How surprising to learn that a 162-year-old novel with the dreary title of Bleak House could be so charming, so engaging, and so funny! But it really is. From Esther’s self-deprecating, clever point of view to Matthew Bagnet’s maintenance of discipline in “the old girl” to the acerbic narrator’s description of the English political and judicial systems, every sentence drips with careful craft and intention. The heavy satire and irony reminded me strongly of Monty Python sketches about English manners. Before reading this, Tale of Two Cities was my favorite Dickens (over Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol), but Bleak House has taken its place. (That said, Tale at least has brevity going for it.)
As the novel gets rolling, the reader is introduced to so many characters that it begins to feel like Doctor Zhivago or something. But all the characters are differentiated well in look, in manner of speech, and in their unique ticks. Mr. Snagsby's specific coughs of communication, Grandfather Smallweed's need to be shaken up frequently, Inspector Bucket's roaming index finger... the traits are consistent throughout and help to convey important characterizations. Every character here--even the most minor, and even the ones that never actually appear but are only spoken of--comes alive under the narrator's description. While there are a lot of characters to like, even love, there are many others to like less. Did I really hate any of them? No, because even the worst among them (probably Mr. Tulkinghorn or Grandfather Smallweed, followed by Mr. Vohles) are such delightful caricatures that you just have to smile at their horribleness.
The social and political criticism of the novel is shockingly contemporary. You'll have no trouble following the discussions about Boodle and Coodle and Foodle if you can keep up with a conversation about Perry, Bush, and Kasich, for example. Sir Leicester's reaction when he discovers that an ironmaster is rallying voters against him and his party in the North is completely relatable to a modern reader. The description of the court system had me laughing out loud. You heard me: the description of the mid-nineteenth century English civil judicial system had me laughing out loud. It really is a remarkable book!
Like many long, old books, I listened to this one rather than reading the text. Simon Vance did a good job with the narration, keeping the voices pretty consistent and pulling out the humor. And he's British, so he sailed through the pronunciations of names that I, as an American, would have stumbled over (even Jarndyce, which Vance pronounces more like "JON-dis").
I've seen some criticism that Esther is too good, too perfect, and therefore irritating. But I encourage you to look little closer, and consider the ideals of womanhood at her time, not to mention her upbringing. Esther's sharper than she lets on. She's also more prideful and vain and judgmental. But she knows how to hold that back and reveal only the most flattering portrait of herself and those she loves (Jarndyce and Woodcourt also seem a little too perfect through her eyes). Even though parts of the narrative are in her voice, she states early and repeats that she's writing it for external readers. That is, this isn't her private journal. She's giving us her public face only.
I highly recommend Bleak House, despite its length and gloomy title. I was so wonderfully surprised by it!
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