Thursday, 6 January 2000

Charles Dickens: Bleak House (1853)

Edition: Heron
Review number: 414

This famous attack on the excesses of the Court of Chancery is one of my favourite Dickens novels. By the nineteenth century, Chancery was a medieval anachronism which still made decisions on property disputes arising out of wills. Based on obscure law and strange principles of equity, its judgements were expensive and time consuming, incomprehensible even to most lawyers. Cases dragged on for many years - generations, even - frequently incurring costs beyond the sums disputed, occasionally eating up the entire estate in question in costs before a decision was reached.

Such a case forms the background to Bleak House. Jarndyce v. Jarndyce has gone on for years, casting uncertainty over the lives of those embroiled in it, including the young orphans Richard Carstone and Ada Clare, who are wards of the court because of their inherited interests in the case. They are adopted by their genial and charitable cousin John Jarndyce, who takes them to live in his home, Bleak House, in attempted reparation for the shadow of the suit. As in Much Ado About Nothing, the conventional main plot of Bleak House (the romance between Richard and Ada) takes second place to events involving more interesting characters. Their cousin brings them together with the focus of another of his charitable projects, the gentle Esther Summerson. Much of the novel is told from her point of view - it is written in an unusual combination of first and third person narrative, depending on whether Esther witnesses events or not. Other than an over sentimental side, she is quite charming and easily becomes the most important personality in the book. The mystery of her parentage is one of the important strands of the plot.

But it is the minor characters who are the main treasures of Bleak House, both likeable and unlikeable. In the latter category there are several characters satirising the Victorian obsession with charity. Mrs Jellyby is the most prominent of these, obsessed with projects for the natives of Borriboola-Gha to the exclusion of bringing up - or even noticing - her large family. On the likeable side, there are several who are connected in some way with the Chancery, and these include one of my favourite of all Dickensian characters, Miss Flite, at one time a party to a Chancery suit driven mad by the proceedings of the court.

Bleak House is a remarkably genial novel for a satire with the intention to provoke reform. This is partly due to the nature of the target (best exemplified through the metaphorical fog which appears throughout the novel), but it also produces a sense of helplessness in the face of legal obfuscation which in the end makes its point even more strongly.

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