In ‘Oliver Twist’, Dickens had already coined the phrase ‘The law is an ass’, but it is ‘Bleak House’ which shows the English legal system of the early-nineteenth century in all its assinine glory, ears and all. The story of a corrupt and unethical system, mercilessly bleeding dry those whom it supposes to represent, is the major concern of this great, sprawling novel, which takes in Dickens’ usual London haunts, as well as drawing in other strands from outside the metropolis into the great imperial capital. Just as Mr. Tulliver in George Eliot’s ‘Mill on the Floss’ learns that nothing good comes from going to law, those pitiful characters who get too closely involved with the cases in the Court of Chancery are likewise sucked dry and ground down, some even to the point of death.
If you’ve never read Dickens, the first few pages, or chapters, may leave you wondering what all the fuss is about. The writing is sensational, ironic, comic, and may leave you with impressions of a holiday read rather than classic literature (and you wouldn’t be wrong – Dickens was a kind of pop star of his day, with his books released in installments and his public readings continuing almost until his death); however, the more you read, the more you get sucked in to the plot; and the plot, as is common in Victorian literature, is a good one.
To hold the reader’s attention for almost 1000 pages by weaving mutiple plot strands together so skilfully that the resolutions do not appear contrived or over-coincidental takes a masterly control of the narrative, but it is the vast host of characters, of course, where Dickens shows his genius. The vile Smallweeds, the vagabond street sweeper, Jo (who don’t know nothink), the half insane Miss Flite, the charming and mercurial Inspector Bucket; these characters, primarily conceived to support the main protagonists, steal the show thanks to their being so well drawn (as befits the creations of a man whose first popular work was entitled ‘Sketches by Boz’). That the reader is able to follow the story and identify (or not…) with the people involved in it is further testimony to Dickens’ talent. I won’t spoil the enjoyment by revealing any of the plot, but I can say with great confidence that you’ll guess many of the twists and turns, be slightly surprised by one or two and be floored by at least one (I never saw it coming!).
Coming back to Dickens after a long, long absence, filled as it was with books by Eliot, James, Hardy, Conrad and Lawrence, I was slightly worried that his rollercoaster novels would appear bland and inconsequential next to the works of the great masters of psychological literature. Thankfully, that was never going to happen. While Dickens cannot compare to the aforementioned authors when it comes to what’s going on inside the mind, he blows them out of the water when it comes to reflecting the world around him. There’s a reason why we still talk of Dickensian settings and characters; you don’t get your own adjective for nothing (or nothink).