Saturday, 7 July 2012

Review: Bleak House by Charles Dickens

To get one thing out of the way: I love Dickens. First and foremost, his work is highly entertaining, almost pulpy, demonstrating a mastery over form and content rarely seen anywhere. There's a wicked glee to be found in his satire, but never one that strays into cruelty; Dickens is just as capable of pathos and sentiment if he wishes to be. His style is similarly perfected: unafraid to experiment, but aware of the importance and primacy of accessibility and plot, equally comfortable with grim naturalism and merry caricature, with contorted coincidence and easy freedom. Unlike later authors, who adopt more 'low-brow' genres such as the detective story (of which one of Bleak House's many subplots is an important forerunner) and brutalising them to breaking point with conceit and intellect, Dickens fully inhabits and understands his medium: his genius comes in his ability to transcend generic constraints even as he perfects them. Never is there a sense that he is straining to show off his, presumably considerable, intelligence, never a sense that he is trying to be clever. There is great joy in reading Bleak House in the mastery of craft, a mastery that is at once unpretentious and capable of vast popular appeal.

More rare in the case of my tastes, perhaps, than the enjoyment of something with vast popular appeal is the emotive appeal of Bleak House. I'm not normally someone to respond to texts with more than sneering irony or vague nostalgia, but Dickens managed to whip me into line, joyous at marriages, weepy at deaths, and even filled with moral indignation at the severe injustices on display. Again, this is response is atypical for me: I usually consider works with an insistent social or moral message tedious or one-dimensional, or at the very least try to ignore the obvious meaning for a more studied response. The reasons for this lie, I suspect, in part with the very length of the novel, which requires, and justifies, a significant emotional investment. Prolonged familiarity allows the reader to breed a more meaningful affection or scorn for Dickens's characters, thus resulting in a greater payoff.

The obvious reason for my engagement, of course, is Dickens's writing itself. His ability to create highly memorable characters, and endow them with vitality, individuality and distinctive patterns of expression is clearly a significant factor – although Bleak House seems somewhat weaker in this regard than much of Dickens's canon, given the relative blandness of Esther, Ada and Mr Jarndyce – but the impeccable structuring of the novel is certainly worth consideration. Dickens's use of a dual narrative structure, with the duties of the narrator shared between Esther and some unnamed omniscient, allows for variation to gain emphasis due to its incongruity – when the unnamed narrator offers praise, or Esther offers criticism, one knows it is significant and affecting.

The centrality of the Chancery to the narratives of all the characters is perhaps more of a masterstroke: not only does it allow for a neater and less contrived conclusion, but it gives the novel a greater sense of overall cohesion. What makes this cohesion the more impressive is that Dickens managed it when writing episodically. While the novel's manner of publication shows, with shifts of narrative perspective and cliffhangers abounding every few chapters, they are far from detrimental to Bleak House's success – indeed, they make the process of reading such a tome far easier and more accessible.

Despite these varying strands of Dickens's genius, the central achievement of Bleak House is that it is vastly entertaining and compelling for the best part of nine-hundred pages. Dickens demonstrates his variety while retaining consistency and coherence. It seems almost impossible to express just how good he is.

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