This is generally considered one of Dickens's best works, though it's not the most widely read or frequently filmed, because it's also one of his longest works and has a ton of subplots. At the center of Bleak House
is the case of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce
, which has been running through the Chancery Court for so long that it's become a self-perpetuating monster that none of its participants really understands:
Jarndyce and Jarndyce drones on. This scarecrow of a suit has, in course of time, become so complicated that no man alive knows what it means. The parties to it understand it least, but it has been observed that no two Chancery lawyers can talk about it for five minutes without coming to a total disagreement as to all the premises. Innumerable children have been born into the cause; innumerable old people have died out of it. Scores of persons have deliriously found themselves made parties in Jarndyce and Jarndyce without knowing how or why; whole families have inherited legendary hatreds with the suit. The little plaintiff or defendant who was promised a new rocking-horse when Jarndyce and Jarndyce should be settled has grown 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 has 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.
The main character is Esther Summerson, a ward of John Jarndyce. Besides Esther, Mr. Jarndyce takes in two other wards who have "inherited" the suit, Ada and Richard.
The novel runs through several different plot threads and involves dozens of characters. The most memorable, besides Esther, are the crusty, conservative Baronet Sir Leicester Dedlock and his much younger wife Lady Honoraria Dedlock, Sir Leicester's sinister lawyer Mr. Tulkinghorn, Harold Skimpole, a manipulative mooch, and of course, the Lord Chancellor "Keep away from flames" Krook.
This was one of Dickens's "social criticism" novels. While he was mostly ripping into the Chancery Court, he involves a cast of colorful characters illuminating the entire spectrum of human behavior, from the despicable and greedy to the selfless and charitable to the silly to the pathetic. This book ups the Dickensian quota for tragic tear-jerking deaths, administers the expected just comeuppance for evil-doers, and of course, properly marries off the heroine in the end. There is a secret illegitimate child, a murder mystery, and plenty of humor and pathos.
That said... ye gads was this book long
. I listened to it as an audiobook (almost 40 hours long!) and I swear sometimes an hour would go by and I would have no idea where I was in the story. To keep track of every subplot and minor character requires either actually reading this on the page or paying more attention while listening. I did of course absorb Dickens's prose and the major story arcs, but it just couldn't hold my interest as much as his shorter works have. Bleak House
is one of those novels that earned Dickens his reputation for being very, very wordy and writing books that would be considered bloated and full of filler by modern standards.
It's Dickens, so of course the filler is still very good, but I missed the comedy and the (relative) conciseness of his other novels. Plus, Dickens really doesn't write fully fleshed out women, so Esther is your typical woman-on-a-pedestal, always modest, always demure, always perfect and angelic.
Usually I can listen to really long audiobooks and follow along for the duration. Someday I will have to have another go at this book and actually read it as opposed to half-listening to it, but it just wasn't my favorite Dickens. 3.5 stars, rounding up to 4 because I'm sure there's a richness of detail and depth I just didn't catch this time around.