Bleakest house

I haven’t written about my book club’s slow read of Bleak House because, well, I haven’t known what to say about it. In my post on the end of War and Peace, I said that I’d read Bleak House twice before and it was very important to me at a defining time in my life about eleven years ago. For years, I’ve also said that Bleak House was my favourite novel, but after reading it for a third time, I don’t think I can say that anymore.

We finished the novel in July. First let me say that summer is absolutely the wrong time of year to read Bleak House. It is a novel for autumn fog and dead leaves and people who say autumn instead of fall (guilty). That said, I did read it for the very first time in summer on a Lake Huron beach and that worked, so maybe what’s different is… me.

I think there’s a right time to read certain books. I was too old when I read Wuthering Heights and too young when I read Middlemarch. Maybe I’ve outgrown various books now or I’m simply a different person. Bleak House is not the novel I remember. Or am I not the person I remember?

Eleven years ago, I was in grad school and it was my job to have serious thoughts about books all day long. A dream in many ways and a year I still feel very lucky to have had. It was also a year of moving across the country twice, meeting new friends, crushes, heartbreaks, stress, achievements, teaching some poor undergrads about poetry (I hope that was helpful, econ majors!)… Just all the things. When my friend S and I reminisce about that time, which is when we first met, we talk about it like it’s this little jewel box we keep safe in a closet and take out every so often. The shine hasn’t worn off the memories yet but every year the jewel box takes longer to find and is harder to open. I do love to stretch a metaphor.

The point is that my understanding of myself as an adult was built on that year and part of that understanding was Bleak House. I loved that novel. It delighted me. It’s a novel about everything a novel could possibly be about: mud. Orphans. Family secrets and charity and something that might be smallpox but we aren’t quite sure. Failed marriage proposals. Characters with names like Turveydrop and Dedlock. Spontaneous combustion is a major plot point! Ostensibly, Bleak House is the story of a family dispute over a will that turns into a hellish legal quagmire that ruins lives, but it begins years after that dispute when the lives have been ruined yet the quagmire remains. The only happy people are the lawyers and none of them are particularly happy. It’s a monumental novel, sprawling and weird with two duelling narrative voices and a lot of melodrama and one of fiction’s first detective characters. There is much to appreciate and I do still appreciate all of it. But this time through, love and delight felt very far away.

I think Bleak House is the novel that first made me fall in love with 19th-century fiction: the too much-ness of it, the ways in which you can see authors working out what exactly a novel should be and kind of winging it to get there. I’m endlessly amused by the fact that Dickens is a major figure in “the canon” and read in high schools because he was just so weird. He was! He often brought himself to tears when reciting his own work. He was obsessed with ghost stories and annoyed by Hans Christian Andersen and loved to kill off sad orphans as fast as he could write them. He gave his characters the most obvious, least subtle names you have ever seen in fiction and he could not resist laughing at his own jokes — in the middle of important, climactic moments. I don’t think he was a great person, really, but I can’t help but feel affection when I think about him sitting at his desk adding yet another word to an already paragraph-long sentence.

Bleak House and other 19th-century novels are the kinds of books Henry James called “large, loose, baggy monsters” (he was describing Tolstoy — oh hi old friend — and Dostoyevsky, but it applies to Dickens, too). The first time I read it, I remember being awed. It feels like Dickens is balancing on a tightrope and saves himself from falling about fifty times, by the skin of his teeth. You think, “How will he get Esther out of this loveless engagement?” and then he presents the most absurd but in-character escape you could imagine.

So the second time I read it, in grad school, that was the love and delight. I took great pleasure in the descriptions of Mrs. Jellyby, the neglectful mother, and Lady Dedlock, the stoniest coldest bitch in fiction. I shook my head admiringly at the elaborate descriptions of fog and mud and mysterious dripping yellow substances left behind by the spontaneous combustion. I found the novel incredibly funny. I went on to make 19th-century fiction the focus of my graduate studies, in large part because of Bleak House.

My grad school advisor would probably tell me this is all a very modern and unserious assessment of Dickens, and she’d be right. He was a major, influential literary star in his time and a master of the serialized novel form, which is how most novels were published then. Bleak House was published in monthly magazine instalments — hard to imagine because the chapters alternate between two narrators who have nothing to do with each other. One is Esther Summerson, a seemingly modest orphan (one of many in this novel) who is telling us her life story for unclear reasons. After being brought up by a mean old lady, she’s sent to school by a mysterious benefactor and then taken on by said benefactor as a companion to his young cousin, Ada (another orphan and a person named in the endless court case that’s ruined lives). The second narrator is a third person omniscient figure, maybe Dickens himself, who has a bird’s eye view of the London courts and social scene and introduces us to other characters who will gradually find their ways into Esther and Ada’s lives.

Esther speaks in the past tense, narrating from some unspecified future time, and she knows what’s about to happen but reveals things very slowly and always in a little aside or throwaway comment. You never know how she feels about anything until at the end of a chapter she mentions casually that she was crying the entire time. Meanwhile, the omniscient narrator speaks in the present tense, narrating what’s happening to everyone around Esther and Ada as they live out their story. The contrast between the two of them was especially jarring to me during this third reading of the novel. What, exactly, is the point of the contrast? Our book club had many debates about it.

From my own vantage point 11 years past my grad school days, I consider the way I tell that story now, with my Esther-like amount of distance. As Esther narrates, she’s happy and secure (spoiler alert: she does get out of that loveless engagement and into a marriage with the man she loves), looking back on this defining time in her past and connecting dots with ease. I’m happy, too (as happy as a person can be in a pandemic amidst a climate crisis and late-stage capitalism). But still I always go back to that time of my life when I tell stories about myself. I think about how I was a person interested in capital-L Literature, who once spent a full year reading and thinking about a very niche topic (rabies in Victorian print culture, if you must know), who moved across the country by herself to try something new, and how my understanding of myself as an adult started there. But I also think: wow, that person had so many feelings. She was so sure she knew everything.

I wonder what it would be like now to write my rose-coloured narration of it all alongside a pitiless, all-seeing third party observer crafting a rival narrative. What characters would that third person think worthy of inclusion? Would they pick up on the importance of certain people much sooner than I did? What would they judge me for leaving out? Reading over this blog post, I notice that I’ve left out most of the moments that made that year so important to me. This is an entire post writing around the actual events. Like Esther, I am only willing to reveal what I have to.

As the saying goes, the past is a foreign country. Rereading Bleak House reminded me that I don’t quite speak the language anymore. It was a little sad to close the book this time and think I probably won’t read it again. Maybe now it’s enough to think back on all the joy I got out of this novel once instead of trying to recreate, painstakingly, that same feeling.

Published by Kathleen

Children's book editor, writer, over-thinker. Sometimes a bookseller.

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