I thought I had read this book a long time ago, and had even marked it as “read” in GoodReads, but I think that was because it was shown to me in one of those book compatibility tests, now hidden behind a “More” button. I soon realised that I hadn’t read it before, and I was probably thinking of Dombey and Son.
I was moved to read Bleak House because I had just read Black House, in which the characters read it, and I’m glad I did, because I think it is one of Charles Dickens‘s best novels. As it was published over 160 years ago there have been countless reviews of it, and so I won’t try to review it, but rather comment on a few themes.
I found it rather difficult to get into, because Dickens has a large cast of characters, introduced piecemeal, so that the connections between them only become apparent much later. It also seems to cover several different genres. Quite a number of Dickens’s novels have a storyline that is entwined with a moral crusade. In this case there are at least two moral crusades, one against rapacious lawyers, and another against people whose obsession with abstract causes leads them to neglect ordinary human relationships and become increasingly selfish and self-centred. So the heroes of the story are those who embody unselfish love. In a sub-plot it is also a crime novel, and from another point of view it can be seen as a love story.
One thing that strikes me about this is how it contrasts with the philosophy of Ayn Rand, who detests altruism and propounds the virtue of selfishness. She claims, in a rather contradictory way, that altruists are all self-centred, and that altruism is at its core selfish, therefore altruism is bad and selfishness is good. And she gets pretty preachy about it in her novels.
While Dickens appears to be making a similar point about the self-centredness of altruists like Mrs Jellyby in the novel, he ascribes it to a somewhat different cause. Those who are addicted to the Cause, whether it’s development in Africa, winning a law suit or fashion (Deportment with a capital D) manage to persuade themselves that they are being unselfish when at their most selfish.
But Dickens comes to a different conclusion. The characters who are so wrapped up in the Cause that they have no time for people lack love. People like Mrs Jellyby might gladly give their bodies to be burned, as St Paul says in I Cor 13:3, but if they have not love, it is worthless.
Another thing that struck me about it was the language, which seemed surprisingly up to date. I had no difficulty in understanding it, which shows, perhaps that in many ways English has changed remarkably little since Dickens’s day. But I suspect that while we may have little difficulty in understanding Dickens’s language, he might have considerably more difficulty in understanding ours. It is not that words have changed, but things have changed.
And perhaps for that reason I would not recommend that most of Dickens be read by anyone under 40. I think if I had read this in my teens, as a school set work, say, a lot of it would have gone right over my head. Or even in my early twenties, at university. For a start, I wasn’t aware of the difference between Common Law and Equity until I was in my 30s and researching genealogy. There are some books that people can enjoy at different levels at different ages, Gulliver’s Travels for example. Quite young people can enjoy the stories as adventure stories in strange place. As they grow older, they can appreciate other aspects, like satire. But in Dickens, with a few exceptions like A Christmas Carol and A Tale of Two Cities, the ground floor and first floor are not there. Bleak House starts on the third floor, and though it may sometimes go higher, it rarely goes lower.