Charles Dickens was one of England’s most prolific, energetic, exuberant and inventive writers – he left behind 14 novels and countless articles and essays when he died suddenly in 1870 aged 58. Such was Dickens’ stature by the time of his death that he was buried in Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey. And he poured as much energy into the world around him as he did into his writing, turning the full force of his teeming imagination to all aspects of his contemporary world: politics, law, society, the class system, schools, railways, human relations, London. There’s barely a corner of Victorian life Dickens left unexamined.
His first novel, Pickwick Papers, caused and unexpected sensation. Aged only 25, Dickens was almost overnight transformed into a literary celebrity and would later become the most famous writer in all of Europe and America. Like a 19th century rock star, Dickens gave sell-out readings from his books and even toured America, where he was mobbed in the streets, in hotels and trains.
Influential New England Transcendental thinker Ralph Waldo Emerson, who went to one of Dickens’ celebrated readings in Boston, was so entertained he laughed as if he ‘must crumble to pieces’. He later added that he believed Dickens had ‘too much talent for his genius; it is a fearful locomotive to which he is bound … he daunts me!’
Bleak House, published in 1853, is the story of an interminable legal case – Jarndyce and Jarndyce – being heard in the Courts of Chancery, which involves three wills and a contested property. The malignant reach of Jarndyce and Jarndyce is colossal, casting its gloom across the whole of British society from the country seat of Lady Honoria Dedlock to the alleyways of London, home to the street urchin Jo.
The story of Bleak House focuses on the lives of three children – Esther Summerson, Ada Clare and Richard Carstone – and their beneficent guardian, John Jarndyce, all of whose lives are indefinitely stalled by the intractable workings of the court.
The novel’s twin narrative – one told by Esther Summerson, the other by an anonymous third person – enables Dickens to reach into every strata of English society, as well as to provide the more intimate portrait of a young girl. Esther, an orphan taken into the care of John Jarndyce on the death of her ‘godmother’, begins her story apologetically: ‘I have a great deal of difficulty in beginning to write my portion of these pages, for I know I am not clever.’
The other narrative, portentous in tone, its humour fierce and biting, famously opens with a vision of London choked by mud and fog:
‘London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets, as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill.’
In his 1939 essay ‘Charles Dickens’, George Orwell – an admirer of Dickens and among those responsible for the renewed interest in him in the 1940s and 50s – wrote that Dickens ‘attacked English institutions with a ferocity that has never since been approached’.
In Bleak House Dickens attacks the fatuous idleness of the aristocracy: ‘Sir Leicester is generally in a complacent state, and rarely bored. When he has nothing else to do, he can always contemplate his own greatness. It is a considerable advantage to a man, to have so inexhaustible a subject.’
He also attacks the incompetence of Parliament, with its replicant MPs: ‘Then, giving the Home Department and Leadership of the House of Commons to Joodle, the Exchequer to Koodle, the Colonies to Loodle, and the Foreign Office to Moodle, what are you to do with Noodle?’
But his fiercest attacks are reserved for the workings of the law, the system that underpins the whole of British society.
In Bleak House Dickens creates a dazzling and nightmarish portrait of the English law, with its wills, estates, inheritances, its power to manipulate and be manipulated, and its potential to destroy lives. The lawyer Mr Kenge – ‘who appeared to enjoy beyond everything the sound of his own voice’ – is stunned to discover that Esther has never heard of the great legal case Jarndyce and Jarndyce:
‘one of the greatest Chancery suits known? Not of Jarndyce and Jarndyce – the – a – in itself a monument of Chancery practice. In which (I would say) every difficulty, every contingency, every masterly fiction, every form of procedure known in that court is represented over and over again? It is a case that could not exist, out of this free and great country.’
But John Jarndyce sees the case quite differently:
‘The Lawyers have twisted it into such a state of bedevilment that the original merits of the case have long disappeared from the face of the earth. It’s about a Will, and the trusts under a Will – or it was, once. It’s about nothing but Costs now … All the rest, by some extraordinary means, has melted away.’
At the corrupt heart of this legal bedevilment – and of Bleak House – is Jo the crossing sweeper, a homeless boy who lives in the pestilent slum ‘Tom-All-Alone’s', which happens to be ‘in Chancery, of course’. Tom-All-Alone’s, the contested property of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, is now a ruined wasteland, ‘a black, dilapidated street, devoid of all decent people’, whose derelict houses, home to vagrants, have descended into squalor.
Jo, whose pale form haunts this corrupted realm, has been told by the apparently omnipresent detective Mr Bucket (one of the first detectives in English fiction) to ‘keep out of the way’. Fearing that wherever he goes he’s being watched, will be seen and ‘found out’, Jo lives in extraordinary terror of Bucket and ‘in his ignorance, he believes this person to be everywhere, and cognisant of everything’ – like a 19th century predecessor to Orwell’s Big Brother.
At every level Bleak House speaks as powerfully to our times as it did to Dickens’ own.
Dickens was born in relative comfort in 1812 in Portsmouth on England’s south coast, but his father, a clerk in a naval pay office, was financially inept and continually troubled by debt. When his father was sent to debtors’ prison in 1824, Charles, aged 12 and the eldest son of 8 children, was forced out to work in a blacking factory to support the family. The experience of factory work marked Dickens for life. It exploded him to the deprivations of the working classes and the appalling conditions under which they worked. The reaction of this sensitive, intelligent and highly receptive boy to the suffering of the workers profoundly influenced his worldview, and his novels are fuelled by his outrage at privations and frustrations daily experienced by the poor.
At 15 Dickens left school and became a solicitor’s clerk. He then worked as a court and parliamentary reporter, where he learnt that ‘The one great principle of English law, is to make business for itself.’
Dickens’ personal life, while filled with activity and friends and family, was dark and complex. His separation in 1856 from his wife, Catherine, whom he’d married in Chelsea in 1836, cause a public scandal. It was covered in the press and became the gossip of London, alienating several of Dickens’ friends, including Thackeray. Not until many years after his death was his revealed by his daughter Katey, in a taped conversation released after her death, that Dickens had had a secret relationship with a young actress, Ellen Ternan, whom he’d cast in his production of Wilkie Collins’ play The Frozen Deep in 1857.
Dickens’ novels owed much of their popularity to their brilliant characterisation, cliff-hanger plots which unfolded over several monthly instalments and their easy adaptability to the stage. During Dickens’ lifetime, up to 20 different stage versions of his latest novel would be playing in theatres around London. His novels have continued to be widely loved by readers and adapted to cinema and television for new audiences. The most recent adaptation of Bleak House was made by the BBC in 2005 starring Gillian Anderson as Lady Honaria Dedlock and Carey Mulligan as Ada Clare.