The English novel Bleak House by Charles Dickens is a satirical story about the British judiciary system. Esther Summerson is a lonely girl who was raised by her aunt and is taken in by John Jarndyce, a rich philanthropist. Parts of the story are tol...
Bleak House is a novel by Charles Dickens, first published as a 20 episode serial between March 1852 and September 1853. The novel has many characters and several sub-plots, and is told partly by the novel's heroine, Esther Summerson, and partly by an omniscient narrator. At the centre of Bleak House is a long-running legal case in the Court of Chancery, Jarndyce and Jarndyce, which came about because a testator has written several conflicting wills. In a preface to the 1853 first edition, Dickens claimed there were many actual precedents for his fictional case.One such was probably the Thellusson v Woodford case in which a will read in 1797 was contested and not determined until1859. Though the legal profession criticised Dickens's satire as exaggerated, this novel helped support a judicial reform movement which culminated in the enactment of legal reform in the 1870s.
There is some debate among scholars as to when Bleak House is set. The English legal historian Sir William Holdsworth sets the action in 1827; however, reference to preparation for the building of a railway in Chapter LV suggests the 1830s.
Charles John Huffam Dickens FRSA (7 February 1812 – 9 June 1870) was an English writer and social critic. He created some of the world's best-known fictional characters and is regarded by many as the greatest novelist of the Victorian era. His works enjoyed unprecedented popularity during his lifetime, and by the 20th century, critics and scholars had recognised him as a literary genius. His novels and short stories are still widely read today.
Born in Portsmouth, Dickens left school to work in a factory when his father was incarcerated in a debtors' prison. Despite his lack of formal education, he edited a weekly journal for 20 years, wrote15 novels, five novellas, hundreds of short stories and non-fiction articles, lectured and performed readings extensively, was an indefatigable letter writer, and campaigned vigorously for children's rights, education, and other social reforms.
Dickens's literary success began with the 1836 serial publication of The Pickwick Papers. Within a few years he had become an international literary celebrity, famous for his humour, satire, and keen observation of character and society. His novels, most published in monthly or weekly instalments, pioneered the serial publication of narrative fiction, which became the dominant Victorian mode for novel publication. Cliffhanger endings in his serial publications kept readers in suspense. The installment format allowed Dickens to evaluate his audience's reaction, and he often modified his plot and character development based on such feedback. For example, when his wife's chiropodist expressed distress at the way Miss Mowcher in David Copperfield seemed to reflect her disabilities, Dickens improved the character with positive features. His plots were carefully constructed, and he often wove elements from topical events into his narratives. Masses of the illiterate poor chipped in ha'pennies to have each new monthly episode read to them, opening up and inspiring a new class of readers.
His 1843 novella A Christmas Carol remains especially popular and continues to inspire adaptations in every artistic genre. Oliver Twist and Great Expectations are also frequently adapted and, like many of his novels, evoke images of early Victorian London. His 1859 novel A Tale of Two Cities (set in London and Paris) is his best-known work of historical fiction. The most famous celebrity of his era, he undertook in response to public demand, a series of public reading tours in the later part of his career. Dickens has been praised by many of his fellow writers—from Leo Tolstoy to George Orwell, G. K. Chesterton, and Tom Wolfe—for his realism, comedy, prose style, unique characterisations, and social criticism. However, Oscar Wilde, Henry James, and Virginia Woolf complained of a lack of psychological depth, loose writing, and a vein of sentimentalism.
The term Dickensian is used to describe something that is reminiscent of Dickens and his writings, such as poor social conditions or comically repulsive characters.
Dickens published well over a dozen major novels and novellas, a large number of short stories, including a number of Christmas-themed stories, a handful of plays, and several non-fiction books. Dickens's novels were initially serialised in weekly and monthly magazines, then reprinted in standard book formats.
The Pickwick Papers (The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club; monthly serial, April 1836 to November 1837)
Oliver Twist (The Adventures of Oliver Twist; monthly serial in Bentley's Miscellany, February 1837 to April 1839)
Nicholas Nickleby (The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby; monthly serial, April 1838 to October 1839)
The Old Curiosity Shop (weekly serial in Master Humphrey's Clock, April 1840 to November 1841)
Barnaby Rudge (Barnaby Rudge: A Tale of the Riots of Eighty; weekly serial in Master Humphrey's Clock, February to November 1841)
A Christmas Carol (A Christmas Carol in Prose: Being a Ghost-story of Christmas; 1843)
Martin Chuzzlewit (The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit; monthly serial, January 1843 to July 1844)
The Chimes (The Chimes: A Goblin Story of Some Bells That Rang an Old Year Out and a New Year In; 1844)
The Cricket on the Hearth (The Cricket on the Hearth: A Fairy Tale of Home; 1845)
Dombey and Son (Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son: Wholesale, Retail and for Exportation; monthly serial, October 1846 to April 1848)
The Haunted Man (The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain: A Fancy for Christmas-time; 1848)
David Copperfield (The Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery [Which He Never Meant to Publish on Any Account]; monthly serial, May 1849 to November 1850)
Bleak House (monthly serial, March 1852 to September 1853)
Hard Times (Hard Times: For These Times; weekly serial in Household Words, 1 April 1854, to 12 August 1854)
Little Dorrit (monthly serial, December 1855 to June 1857)
A Tale of Two Cities (weekly serial in All the Year Round, 30 April 1859, to 26 November 1859)
Great Expectations (weekly serial in All the Year Round, 1 December 1860 to 3 August 1861)
Our Mutual Friend (monthly serial, May 1864 to November 1865)
The Signal-Man (1866), first published as part of the Mugby Junction collection in the 1866 Christmas edition of All the Year Round.
Edwin Drood (The Mystery of Edwin Drood; monthly serial, April 1870 to September 1870), left unfinished due to Dickens's death.
In the late nineteenth century, actress Fanny Janauschek acted in a stage version of Bleak House in which she played both Lady Dedlock and her maid Hortense. The two characters never appear on stage at the same time. In 1876 John Pringle Burnett's play, Jo found success in London with his wife, Jennie Lee playing Jo, the crossing-sweeper. In 1893, Jane Coombs acted in a version of Bleak House.
A 1901 short film, The Death of Poor Joe, is the oldest known surviving film featuring a Charles Dickens character (Jo in Bleak House).
In the silent film era, Bleak House was filmed in 1920 and 1922. The latter version featured Sybil Thorndike as Lady Dedlock.
In 1928, a short film made in the UK in the Phonofilm sound-on-film process starred Bransby Williams as Grandfather Smallweed.
In 1998, BBC Radio 4 broadcast a radio adaptation of five hour-long episodes, starring Michael Kitchen as John Jarndyce.
The BBC has produced three television adaptations of Bleak House. The first serial, Bleak House, was broadcast in 1959 in eleven half-hour episodes. The second Bleak House, starring Diana Rigg and Denholm Elliott, aired in 1985 as an eight-part series. In 2005, the third Bleak House was broadcast in fifteen episodes starring Anna Maxwell Martin, Gillian Anderson, Denis Lawson, Charles Dance, and Carey Mulligan. It won a Peabody Award that same year because it "created “appointment viewing,” soap-style, for a series that greatly rewarded its many extra viewers."
I can't be dismissive of readers who don't warm to Bleak House. That title adjective isn't exactly an invitation, and the sheer size of the thing can be intimidating: I have four copies, and not a single one comes in at under 850 pages.
And, at least in the States, we've done something dreadful to Charles Dickens: assigned his work at the wrong time in the wrong place. As a seventh-grader with a paperback copy of David Copperfield once told me, "He starts out by saying he was born. What's up with that?"
I lucked out; my mother warned me that the work of Dickens was a torment, overly detailed, so populated by secondary characters that it was impossible to track them all. My youthful rebellion was to read, but it was my natural inclination to resonate. What my mother had seen as overstuffed I saw as richness, and early on Dickens became the writer I admired most.
Bleak House is his greatest novel, and not simply because, with its backdrop of a legal system more invested in obstruction and obfuscation than resolution, it remains utterly contemporary. Dickens was a wonderful actor, and this novel is a performance, in which he plays two disparate parts. One is the story of Lady Dedlock, "bored to death with my life, bored to death with myself".
The sections of the book that detail her airless existence and those that explain the legal tangle of Jarndyce V. Jarndyce are told in third person, the prose baroque and satiric. The other sections of the story are told by Esther Summerson, the writer's only female narrator. (I did my senior thesis at college on the women of Dickens; even as a devotee, I can summarize in two words: pretty lame.)
Esther is yet another one of the novelist's lucky orphans; when her guardian dies, a lawyer swoops in and sends her to live with John Jarndyce, who may or may not be a beneficiary of the endless case of dueling wills. (It's that kind of lawsuit. It's that kind of book.) The voice of Esther, simple, no frills, is completely at odds with that of the omniscient narrator; they might as well have been written by different men.
As a writer, I admire that virtuousity. As a former columnist, I always respond to the social conscience that animated and enraged Dickens. But make no mistake: there is a heart in this book, too.
Bleak House is known as a novel about the law, but it is really about the sadness and the souls of two women, one who has sold her happiness for the sake of security, and one riven by the insecurity of not knowing who she is. That's why I love it so.
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