Bleak House, Dickens’ masterpiece

I’m sure I’m not the only Dickens fan who’s been both surprised and exhilarated to see how much interest has been generated by his bicentenary. Adaptations, exhibitions, new biographies, special events, and – last October – a poll in the Guardian newspaper asking readers to vote for their favourite novel. The winner, fairly comfortably, was Great Expectations, followed by Bleak House. These happen to be my own two favourites too, though it’s Bleak House that I consider to be Dickens’s true masterpiece.

So why Bleak House? What is it about this novel, in particular, that I find so compelling? The short answer is that all Dickens’s genius is here. Bleak House does not merely embody the vast scope of his vision of contemporary London, but offers unparalleled richness in every aspect of his art – from the slums of Tom-All-Alone’s to the ‘houses of high connection’ in the fashionable world; from comedy to psychological drama to social commentary and pure storytelling. In this great book, Dickens is truly at the peak of his powers. And should one ever doubt it, yet another self-indulgent re-reading of those marvellous fog-wreathed first pages will convince you – without question the greatest opening he ever wrote, and a contender, I would argue, for the greatest opening of any novel, then or now.

I first read Bleak House in my first term at Oxford, and I still have that battered and much-loved Penguin edition, in which I have carefully underlined the opening line of the now celebrated introduction by J. Hillis Miller: ‘Bleak House is a document about the interpretation of documents’. And if this was true back in the 70s when that edition was published, how much more so now. In an age when we are becoming more and more obsessed with the nature of language – with the way words work, and the means by which they are transmitted – Bleak House has never been more compelling. From Conversation Kenge’s curiously abbreviated missives (not so very different from modern texting), to the love letters that threaten to expose Lady Dedlock’s dark secret, to the anonymous notes that charge her with murder, to the infamous and long-mislaid Jarndyce will, upon which so much depends and through which so much will be lost.

People in novels, of course, can only ever be made of words, but it’s one of the special qualities of Dickens’s imagination that his caricatures are so intensely verbal. The Reverend Mr Chadband, for example, is that deliciously repellent ‘large yellow man with a fat smile and a general appearance of having a good deal of train oil in his system’, but what makes him so marvellously memorable is the way he talks. Dickens has such a subtle ear, not merely for the language people use, but for the rhythm and cadence of the way they use it:

“My friends,” says [Chadband], “what is this which we now behold as being spread before us? Refreshment. Do we need refreshment then, my friends? We do. And why do we need refreshment, my friends? Because we are but mortal, because we are but sinful, because we are but of the earth…”

Now you could, of course, say that all Dickens’s comic caricatures are creatures of words, so how is Bleak House any different, but in this novel we find the same idea playing out in much darker and more haunting terms. Nemo, the broken-down law-writer who was once Lady Dedlock’s dashing lover, exists for us solely in the words he has left behind – words he wrote but we never see, yet which play such a decisive and terrible role in the story, all the same; the documents Nemo copied at Snagsby’s request, which Lady Dedlock recognizes; the letters he wrote to her, which Krook hoards but is unable to read; and the writing in his hand kept by his former sergeant, trooper George, which Tulkinghorn is so anxious to peruse and so intent on exploiting for his own evil ends.

Words in this novel are quite literally instrumental, used to deceive, coerce, blackmail and accuse. And just as the characters struggle to make sense of the documents inside the book, we as readers have to do the same outside. Not just decoding the role and meaning of all these lost, hidden and ambivalent pieces of paper, but working out for ourselves what is really going on. We have to fill the gaps and decide whose word has weight. We have to fill the tantalizing gaps in the story, and interpret a giant cobweb of what Dickens calls ‘signs and tokens’, so as to come, at last, to the truth.

And in doing this, we must first reconcile two contrasting and sometimes competing narrative voices: Esther’s apparently candid past-tense chronicle of her own life, set against the forceful, in-your-face, present-tense account of what’s going on in the wider world. Neither of these narratives is as simple as it seems: both tellers of this complex tale are apt to conceal facts for their own reasons, and both can point us – ingeniously or ingenuously – in quite the wrong direction. Both, in effect, require us to judge. Which is of course only appropriate in a novel about the law’s delays, and the impenetrable miasma circling about the Court of Chancery, where the dense fog is densest, and the muddy streets are muddiest, and the Lord High Chancellor sits at the very heart of the fog.

The other task we as readers are required to perform is to solve the crime. Just as Inspector Bucket has to do, and just as we ourselves have done with so many other murder mysteries since Bleak House. But not – crucially – with any single novel that came before it. Because in among all this book’s other claims to pre-eminence is the fact that it’s the first detective story in English, which is the last but by no means the least of the reasons why I love it, and why I wanted to pay my own homage to it in a mystery of my own. From Sherlock Holmes to Special Victims Unit, Marple to Morse, Bleak House is the father of them all.


This post was originally written in 2012 for the late Norman Geras, as part of his long-running ‘Writer’s Choice’ series

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