“LONDON. Michaelmas Term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather.”
EVEN in the opening lines above, the style is strikingly modern, almost casual, just taking aim as it were, Hemingway might have approved. The linocut is from the brickmaker’s house.
Spurred on by the 2005 BBC TV drama of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, inspired by its cameos of overacting, its period settings and costumes, its sprinkling of dialogues from another time, its sense of intrigues, I sought out the original novel, curious to see what had been altered and adapted. Had it been improved? Could it still be relevant? Or is it now just a milestone on the journey of British writing? Has TV triumphed over literature and buried it? The answer, for me, is a big no.
It is an epic of nearly 1000 pages. The TV adaptation runs to 15 episodes even so I was expecting chunks to have been set aside and left on the cutting room floor. Of course TV being TV, the plot has been reworked and re-focused. The order of revelations changed. Most crucially it managed to miss the social satire, the whole point really of the novel itself which contemporaries would have read with huge guffaws and bravos like an Elizabethan theatre audience. I read, as they would have done, in small extracts, like a magazine episode. It was helpful to know the direction of travel in broad terms from the TV, a bit like taking a train journey a second time when you get more of a chance to check the changing view outside and meet other travellers.
The central point is in the title. It is a Bleak House. The book is not about a house but a nation, Albion herself, a point in empirical history. England and the home countries are mired in a fund of hopeless stasis, the rich unaware, the middle class aspirants strangled in legalities, the poor very poor, the whole sorry mess summed up by the foppish Harold Skimpole who maintains his innocence as being like a child, unable to grasp his own responsibilities, a leach on others, clueless to the enormity of what is going on around him. Or Richard’s befuddled understanding of money.
Affections run through on different scales between Esther and Ada and Richard and Maddy and platonically in the distant warmth and compassion of their guardian. The deeper theme is hereditary, loss and gain. Families in hovels and families in mansions. Those who know their histories and those, like poor Joe, who don’t.
We have a need of a guardian to take us through this madness, “the crowning confusion of this great confused city”. We have cousin John Jarndyce to help, always there with endless patience and money but also secretive, nervous of any east wind, generous but hardly unmarked.
We are on page 296 before we get to the nub of the plot, or not so much arrive at, as have it shuffle in quietly and politely around the edges, a wall flower at the ball. A storm breaks:
“…the wind awoke, and bent the trees, and drove the rain before it like a cloud of smoke; and to hear the solemn thunder, and to see the lightning….and seemed to make creation new again”.
As it will.
It is 170 years since that sentence was written, in its entirety 83 words long, it includes seven ands, seven commas; plus two semi colons. Conspicuously Dickens rarely uses adjectives. A leaf is a leaf, it is not red or brown, although sometimes it is large. The descriptions of buildings and countryside are like a painter giving himself the time to include chimney, breast, smoke, brick, a cat on the roof, his descriptons are as expansive as a man blowing out a long draw on a cigar… So too with his characters, no one is allowed in who does not get a minimum of a chunky paragraph of description.
“The apt old scholar of the old school, with his dull black breeches tied with ribbons at the knees, his large black waistcoat, his long sleeved black coat, and his wisp of limp white neck-kerchief tied in the bow the Peerage knows so well….”
The drama is subtle, brooding, it wells up, you know it is coming even before you know it is coming, you fear and hope for everyone concerned. There is menace.
The TV plot throws a lot of those toys out of the pram. It made a pantomime out of a satire, caricatured the cartoon, denied the drama.
The main joke on TV was who was playing what part and how far would they camp it up – most regally with X-Files Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock, soberly with Holby City’s Denis Lawson as John Jarndyce, while Jed from East Enders turns up as Burn Gorman as Guppy. Little wonder our narrator Anna Maxwell of Motherland is confused as Esther
And this is a brave book for a male author with female characters to the the fore, their destinies prescribed by their sex, where the men are prescribed, corsetted even, by their buildings.
This is accurate social history of attitudes and mores, it wells up to talk to us of what it really was like in those days, here is the guts, the blood, the sinews of 1852….Lord Dedlock’s descendants, for all I know, still rise in the House of Lords
Feel the full horror in Esther’s staccato delivery on the poverty in the brickmakers house, as sharp and poignant as Hogarth’s Gin Street cartoon of 100 years earlier, the more so coming from the innocence of adolescence.
“Beside ourselves in this damp offensive room – a woman with a black eye, nursing a poor little gasping baby by the fire, a man, all stained with clay and mud, and looking very dissipated, lying full length on the ground…a powerful young man fastening a collar on a dog: and a bold girl doing some kind of washing in very dirty water.”
And visual too: Hortense storms off barefoot in a huff into the rain to wade across the sodden grass. What is her secret, what is the French connection? And humour as in Guppy’s disastrous first proposal. Or Mr Chadband’s eating habits.
Scholars enjoy picking out Shakespearian references but those would mostly have been part of the vernacular to a book buying, theatre going circle. There is one totemic Shakespearian figure who looms large, adopted in a way by Dickens as his voice. And that is Falstaff. Dickens is telling his story as if in Falstaff’s voice. It is Dickens’ stage. He is moving people around, shifting scenes, poking endless fun. Each paragraph has the tone and construction of telling a joke or anecdote, not perhaps so much in today’s sense of leading up to a punch line – often the point is half way through and the rest of the paragraph is just rolling in the aisles at how funny that was. There is an intimate shared camaraderie of lifting up the lid on life’s eccentricities, the fun of the reveal.
Imagine this being read in weekly episodes in a gentleman’s club, or aloud in a drawing room with large roaring wood fire. The architecture and ambition of the sentence construction – like an opera singer who has trained her voice to reach heights others cannot – casts a long shadow over much of what is published today.
To say this is fine writing is to belittle it. How many others have matched it? Dickens is the genius of a chronicler, a reporter at large (which in a sense he was) our confidante reporting back to us now on Victorian eccentricities.
If you don’t want to embark on the whole massive odyssey, I might urge you to read just one chapter – perhaps 20 The New Lodger which is free here.
Guppy is meeting an old pal Mr Jopling for a Slap-Bang lunch with Smallweed.
“His hat presents at the rims a peculiar appearance of a glistening nature, as if it had been a favourite snail-promenade”.
Is this one of the best chapters in English literature?