The Jarndyce Estate:  “Bleak House” by Charles Dickens

At the center of Charles Dickens’s Bleak House is a never-ending lawsuit, Jarndyce and Jarndyce,  which has ruined the lives of generations of a family.  It has become a joke in court.  When a lawyer observes that some event might happen “when the sky rains potatoes,”  the Lord Chancellor says, “or when we get through Jarndyce and Jarndyce.  

But of course the litigious society in  Dickens’ 19th-century England is not a joke to the members of the family, nor to Dickens.  Some of the characters in Bleak House resist the siren song of the lawsuit over the Jarndyce estate, others are seduced by the prospect of money.  Among the resisters is John Jarndyce, the eccentric owner of Bleak House,  who bowed out decades ago because of the effect on his skirmishing family members.  He has little contact with his family; instead, he has selected his own extended family, which includes his two adult wards, Ada and Richard,  their companion, Esther Summerson, and several friends, one of them definitely corrupt, the witty Mr. Skimpole, who claims he is a “child about money,”

In other words, the case affects nearly every character in the novel, some of whom lurk around court, sure that one day the case will be settled and they will get rich.

Dickens’s brilliant rhetorical sentences describe the consequences of the deplorable lawsuit.  He writes,

This scarecrow of a case has, in course of time, become so complicated that no man alive knows what it means….   The little plaintiff or dependent, who was promised a new rocking-horse when Jarndyce and Jarndyce should be settled, has given up, possessed himself of a real horse, and trotted away into the other world.  Fair wards of court have faded into mothers and grandmothers; a long procession of Chancellors have come in and gone out; the legion of bills in the suit have been transformed into mere bills of mortality; there are not three Jarndyces left upon the earth perhaps, since old Tom Jarndyce in despair blew his brains out at a coffee-house in Chancery Lane; but Jarndyce and Jarndyce still drags its dreary length before the Court, perennially hopeless.

Dickens manages to be serious, sad, and comical as he presents characters whose lives have been ruined by lawsuits.  Miss Flite, a little old lady who is not as mad as people think, has spent her life in court.  When she invites Ada and Richard, whom she regards as celebrities due to their involvement with Jarndyce and Jarndyce, along with Esther, one of the central characters, to her room, which is filled with cages of birds, she explains she will free the birds when her case is settled.  But “They die in prison, though.  Their lives, poor silly things,  are so short in comparison with Chancery proceedings, that, one by one, the whole collection has died over and over again.”

Esther Summerson’s narrative takes up about one-third of the novel:  she is an intelligent, sympathetic character who takes good care of her fast friends, Ada and Richard.  With depth and wit, she describes life at Bleak House, the kindness of their guardian, and their meetings with his eccentric friends, among them Mrs. Jellyby, who works days and night to help some cause in Africa, while neglecting her family; and Mr. Boythorn, a gruff, loud, but gentle friend who walks around with a pet bird on his head (more birds!), and is suing his neighbor, Lord Dedlock, about an easement.  Lord Dedlock is suing Mr. Boythorn about the same. Esther’s humorous, very personal chapters are my favorite in the book

This novel is so brilliant in every way that I recommend you cozily sit down with a cup of coffee and the book.  It will keep you happy for a month.

And may we all be free of lawsuits!  

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.


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