Monday, November 12, 2007

Why Should I Read?...

Bleak House

Charles Dickens, 1852-3

An earlier “Why Should I Read…?” looked at Charles Palliser’s The Quincunx, a very 20th century take on the 19th century novel. Bleak House is the book which most influenced it, a huge plot covering all social classes with a protracted legal case at its centre.

While Palliser is concerned with deconstructing the Victorian novel, Dickens uses his story as a powerful vehicle for social criticism. Jarndyce and Jarndyce, the legal action at the core of the book, consumes the lives of all the characters who seek to profit from it, and in a final irony, the estate over which the plaintiffs had fought is shown to have been bankrupted by the legal fees.

Narratively Bleak House is also interesting. It has two parallel narratives, the first related in the first person by the unreliably reticent Esther Summerson, the other an omniscient—but savage—authorial voice. It is never entirely clear how the two strands interact, but each enhances the other.

The true brilliance of Dickens, and the reason we still read him today, is his characterisation. His cast is slightly—in some cases much—larger than life. It’s hard to imagine that anyone has ever done humorous grotesques better—and nobody, anywhere, ever, has surpassed Dickens in the naming of characters. Where Jane Austen creates an illusion of everyday life, Dickens’ characters could never live anywhere but in the author’s imagination. What we end up with is an exaggerated version of the ‘real’ world, but it’s an exaggeration which illuminates our own.

With its powerful satire, compelling portrait of 19th century urban life and range of brilliant and socially diverse characterisation, Bleak House is an astoundingly ambitious novel. Dickens’ trademark energy and pace abound—across the whole 1,000 pages. It defies ready summary: if you have a couple of weeks to spare, read it instead.

How has it influenced me?

Dickens is a writer of extraordinary emotional range. He is master of an overblown sentimentalism which is difficult to appreciate today, but he also commands an angry satire and humour on many levels. One thing I’ve always admired in his work is his ability to mix the tragic and comic in a way that enhances both. I try for a similar effect in my own work, but few writers can pull it off with aplomb: Dickens is one of the best.

Lessons for the aspiring writer

Don’t be afraid to write a long story…

…but if you do it will need to compel on several levels to sustain interest (the weakness of many of today’s enormous fantasy novels is that don’t have sufficient variety of tone and theme to warrant the length)

Strong characterisation can overcome plot deficiencies; but a strong plot will not bail out inadequate characterisation

The editorialising authorial voice may be out of fashion but handled skilfully it can add power and direction

Fossilised social institutions make excellent satirical targets

Characters' names are worth taking trouble over


Anonymous said...

We recently read Bleak House in my book club, and upon this most recent re-reading, what struck me was Dickens' ability to distill complex human motivations and characteristics into characters who, forever afterward, will serve as shorthand for those more complicated concepts---sort of like, a picture being worth a thousand words. Mrs. Jellyby and Richard Carsten spring immediately to mind.

Tim Stretton said...

Hello Chuck!

I take it the book club liked Bleak House more than Suldrun's Garden...

The quality you see in Dickens is sometimes derided as caricature--but I think your description is far nearer the mark.