Bleak House by Charles Dickens.
Bleak House has never been my favourite Dickens but I decided a while ago I should revisit it and give it another chance. Finally, after a few years of putting off that second read I picked it up again for Fanda's Dickens in December. I'm glad I did: I don't love it, but I like it better than the first read, and, whatever the case, it has in my mind one of the best and most evocative beginnings. I'm going to quote it in full, despite its length, because I love it so much:
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. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another's umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.
Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little 'prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.
Gas looming through the fog in divers places in the streets, much as the sun may, from the spongey fields, be seen to loom by husbandman and ploughboy. Most of the shops lighted two hours before their time—as the gas seems to know, for it has a haggard and unwilling look.
The raw afternoon is rawest, and the dense fog is densest, and the muddy streets are muddiest near that leaden-headed old obstruction, appropriate ornament for the threshold of a leaden-headed old corporation, Temple Bar. And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln's Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery.
Never can there come fog too thick, never can there come mud and mire too deep, to assort with the groping and floundering condition which this High Court of Chancery, most pestilent of hoary sinners, holds this day in the sight of heaven and earth.Perfect!
Now, the novel tells a rather complicated story based around the case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce (itself hardly explained because hardly anyone understands or remembers the details) and the effects of the case on a variety of characters. It involves conflicting wills, and the case has run on over several generations. The first three characters affected are Esther Summerson (a sometimes narrator of the novel), Ada Clare and Richard Carstone: John Jarndyce is the guardian of Esther and she moves into Bleak House with him; he then takes Ada and Richard as his wards. Esther becomes Ada's governess whilst Richard attempts to find a profession, convinced all the while that the Jarndyce and Jarndyce will be settled and make him rich, which rather reduces his motivation in life. As this goes on, we also meet Lord and Lady Dedlock, and we learn that Lady Dedlock has a connection to the case; she later takes a great interest when she recognises the handwriting on the papers of her solicitor Tulkinghorn's papers. Through Tulkinghorn's investigations into this we meet Jo, a young impoverished street sweeper who will later meet a mysterious veiled woman who wishes to know all about Nemo, the man whose handwriting Lady Dedlock recognised. We also come to know a great many others: the Jellbys, for example, Hortense, Skimpole, and many others, all tightly or loosely tied to the web that is Jarndyce and Jarndyce.
It's certainly a tale of intrigue, and it is extremely well crafted, told partly by an omniscient narrator and partly by Esther Summerson. Like many Victorian novels it is panoramic in its scope which I'm afraid often leaves me picking out my favourite elements and glossing over the other parts I deem less interesting. There is a sensation element to it as well: the mystery of Lady Dedlock, her interest in the handwriting, and the connection with the veiled woman, and for me that was the best part of the book. The problem I had with it was that it was far from a relaxing read: it's a demanding work (with hindsight I ought to have left it until I was ready for putting a great deal of effort in) and it is particularly complicated. The characters make up for it however, there are, as with all of Dickens' novels, some particularly good characters who one can't help but root for, and some rotten ones who are so vile it's hard not to enjoy their misfortune. Bleak House is a novel that I admire rather than love, and it was quite a thing to read it after the long read-along of Pickwick Papers, which also has some legal themes but in tone a much different novel - Bleak House is a great deal more serious than the light (for the most part at least) and entertaining Pickwick. Still, it's a very worthy read.