1842-43) and David Copperfield (1849-50) also scoring high. An early example of "I prefer the early stuff", perhaps? In fact, Dickens's imaginative decline was often dated from Bleak House (1852-53) onwards. And it's clear to a reader even now, that something happened to Dickens between finishing Copperfield in 1850 and beginning BH two years later. The former is basically joyful and exuberant, the latter bitter and dark (though Dickens's notorious sentimentality is fairly equally prevalent in both), and with a marked emphasis on social and political satire.

Henry James, for example, was among the critics who thought Dickens lost it after Copperfield. In a 1865 review of Our Mutual Friend, James wrote: "For the last ten years it seems to us that Mr Dickens has been unmistakably forcing himself. Bleak House was forced. Little Dorrit was laboured, etc." This was a fairly standard criticism, but later critical opinion has reversed it: Pickwick Papers and the other early novels are no longer much read, but the later novels are treasured for their seriousness of purpose. Dickens was once read for fun, but nobody wants fun from Dickens anymore. And read Bleak House, and not-fun you shall certainly get.

Because Dickens is a classic, part of the canon, farcical humour and whimsy is incongruous with our expectations. We now read him to be edified, educated, to have our mind broadened, to commune with a great mind, and, to course, to have read Dickens. If Mark Twain hadn't said "A classic is a book that everybody wants to have read, and nobody wants to read", then I certainly would have, but he did, so I can only repeat it.

We want to feel like we've read something important, something BIG. Not a romp, this is serious business. A great novelist can be funny and entertaining as a by-product, but these do not produce greatness. If we call him great - and we have to, because he's 141 years dead and still widely read and some of his stories universally known - we have to justify it under more serious criteria. Bleak House is perhaps the easiest of Dickens's books to take seriously. It's very long, obviously; it can be seen to be tackling important social issues; it is plotted, rather than rambling, like Pickwick Papers, et al.; and it takes itself seriously.

We can read Bleak House and then we can talk about the treatment of the poor in Victorian London, about the operation of the legal system, about the treatment of illegitimate children. It no longer matters to us whether Dickens's critiques were accurate or relevant or not, because that society is gone, and only the book is left. Some of Dickens's contemporaries considered him a singularly ill-informed social critic: "he seems to get his first notions of an abuse from the discussions which accompany its removal" said Fitzjames Stephens in 1856. But now, it's not the accuracy that counts, it's the intent: Is it serious? Is it ambitious? Is it grand in scope?

Yes, BH is all of those things. But is it an enjoyable read? I'd have to say no. It's long-winded, it's dry. Its first-person narrator, Esther Summerson, is insufferably annoying, and its third person narration is stilted and all in the present tense. Just for comparison, let's take the opening lines from Bleak House, and then the opening of David Copperfield. The contrast is notable.

Bleak House:
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 snow-flakes — 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 the 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.

David Copperfield:
Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o'clock at night. It was remarked that the clock began to strike, and I began to cry, simultaneously.

In consideration of the day and hour of my birth, it was declared by the nurse, and by some sage women in the neighbourhood who had taken a lively interest in me several months before there was any possibility of our becoming personally acquainted, first, that I was destined to be unlucky in life; and secondly, that I was privileged to see ghosts and spirits; both these gifts inevitably attaching, as they believed, to all unlucky infants of either gender, born towards the small hours on a Friday night.

On my first reading of Copperfield, I was immediately drawn in by the tone of these opening lines. The several instances of elegant and unobtrusive wit, particularly concerning the "sage women". The opening of Bleak House is, obviously, very different. It's in the present tense. The verbs are all gerund. It's heavy, man. Really hard to read. It doesn't rise above the murk it's describing, seeming to be infected with the lethargy of the London scene. To me, the lines from Copperfield just pulse with a life and energy that's missing from those of BH -  and from most of that book, in fact.

And, of course, the humour's missing. But BH's lack of humour has served it very well among modern critics. I do verily believe that if BH had been a more chucklesome read, that would have counted against it among the criterati. The absence of that characteristic is part of the reason people can talk about the novel as a comprehensive state-of-the-nation tract. For people who want to have read a classic, it's not important that the work produce an emotional reaction, but that its greatness can be rationalized: Bleak House produces far less emotional reaction than other Dickens books, but it can be neatly rationalized as great because of its scope, its seriousness of intent and its social criticism. But if you want to really understand why Dickens was a massive phenomenon whose books affected people in ways probably no other writer has matched, I don't think BH gives the best picture.

Carey Mulligan as Ada in Bleak House, 2005

On the plus side, the BBC made in 2005 a serial of BH, for those who want to encounter a classic, but not to have to read it - I'm serious, I'm almost certain that was why it was made. It's very faithful, so you can watch it, then pretend you've read it. It's no more engrossing than the book, in my opinion, but it got an excellent reception, so what do I know? It's just I think that the exaltation of BH is doing Dickens a disservice, because it doesn't showcase him at his best, just at his most "literary".

Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock, wearing that lemon-sucking face she kept up FOR THE WHOLE SERIAL WITHOUT A SINGLE DEVIATION.

Concluding Note:
That said, almost all of Dickens's books are deeply flawed. The only one that is mostly uninfected by Dickens's unctuous sentimentality is Great Expectations (1860-61). This late novel doesn't seem to have been among the most popular in Dickens's lifetime, either, though it has proved among his most enduring. In this case, I think it's deserving of the accolades. But the best of the best of Dickens is found, in my opinion, in David Copperfield, particularly the early chapters. Sadly, there's some cringingly awful stuff in there, too, but at its best it has a power that Bleak House doesn't come close to matching.