Bleak House, by Charles Dickens, is a satire on the evils of the 19th century English legal system and the state of Victorian society. It is the ninth novel of Dickens, published in installments between March 1852 and September 1853. Critically it is held to be one of Dicken’s best novels, though I would beg to argue some with that. The plot is complex, with a seemingly endless supply of characters. Readers are pulled deeply into 19th century London, due to Dicken’s extensive descriptive powers. Readers also become intimately familiar with the main characters, especially the novel’s heroine Esther Summerson. Despite the intellectually stimulating deep immersion into the setting and characters, I find the novel suffers a bit from ‘rambling on’, along with the extreme personality traits of the characters.
The story centers around an extremely long-running case in England’s Court of Chancery, Jarndyce and Jarndyce; a case that has dragged on for generations negatively impacting about everyone who comes into contact with it. While the case itself remains in the background throughout the book, the story highlights the systematic failure of the Chancery and the destruction it caused to those pulled into it (Chancery courts heard actions having to do with wills and estates, or with the uses of private property). Dickens saw first hand the workings of the Chancery when he served as a law clerk, and when he was a litigant seeking to enforce his copyright on his earlier books. The novel played a key part in a movement that culminated in enactment of the legal reform in the 1870s.
With nearly two dozen major characters and three dozen minor, it would take a short novel just to summarize those that play a part in the story. Dickens does employ a unique narrative structure, with the story being told in parallel by a first-person narrator, Esther Summerson, and also by an unidentified, third-person narrator. Summerson provides perspective on the inner make up and feelings of the characters, while the third-person narrator describes their appearances and behavior from an external observer perspective.
What follows is my attempt at an extremely short summary of the book. I normally do not do this sort of cliff note version, because I find it boring and I prefer pulling out quotes that move me. However, I think it useful for you to get an idea of the complexity of the plot, and I found that if I was to type up my notes from this book, it would probably take twenty pages, which I do not want to subject you to!
Sir Leicester Dedlock and Lady Dedlock live at his estate called Chesney Wold. Well prior to marrying Sir Leicester, Lady Dedlock had a child with a lover of hers named Captain Hawdon. Lady Dedlock believed her daughter had died. All of this being unknown to Sir Leicester Dedlock. The daughter, Esther Summerson, ends up with a guardian named John Jarndyce, living at Bleak House, along with his wards, Richard Carstone and Ada Clare (cousins who ultimately marry). Lady Dedlock and Esther eventually find out about each other and are secretly re-united, though Lady Dedlock tells Esther that they must never acknowledge their connection again, for fear of Sir Leicester finding out about her past. Sir Leicester’s lawyer, Tulkinghorn finds out about Lady Dedlock’s past, as does her maid, Hortense. Lady Dedlock flees her home, while Hortense kills Tulkinghorn, trying to frame Lady Dedlock. Inspector Bucket discovers the truth of what happened, but not before Lady Dedlock dies after wandering the country in cold weather. The case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce finally comes to an end, with a finding for Richard and Ada. However, the costs of litigation have consumed the estate, leaving Richard broken, and he dies. Esther and a Dr. Woodcourt marry, and have two daughters.
The book is good, and well worth reading. Dickens writes with such detail and passion, it really does give the reader a feeling of being within the setting, an observer to the action. I just do not find the book as focused as some of his works I do enjoy better (David Copperfield, Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities, etc.). It seems to me that score of pages could be cut, including some sub-plots, without substantially impacting the story.
The Folio Society edition of Bleak House is very nice. It is classic looking, quarter bound in leather with maroon paper sides, along with gold trim and gilt. It is well put together and sturdy, which is important as the book comes in at nearly 1,000 pages. The paper is nice, though thin. I find with thin paper, the text and illustrations usually suffer a bit in terms of sharpness that can be attained. I cannot blame FS for the thin paper, as one would need a truck to carry the book. Yet, perhaps this may have been better as two volumes? In any case, it is very readable, with a nice typeface and plenty of illustrations by ‘Phiz’, aka Hablot Knight Browne.
Hablot Knight Browne (1815 – 1882) was an English artist, famous as Phiz. ten books by Dickens which Phiz illustrated, he is most known for David Copperfield, Pickwick, Dombey and Son, Martin Chuzzlewit and Bleak House. Most of Browne’s work was etched on steel plates because these yielded a far larger edition than copper.
About the Edition
- Text and illustrations reproduction from the 1938 Nonesuch Dickens
- Quarter-bound in leather by Lachenmaier, Reutlingen, Germany: this leather is finest Nigerian goatskin, dyed to a beautiful rich burgundy Victorian shade which shows off the natural grain
- Gold finish: the top edge is gilded while the spine and cloth sides are blocked in 23 carat gold with a blind-blocked rule to perfect the cloth and leather join
- Specially made cream paper from the Favini mill near Venice
- Original illustrations by Hablot Knight Browne (‘Phiz’)
- Introduced by Peter Ackroyd
- Ribbon marker woven in burgundy grosgrain
- Printed by St Edmundsbury Press, Bury St Edmunds
- Bulmer typeface
- 10¼” x 6½”, 976 pages