BY page 593 this gargantuan torture wheel of a plot is starting to turn. The perimeter is on the horizon. We have a literary variation on a Swiss watch with all the little interlocking wheels starting to spin. Beyond the frivolity we have passages of dark horror, even fear, naked drama.
Perhaps its sheer length and scale have mitigated against its reputation; in a pantheon of English writing, this is King Lear writ large, even you might argue Lady Dedlock herself is a Queen Lear, the femme fatale.
Trying to keep all the twists and turns of the plot across the equivalent of say binge watching half a year of East Enders or Coronation Street is a small feat in itself. Jo’s story could almost be self standing on its own, the parallel constellation to Esther’s. One LA professor tried reading just the tale of Esther alone to opinionate on its validity; he declared it did work well enough, but that is to align this more with the social works of Jane Austen or the pilgrimages of Thomas Hardy’s women without giving it the full grandeur of its social commentary as setting. Esther’s virtues actually need the gloom around for her to be that candle in the dark. The perniciously respectable Mr Vholes is needed to demonstrate that “the one great principle of the English law is, to make business for itself.”
And then we have the parts that are untold. The key role played by someone who is hardly otherwise mentioned at all as in Ms Bucket. And the whole back story which could be another novel, a prequel of the young John Jarndyce meeting with the Barbery sisters, the love affair with captain Hawdon, the escapades of the estranged Mr George…
In messing with the story telling TV gave us an empty crossword with just a few visual clues which perhaps might only be read by a university don. The 1985 BBC version starring Dianna Rigg and Denholm Elliott opened with the plot very much to the fore, the detective story unfolding the Secret. Poor Joe is sweeping the streets in the opening scene, pushing away the horse dung so Mr Guppy can cross the road. The perfidy of the court of chancellor is rammed home. It is a bleak plot with fine horses, fine rooms, fine bewilderment from the would-be benefactors. It lacks humour and casts the pot as so much bubble on the back burner. Arthur Hopcraft’s script careful tweaks the original but in doing so loses the many veils of disguise on which the original thrives. None of Rosa’s backstory survives as if censored out by Lord Dedlock himself. It is Victorian noire or more accurately Victorian pea soup foggy. The main case to remake it 20 years later was possinly an admission that this series might have put a great many people off Dickens completely.
There is also a 1959 version, which I have not unearthed as yet, but I suspect there is more drama in Mr Bucket’s finger than all those episodes combined. This novel has been abused by TV.
On the page the plot is still whirling around and around to the last page and the mystery of who, male or female, Esther is writing this for at all? Glorious reading.