The “Bleak House” Journal: Notes on Reading Dickens

No fan of Dickens should scribble the following drivel in her journal:  “I read Bleak House because others don’t” (2012).  It isn’t even true. I was doodling.  Tens of thousands are reading Bleak House as we speak (probably).  Maybe tens of millions.

But people on the internet are often flummoxed by Dickens.  They speed through the succinct Tale of Two Cities  but are defeated by the bulk of Bleak House. In an online forum somebody wrote: “In doing a little research I ran across an article arguing that if Dickens were alive today he’d probably be writing soap operas, and I completely agree.”

This is a person who reads for plot not for language.  But as I scrawled in my journal I became as inky and indignant as one of my favorite characters in Bleak House, Caddy Jellyby, who miserably pens long letters dictated by her philanthropist mother about fund-raising for a project  in Borrioboola-Gha in Africa.  Mrs. Jellyby neglects her family.

Like Dickens fans John Irving and Desmond in Lost, I have reserved one of Dickens’s books to read in old age.  That does not mean I don’t go back to the others over and over.  In September I started rereading my favorite, Bleak House. And I’m recording some of my journal notes here, since I’m trying to get away from the bad habit of writing formulaic plot summaries–a trap we bloggers too often fall into.

September 26, 2018

I am reading quietly, interrupted only by the cats, and it does seem the best book I’ve read in ages. For a few hours a day I  am free from worry about politics, leaky roofs, tornado warnings, and renewing library cards and state IDs.

I love Dickens’ masterly use of English.  Where did he learn the rhetorical language?  His use of anaphora is flamboyant–acrobatics in a circus of repetition.   Here is one of the most famous passages.

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. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ’prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds.

The action pivots around a court case about a will.   In the nightmare world of Chancery, Jarndyce v Jarndyce drags on for decades, and  the litigators kill themselves or go mad.  But the charming, well-educated orphan Esther Summerson shines a light on her circle.  Esther, whose lovely first-person narrative (“Esther’s Narrative”) is at the heart of the novel, is a kind of Cinderella character (not princessy, though).  Raised by a godmother who devastates her by saying she would have been better off unborn, Esther does not know her parentage.  Yet Esther, whose education is paid for by her guardian John Jarndyce, is the most filial, loving character of all.  First she becomes an adored teacher; then she is invited to Bleak House by John Jarndyce to live with two other orphans,  wards of court, pretty Ada  and witty Richard.  Richard, alas, believes Jarndyce and Jarndyce will make him rich.

There is redemption among many of the orphans. Interestingly,  nuclear families are less nurturing than makeshift families.  (Are we talking about the 1960s?)   Orphans, bachelors, spinsters, elderly eccentrics, the mad, the poor, the single, and the rootless come together.  The nuclear families are damaging, among them the Jellybys, the Pardiggles, and the Skimpoles.

Esther is connected to everyone, I think.  But I won’t give away her lineage.


8 thoughts on “The “Bleak House” Journal: Notes on Reading Dickens”

  1. The brilliance of the passage that you quote, for me at least, is in the grammatical structure. Even though it is punctuated as if it were full sentences in fact it is a series of non-finite clauses, never ending, never completed, never finally defined, just like the fog that is being described. Brilliant!

    1. Yes, I haven’t seen that London fog but I imagine the grammar is like that! I love Dickens’s language. He can do anything–gorgeous sentences, poetic fragments, repetitions, an I’ll read i.

  2. Superb commentary. Bleak House and David Cooperfield are my favorite Dickens books. I love your description of his prose style. It actually took me a few books and a few years to warm up to it. I now recognize his style as amazingly unique and I find it to be a joy to read.

    Your comments about the nature of families in this book is insightful and something that I never thought about.

    1. Thank you! I’m also a great fan of David Copperfield. That’s the one that won me over and turned me into a lifelong fan. His style IS unique: I’ve known people who love or hate it.

  3. I enjoy the journal notes rather than the summary for sure. I’m not a huge Dickens fan but I guess I’ve managed to read a half dozen of them as an adult even so. Most recently…Bleak House! Which took up most of my last December. It was wholly enjoyable and I never once considered setting it aside, although I was only reading about 40 pages a day so it really did take most of the month for me – and I am not usually a monogamous reader!

    1. I love Bleak House, and I would say a month is ideal for reading it :about 1,000 pages in my edition. He’s such a brilliant writer, much more stylized than, say, Mrs. Gaskell, and some of the other Victorians. Love them all, but Dickens is different.

  4. I’m reading Bleak House right now so I must be one of the millions. 🙂 It’s been a little hard getting traction with some of the recent festivities and I’m looking forward to getting back to it now the new year has begun. I really love your comments about nuclear vs. makeshift families. So much emphasis is put on nuclear families but I think it blinds us to the connections we may have with others or can devalue those connections. I’m going to ponder your thoughts as I read. Thanks for sharing your journal entry and I’m so happy I’ve found your blog (from Typings)! 🙂

    1. It is great to meet another Bleak House fan! So many waifs in this book, and Esther seems to take care of most of them. Really, I grieve for her mother and father, too. The nuclear family is great in theory but often so difficult and dysfunctional. We have to find family and friends where we can! Yes, thank God the festivities are over and we can get back to books.

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