Review: Bleak House, Charles Dickens

Bleak House has been in the Books I Want To Read pile for years.  I read Thursday’s Child by Noel Streatfield when I was eight and that has a character who commits theft so he can get to read Bleak House.  It was also serialised on the radio a few years after that and although I didn’t catch all of it and I didn’t understand all that I did hear, it still intrigued me.  Back in 2005 I also saw the frankly fantastic television adaptation but I found it really hard to track down a copy of the book.  Strangely, I finally found one in the English language bookshop in Geneva.  That was the year when I taught English in primary schools in a very vague sort of way, read a lot, and spent most of my free time playing with a neighbour’s baby.  I was lonely that year, so lonely that Bleak House really wasn’t the right book to be reading, so I gave up on it guiltily and cast it aside.  From then on, I just did not have the time – it’s 989 pages long, it’s not just a book, it’s a commitment.  But anyway, it was one of the books I took down with me when I moved to the South of England and finally, at long last, I decided to make it my Easter Holiday read.

Having got past the finish line and having had time to think about it, I have decided that I loved it.  It is an absolute masterpiece, sweeping its cast along in the huge baroque court-room drama with a detective story thrown in.  The story of Lady Dedlock proceeds with all of the grace of the lady herself.  Also, hats off to the BBC, it was one of those rare times where casting had been so perfect that the characters always looked in my head the way they did on the TV – normally there’s a few that fit and the rest that don’t but this time they got it spot on.  This has been said to be the first ever novel to feature a detective and indeed Inspector Bucket is such a joy.  Still, it is one of those books that is a little bit of a rabbit warren and I’m not sure I would have been able to get in to it if I was reading it in my normal dribs-and-drabs pre-sleep during term time.  Luckily, I had a nine hour round trip to Scotland which really helped to break the back of it and meant that I could actually get my head round who was who and was on which side.  Even so, Bleak House is a marathon – you can’t sprint it, it’s all about the endurance.  It’s not a novel about a house – it’s about all of us, all of us together and how we treat each other.

Basic premise (very basic): Jarndyce vs Jarndyce is a suit which has being going through the Court of Chancery for decades and decades and decades.  Chancery is this old court to do with contested wills which has long since been reformed  because it was impossibly incompetent and once you were in Chancery there was no getting out of Chancery and all costs are taken from the estates being contested, meaning that the Court benefitted from drawing out proceedings.  The young wards of Jarndyce are Richard Carstone and Ada Clare, young cousins.  They are sent to live with their cousin Mr John Jarndyce and with them goes the orphan Esther Summerson, an orphan with a mysterious past.  Mr Jarndyce advises them all to forget the suit, particularly as Richard and Ada fall in love, yet Richard struggles to settle to any profession with the suit still undecided.  Simultaneous to this, the sinster lawyer Mr Tulkinghorn serves Sir Leicester Dedlock, Baronet and his wife Lady Dedlock, a woman desperately bored with her life.  She also has a claim in the Jarndyce suit and faints dead away when Mr Tulkinghorn shows her a piece of legal writing written in a strangely familiar hand … cue much to-ing and fro-ing and the occasional untimely death.  Nobody does tragic death scenes quite like Dickens, you end up really feeling the tragedy.  Subtle he is not.

The story has two narrators, the omniscient Dickens and then Esther Summerson.  I’ll be honest, I vastly preferred Dickens.  Of course, this is a silly reaction on my part, because Esther is as much Dickens’ voice as the omniscient narrator – basically Dickens cannot write women well and everybody knows this anyway.  It’s hard to write a first person character who is supposedly flawlessly good and modest.  Women in Dickens’ world fall into three categories; angels, demons and eccentric secondary characters (eg. Miss Flite, Caddy Jellyby).  Esther is an angel, the saintly smallpox sufferer, the perfect housekeeper, the chaste and modest light of everyone’s lives blah blah blah.  That’s all well and good (though let’s face it, these are not characters to warm to), but it is awkward having someone like that try to narrate.  Esther starts off saying that it’s very strange to talk so much about herself since she knows that she ‘is not clever’ and that ‘no doubt’ she will ‘fade into the background’ soon enough in the story.  No, Esther, no, you won’t, you’re the main character!  Get a grip!  Esther is clearly not stupid, she sees what Skimpole’s about, can predict what Richard’s fate will be – why is it necessary for her to pretend that she is stupid?  It was really irritating at times.

Anna M M being Esther

As someone who started off watching the BBC adaptation before I read the book, the Anna Maxwell Martin interpretation of Esther is masterful in completely sidestepping Esther’s creepiness.  She just seems like a very good sort of woman who really does think of others first rather than this weird character who claims to never think much of herself while copying out verbatim every single piece of praise anyone ever gives her, which always seems to be along the lines of how they could not live without her.  The other odd thing was how nauseating she could be about Ada.  In the BBC version, they are good friends with Esther taking a slightly older-sister kind of role for Ada, which is fair enough.  But in the book, she’s calling Ada her pet, her pride and her dearest one and becoming tearful whenever someone says something nice about her.  When *spoilers* Esther becomes scarred, it’s Ada who she’s worried about seeing her.  The two of them sob uncontrollably after Ada gets married and Esther’s whole attitude towards Ada seems a bit voyeuristic.  If Dickens had been writing them as lesbians, I would have been surprised because after all, it’s Dickens but otherwise wouldn’t have batted an eyelid.  Instead, Ada loves Richard and Esther quietly loves Alan Woodcourt, but the way Esther and Ada were together just seemed really bizarre.  And I say this as someone who refers to their best friend as ‘Hairy’ and has done since 2009.

With all that though, I didn’t like the way that Ada was treated.  She loves Richard, who instead cares for the lawsuit more than he does for her.  As Richard himself admits, he marries Ada to ruin, scatters her means to the wind, yet Ada never complains.  What irritated me though was that when Ada is left widowed, she gives birth to a son and names him after Richard, but this child grows up calling Esther Mamma.  This is all part of the Esther Summerson Appreciation thing because Esther is just like so amazing.  But why couldn’t she just have been Aunt Esther and have had done with it?  Why was it that the one thing that Ada had left from her unfortunate marriage had to be taken from her, i.e. her own son who she had conceived, carried and given birth to, why did he have to become Esther’s too?  I suppose it’s just typical of the precarious position of the Victorian impoverished widow but all the same, it did at times make Esther seem a surprisingly sinister character.

This all makes it sound as if I didn’t like Esther, which wasn’t true – I felt that she had been more badly written than anything else.  She wouldn’t be the first character to come out differently compared to how the author intended – it’s the same thing that made me completely give up on Twilight and seriously damaged my enjoyment of The Hunger Games.  All three of these are led by a character who is being celebrated and hailed as a wonder but since they’re speaking in the first person, they have to keep on saying how strange all this praise is to reinforce their own ordinariness supposedly to make them seem more sympathetic – Esther Summerson, Bella Swan and Katniss Everdeen.  I’ve just pictured the three of them in a line-up and it’s made me giggle.  I have a feeling that Bella Swan would get her behind kicked if that one ever came down to a fight.  My reading of Bleak House was very much that there’s far more to Esther than met the eye – Esther could totally take on Bella, possibly even Katniss.

The book turns on Lady Dedlock’s secret, the nature of which comes out to the reader fairly early on, it’s more about it staying out of public knowledge.  Still, spoilers aren’t really a factor in this book, you’re dealing with a book that is nearly one thousand pages long though, it’s more about the world the characters inhabit, this book is a social commentary above all.  Lady Dedlock is a woman tortured, she had fallen in love as young woman and become pregnant outside of marriage.  Although she believes her child to have died, I think it’s fairly apparent what the actual fate of the child was.  Gillian Anderson played her flawlessly in the BBC version, perfect for the role for all the reasons that she was miscast as Miss Havisham a few years later.  Anderson brings her grace and poise and such self-control, none of which Miss Havisham had … although that might just be because I was spoiled by the David Lean adaptation several decades before.  Anyway, Lady Dedlock is generally narrated by the omniscient Dickens and he perfectly conjures up this elegant woman who is silently miserable in her grand surroundings.

Lady Dedlock is married to a man who loves her and will go to whatever lengths to make her happy.  However, lurking in the wings is the deadly Mr Tulkinghorn.  In the BBC version, I felt that he was in love with Lady Dedlock but in a nasty way – wanting to control her and taking pleasure in her terror of him.  While there is nothing in the book that states it explicitly, I still keep to my original theory.  Mr Tulkinghorn will stop at nothing to discover my Lady’s secret and he leaves quite the body count in his wake.  His motives are mysterious, he shows almost no emotion and he appears to be a loyal servant to Sir Leicester and family.  I think that Mr Tulkinghorn is one of the more frightening Victorian supervillains – certainly more so than the dancing Cockney crew from Oliver Twist (hated that book).  Again, Tulkinghorn is cast spot-on by Charles Dance, the same man who plays Tywin Lannister in Game of Thrones which is a remarkably similar part.  I’ve had a copy of Tom All Alone’s, a recently-written spin off of Bleak House in The Pile since Christmas and from what I can tell, Mr Tulkinghorn is continuing as the villain there too and you can see why.  He is a scary man, out-manoeuvring everyone until they have nothing else to do but die.


Esther and her friends live in Bleak House, originally Peak House but renamed by a Jarndyce family member who later committed suicide out of despair over the lawsuit.  Still, this Bleak House is not really what the novel is about.  Not that much time is spent there and in fact, that particular house is a fairly happy place.  Dickens does tend to lay the symbolism on fairly heavily – I felt the Bleak House of the title was the one we are all in, the imperfect world etc., etc.  Jo the sweeper boy is the ultimate orphan, he ‘don’t know nothing’ but even in his total ignorance he is constantly being told to move on and being harangued for he knows not what.  He dies without even being able to complete his first ever prayer.  Again, as I said – Dickens is not a subtle man.  All the same, the death that affected me more was that of Mr Gridley – it was heartbreaking to see a once hearty man reduced to his end, utterly defeated by Tulkinghorn, Jo’s death just teetered a little too far into the sickly.

There are literal bleak houses too though, Krook’s deadly and combustible residence, Chesney Wold, the Smallweeds’ home, Tom All Alone’s itself … all of these amidst the swirling fog both of the Chancery court and London itself.  The domestic sphere can offer little protection.  Indeed, bad parenting is major theme of the novel, there are the orphaned wards in Jarndyce, Mr Skimpole, the ghastly Mrs Jellyby, Mr Skimpole, Mr Turveydrop, Mr Skimpole, even the unfortunate Lady Dedlock.  Everywhere there are characters desperately trying to carve out a place for themselves in an unforgiving world – Caddy Jellyby was one of my favourite characters, she actively sought a better life for herself with her Prince.  George Rouncewell was another character who I really liked, trying to protect the less fortunate when he was fairly unfortunate himself.

Leigh Hunt, the real life Skimpole

For me though, the ultimate villain was Mr Skimpole.  Interestingly, most people agree that he was based on a real person, the essayist Leigh Hunt, who did not take well to being so immortalised in print.  Mr Skimpole wanders around proclaiming himself to be an utter ‘child’ in practical matters, particularly those surrounding the management of his financial affairs, requiring him to be regularly bailed out by Mr Jarndyce.  Esther professes to be very fond of him but although she is never less than polite about him, her suspicions are made clear.  Inspector Bucket privately notes to her that whenever someone claims to very naive and unaware about worldly matters, you can guarantee that they are expecting other people to clean up their mess.  Skimpole is in many ways more deadly than Tulkinghorn and certainly more insidious – he ‘delights’ everyone with his silly musings on the world around him and then regretfully pushes his debts their way.  I know so many people who reject the label adult, as if in claiming to be immature they are absolved of responsibility but truthfully, what do they really gain?  Harold Skimpole’s children grow up matching their father in their laziness and foolishness with their money – this is all they know.  Unfortunately, I have seen a real life version of this play out – my view of it is uncomplicated: for people who believe that adulthood is optional, sort your self out – you’re not fooling any one, it’s laziness, pure and simple.

Bleak House shows us a world where kindness is hard to find.  Mr John Jarndyce tries to protect those he loves, but even he cannot prevent them being drawn in to the fogs of London.  As usual, Dickens preaches against the workhouses and the ineffectiveness of charity, Mr Jarndyce is the sole positive charitable figure in the novel, his is a doctrine of love.  It is the day to day cruelties that people inflict on each other that grind people down.  The unrelenting legal profession, the way in which young men can be educated about poetry but not in how to work, that children can run wild on the streets and never really know that they are loved, this is a world where a man who has lost everything can die and barely be missed.  Esther makes it clear that she feels herself to have been saved by the love of those around her – but Ada’s love could not save Richard, nor could Sir Leicester’s love save his Lady.  All they can do is keep loving them still, no matter what the world may say.  The bleakness of the title goes much deeper than the name of the house.  It is a book well worth the reading and its unforgiving world view unsettled me, over one hundred and fifty years after publication.  I’m so glad that I finally read it!


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Bleak House by Charles Dickens
Published by Bradbury and Evans on 1853
Genres: 19th Century, Classics, Crime, Fiction, General, Mystery & Detective
Pages: 624

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9 thoughts on “Review: Bleak House, Charles Dickens

  1. Hi, I am thinking ahead a bit and wondered if you would like to be considered for being included in my featured book blogs sidebar for June? Just drop me a line on if you are interested. cheers

  2. Hi, I came via Carole's Chatter. I watched the movie before reading the book – loved both and the movie helped me get my head around the plot. I've really enjoyed some of the lesser popular Dickens books such as this one; Little Dorritt is another & has a good BBC version. Great detailed review!

  3. I love Carole's Chatter – thank you for visiting! I'd always heard of Bleak House and I dimly remember a Radio 4 version when I was a little girl but it sort of became a Reading Challenge a few years back. I think it is one of Dickens' popular books and people do say that this is the book where Dickens Grew Up … but I still think that Great Expectations has a bit more of a swing to it. The 2005 adaptation really captured the style of Bleak House, the way that Tulkinghorn is so terrifying even though he's so quiet – without being a caricature, he's one of Dickens' most menacing characters. Anyway, thank you for reading! 🙂

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