Bleak House by Charles Dickens (part two) Penguin

IN the hands of a more radical director than the BBC employ, say someone Asian, Bleak House might have been less boisterous and bleaker still. Grandpa Smallweed, Guppy and Tulkinghorn might be even more mendacious, the latent sexuality as headed up by Lady Dedlock herself more pronounced.  The sexual currents are not today’s emancipation of say a Sarah Waters romance but of deliberate Victorian enfranchisement. In this context sex can be fatal.

Of course the names might put off anyone Asian completely – they are fabulously Falstaffian middle England – Mr Turveydrop, Mrs Jellyby, the Smallweeds, the Snagsby family, Lady Dedlock, Guster, Phil Squod. And our heroine Esther Summerson, each one an onomatopoeiac marvel, signposts to the coming drollery.

You need a little courage to be reading these weighty paragraphs, but they are richly rewarding in their complexity, a dive into the psyche of the time to unmask Mrs Snagsby’s jealousy; the sad plight of Mr Grindley, the preface assures, was a real enough case. Each of these boulders of sentences might contain all the DNA needed for a TV sitcom of their own.

The language rarely slows up the flow. This is Dickens shoving an oyster knife into the shell of old London and slicing it open. Soap operas may hark back to this granddaddy of them all, but this, as a novel, is more opera than soap, the grand sweep, a front row seat at the comings and goings of a cast of eccentrics, a geologist’s strata sample revealing the different social classes of the old city, top to bottom, how they rub along, how they were set up, down and aside, against a backdrop burnished in history. In a Japanese expression these might all be mini samurai, battling, no this is England, batting for their causes.

Above all, Dickens is telling a story, the revelations from someone who has travelled further afield, met more people. The missive travels robustly down the years, a little parcel of history.

Technically you might feel an Orson Wells drawl in the scene setting; the camera voraciously (because this is before cameras) picking up on every detail, the first repartees ranking the conversationists in the social order, move to the dialogue for sub plot one, pass on to clues from major plot two, finish with a point, a chuckle, a wry grin, a grimace, an aside. On to next week’s episode, out of a total of 67.

Some parts are remarkably modern, here the prose is more a note to actors:

“Mrs Bagnet turning about from her saucepans (she is cooking dinner) with a bright flush face.”

Parallel descriptors shift the emphasis between different thoughts crammed together and an afterthought for parenthesises.

I love Mrs Bagnet. As her husband confides:

“Wait till the greens are off her mind. Then we’ll consult”.

A sentence that is respectful, domestic, diffident, instructional, with a touch of affectionate humour. Her children are named after the places they were born. Quebec and Malta. There is more to this saga than Leicester Square.

I am not about to accuse James Ellroy of plagiarism but this may sound familiar if you have read or seen the movie LA Confidential:

Wintry morning, looking with dull eyes and sallow face upon the neighbourhood of Leicester Square, finds its inhabitants unwilling to get out of bed. Many of them are not early risers at the brightest of times, being birds of night who roost when the sun is high and are wide awake and keen for prey when the stars shine out. Behind dingy blind and curtain, in upper story and garret, skulking more or less under false names, false hair, false titles, false jewellery, and false histories, a colony of brigands lie in their first sleep. 

Writing to a magazine deadline provides a little extra zip perhaps, no more so than the exquisite descriptions like that of Lady Volumnia through which vicariously Lord Dedlock first discovers that “the country was going to pieces”.

Lady V has become “a little dreaded elsewhere, in consequence of an indiscreet profusion in the article of rouge….” ends an introduction of no less than 18 lines of sheer joy and brilliance. The disdain is not from Dickens but from Lord Dedlock himself who sustains it with the “constancy of a martyr”. If there is such a thing as British humour, then here it is, at its very cradle, the kernel, a necessary antidote to the mud and splash of the alley, to the deceit and machinations of the courtroom, to foppish cousins lounging on mansion sofas, to opium exhaustions, to Lady Dedlock herself who keeps the lovely Rosa beside her as her “anything; pet – secretary – messenger. Her :  I don’t know what.”

The same Rosa who is so beautiful, bashful and blooming that Lady Dedlock’s maid Hortense is let go.

For all the qualities for which Dickens is regarded, perhaps the most enduring is his good humour…Maybe he was instrumental in showing us, as in the national psyche, how to laugh at ourselves.

Somewhere here there lies a thin thread that you might say inspired vaudeville and was picked up again by comedians like Morecambe and Wise. The employeees of Are You Being Served? could be the descendants of these same characters. Discuss? Disagree?

Here he is poking fun at himself via his namesake, Charley, a young waif taken in to the Bleak House who is struggling to learn to write:

“every pen  appeared to become perversely animated, and to go wrong and crooked, and to stop, and splash and sidle into corners, like a saddle donkey. It was very odd to see what old letters Charley’s hand made; they, so wrinkled, and shrivelled, and tottering; it, so plump and round….the letter o was represented as square, triangular, pear-shaped and collapsed in all kinds of ways.”

From the heart on suspects, but the pathos is underlined in the plot. To be able to read….

If you just want to dip in for free, there is an online version here:


About drewsmith28

Words, words, words...
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