My wife and I have been reading this together, a chapter a day over the past ten weeks. It has been a revelation for me, largely because I had somehow picked up a prejudice against Dickens, and this is the first novel of his that I have attempted as a mature reader. What an achievement: suspenseful, dramatic, crammed with marvelous characters, and often very funny! Reading it has totally transformed my view of the author, showing him as the master he is, whether on the small scale of sentence and paragraph or the vast one of the entire thousand-page span.
The chapter-a-day approach is ideally suited to a novel that was published in serial form in a magazine. Very often, our discussions would last longer than the readings. My wife and I soon fell into a rhythm. I would close the book and try to summarize where the story had led us and guess where it might go. Then she would open hers and point out the numerous phrases she had underlined: something funny or touching, a picture-perfect description, or a strikingly unconventional use of language. Reading and discussing in this way, we learned from each other, but above all we learned from Dickens. This Penguin Classics edition transcribes the author's working notes at the end, and we can see him working out what to put where as his whole narrative takes shape. His ability to maintain the suspense of a mystery story from one episode to the next -- the essence of serial writing -- is amazing in itself. But to dash off each part in prose that, on almost every page, could be a candidate for inclusion in an anthology, that is simply mind-boggling.
The opening pages are famous, describing as they do a fog over London, a fog that is both literal and figurative, symbolizing the arcane obfuscation of the Court of Chancery, whose slow deliberations will suspend most of the characters in a kind of limbo. Technically, what is amazing is that the first page is entirely made up of sentence fragments: "Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping, and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights." And he ends the entire book on a sentence fragment too. "But I know that my dearest little pets are very pretty, and that my darling is very beautiful, and that my husband is very handsome, and that my guardian has the brightest and most benevolent face that ever was seen; and that they can very well do without much beauty in me -- even supposing---."
People accuse Dickens of sentiment, and there are certainly grounds for it in my second quotation above. But that is page 989 of the book, and the narrator, Esther Summerson, has surely earned the right to a little sentiment in finally arriving at her happy ending. Earlier in the novel, there are a number of death scenes, another notorious occasion for tear-jerking sentiment. But I am amazed by the variety with which Dickens treats them. One does indeed bring a tear to the eye; another comes after a burst of false euphoria, like the ending of LA TRAVIATA; another is set up with all the apparatus of a Gothic horror story; and yet another -- arguably the most important -- is delivered with a blow as shocking as the fall of the guillotine.
My quotations also illustrate the two narrative modes that Dickens alternates throughout the novel. One, in the present tense, uses a third-person narrator, looking down on the action sometimes literally from above. The other, written after the events, is the first-person narrative of Esther Summerson, an apparent orphan who is entering her teens as the book begins and remains throughout as the sweet and obliging helpmeet to anyone who shows her a shred of kindness. It is a wonderful contrast: the omniscient narrator versus the one who appears to know little or nothing. But there is a particular charm in Esther's voice, for her modest reluctance to imagine that other people may have a higher opinion of her than she has of herself does not stop the reader from looking beyond her gaze and seeing things as they really are. She must be one of the earliest unreliable narrators in fiction, and one of the most charming. Yet she is an acute observer of other people, and not merely kind but proactive and brave when the occasion calls for it.
The story of Esther and the mystery of her parentage is one of the two main strands of the plot. For it seems likely that, if the truth were known, a number of great fortunes would be altered. Dickens introduces what must be one of the first professional detectives in literature, Inspector Bucket; although a secondary character, he is shown in surprising depth and displays both forensic acumen and human understanding. There are also a number of lawyers and legal hangers-on who have their noses on a particular part of the scent, ranging from the patrician Mr. Tulkinghorn who keeps his eyes on everything like a big black spider in his web, through the upwardly-mobile clerk Guppy, to the despicable moneylender's agent Smallweed. The other strand is the Chancery suit itself, the interminable Jarndyce and Jarndyce, which promises to confer great wealth once the issue of the proper heirs has been determined. But it has already ground more than one hopeful beneficiary in its mill, and threatens to destroy all the others. John Jarndyce, the only one of that name we meet in the book, has wisely determined to stay aloof from the proceedings, and it is to his home in the country -- the far from bleak Bleak House -- that he brings the two teenage wards in the case, Ada Clare and Richard Carstone, along with Esther Summerson, whose connection is less clearly established. In the early chapters at least, Jarndyce's retreat a little way north of the city, has all the charm of Bunyan's House Beautiful, as a respite from the moil and toil of the law courts and the slums surrounding them.
Cliff's Notes (which I did not consult until now) lists over seventy characters in the novel, whether major, minor, or walk-ons. But there are remarkably few of the latter. An individual without a name, such as a fellow-passenger in the coach by which the heroine is traveling, may be identified many chapters later and play a vital role. And there are many figures who appear in one scene to add color or a little humor -- character-roles, as it were -- but then keep coming back many times, often with their particular catch phrases or characteristic business, much as in a modern sitcom. And it is not unusual that even these minor characters will contribute some essential key to move the action forward. There is a large number of apparently secondary characters who are drawn in one dimension at first, but who then expand in surprisingly complex ways. Inspector Bucket is one of these, as are the old trooper Mr. George, the young physician Allan Woodcourt, and numerous others. But the most significant examples are Sir Leicester and Lady Dedlock, who are introduced in Dickens' brilliantly satirical second chapter as the epitome of high fashion, as free from personality as a marble bust or a fashion plate. Yet as the novel proceeds, first Lady Dedlock and then her husband begin to show surprising depth, developing a second dimension in terms of narrative complexity, and even a third, in that they each find themselves feeling things that surprise even them. Finally, there are people who are in three dimensions from the start, such as John Jarndyce, who has a way of quietly surprising everybody, and Esther Summerson whose emotional richness deepens even as she herself claims it does not really exist.
I have to say, though, that Dickens' habit of bringing his characters back in enhanced guises can make for very difficult reading. It requires quite a feat of memory to recall when you encountered a figure before, especially if the appearance was a brief one. Normal character lists do not help because they may tell you things from much later in the novel; one of the entries in the Cliff's Notes list, for instance, reveals the solution to a mystery that Dickens himself spins out over 750 pages! Even the endnotes by Nicola Bradbury in this edition are full of spoilers; she does issue a warning, but I can see no reason why notes of this kind are even needed, since they prevent the reader from looking up the period details that really are necessary. What would really be ideal (though I don't know if it exists) would be some kind of hypertext edition that offered information keyed to how far you had read in the book, withholding information that would not be revealed until later.
Dickens' first great success was THE PICKWICK PAPERS, which he undertook to provide text for a series of illustrations by the artist Robert Seymour, who eventually committed suicide. All his subsequent novels were issued with illustrations, and the inclusion in this edition of the original 40 plates by "Phiz" adds greatly to the effect of the whole. What I like about them is the way that illustrator and author keep out of each other's way; the verbal descriptions work on one level, and the pictures on another, without duplication. I especially like the way Phiz puts in detail, such as the increasing dandyism of Mr. Guppy's dress every time he appears, or the way the portraits hanging on the walls of a salon offer a subtle parody of the action below. Phiz also has two distinct styles: most of his etchings give the impression of pen drawings, almost caricatures, but there are half a dozen or so that are distinctly atmospheric, romantic in nature rather than satirical. But is this not appropriate for an author who himself combined both genres and many more in such a magnificent compendium?
In addition to the illustrations, endnotes, and Dickens' own chapter plans, the Penguin Classics edition contains a useful chronology, notes on the Court of Chancery and Spontaneous Combustion (one of the more gruesome deaths in literature), an extensive bibliography, and three separate introductions: one by Dickens himself, mentioning some of the real sources for his invention; one by the editor Bradbury, infuriatingly academic but making some good points; and a lucid preface by Terry Eagleton. All these are better read after the novel itself than before, but Eagleton's essay especially makes a stimulating cue for later discussion, extracting the diverse strands of this glorious tangle of a book, for the delighted reader to weave together.