10 March 2010

2. Bleak House by Charles Dickens

This was a very difficult book to read, particularly in the beginning. It clocks in at 350,000 words and 770 pages, with 79! characters. The first 100 pages took me about a week. I do have to say, though, that it was very good. And the climax was a very fast read, say, pages 600-750 went by in a quick clip.

But what's it about, Redwing, you ask me. Well, it's Dickens, so it's about a bunch of stuff.

There are two main plots here, and a lot of smaller eddies.

First, we have the legal case of Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce. This is a case between two friendly brothers who, in their best effort to be fair to each other, have asked the Court to determine a question about their father's Will. Countless years and 70,000 pounds later, the case is still undecided. The original brothers have died, and now their heirs are awaiting judgment, even though it hardly matters anymore.

Second we have the story of our...wait for it...orphaned narrator, Esther. I won't say much about her story because to say anything would be to spoil the many discoveries you know Dickens has laid before you. Of course, the two narratives are intertwined - Esther is the ward of John Jarndyce.

There is some really spectacular writing here; Dickens is a master craftsman.

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.

And there are some really great characters. None as good as, say, The Artful Dodger, or Fagin. But some very close. I loved the policeman, "Bucket of the Detective," the character who does the most to weave together all of the loose strands of Dickens's narrative. Dickens has a way of putting character details just so, so you see the character as if he was walking across the room you're sitting in. He's a genius.