Bleak House, again

April 30, 2007

Yesterday I posted some notes on Dickens’ Bleak House. Today I sat down and read Chesterton’s introduction to the book, published back in 1911. This was well worthwhile, and I heartily recommend that you read his thoughts instead of mine. Not only does he have more and better things to say, but he also says them better than me.

For instance, I made the point that the plot was more unified or cohesive than I thought was characteristic of Dickens’ books. Chesterton has the same thought, but puts it this way:

When we come to Bleak House, we come to a change in artistic structure. The thing is no longer a string of incidents; it is a cycle of incidents. It returns upon itself; it has recurrent melody and poetic justice; it has artistic constancy and artistic revenge. It preserves the unities; even to some extent it preserves the unities of time and place. The story circles round two or three symbolic places; it does not go straggling irregularly all over England like one of Mr. Pickwick’s coaches. People go from one place to another place; but not from one place to another place on the road to everywhere else. Mr. Jarndyce goes from Bleak House to visit Mr. Boythorn; but he comes back to Bleak House. Miss Clare and Miss Summerson go from Bleak House to visit Mr. and Mrs. Bayham Badger; but they come back to Bleak House. The whole story strays from Bleak House and plunges into the foul fogs of Chancery and the autumn mists of Chesney Wold; but the whole story comes back to Bleak House. The domestic title is appropriate; it is a permanent address.

Lord, that’s good!

He makes other good points too. He admires, for instance, Dickens’ depiction of the gradual decline of Richard Carstone, for it is subtle and believable. He also argues that the character of young Caddy Jellyby (the daughter, remember, of that implacable do-gooder Mrs. Jellyby) is “by far the greatest, the most human, and the most really dignified of all the heroines of Dickens”, and this is a strength of the book that I missed on my own. About Mr. Skimpole he has an interesting theory: the character simply got away from Dickens, in that he was conceived as an essentially static figure who could not survive immersion in a story:

Poor Skimpole only asked to be kept out of the business of this world, and Dickens ought to have kept him out of the business of Bleak House. By the end of the tale he has brought Skimpole to doing acts of mere low villainy. This altogether spoils the ironical daintiness of the original notion. Skimpole was meant to end with a note of interrogation. As it is, he ends with a big, black, unmistakable blot.

Chesterton also corrects one of my missteps. I spoke of Chancery as though it were a token element of the story, the obligatory social wrong against which Dickens could deploy his satire. But Chesterton sees that in fact Chancery, and the suit of Jarndyce and Jarndyce that is its plaything, is an essential part of the story from the first page to the last, and that without it much of the action could never have happened. I happily stand corrected.

2 Responses to “Bleak House, again”

  1. Adam Hincks Says:

    This essay is one of the best things that Chesterton ever wrote. I’m planning on reading Appreciations and Criticisms when I get the chance.

  2. cburrell Says:

    Yes, I’ve been reading Chesterton’s short essays on each of Dickens’ books as I have finished the books myself. He has illuminating things to say about each of them, but I thought the essay on Bleak House was especially good.

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