As the plot of Bleak House turns on mysteries it is impossible to discuss it without giving some of them away. Readers new to the novel are advised to skip this introduction until they have finished the story, so that they can enjoy it at least once as its first readers did.
At the end of March 1850 Charles Dickens addressed his public in a new guise, as ‘conductor’ of a weekly journal called Household Words. It was a significant moment in his life generally and in his development as a novelist. Dickens was world-famous, confident of his hold on the audience captivated in the late 1830s with Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist and nurtured through the 1840s with the novels from The Old Curiosity Shop to David Copperfield. He was confident too of his national standing. Dickens himself was identified with the humanitarian and generous thrust of A Christmas Carol and The Chimes and philanthropists were turning to him for support in a variety of ameliorative projects. Now Dickens sought to enlarge the scope of his intervention in public life. His was to be a journal with a mission and its remit was wide. Week by week Dickens and his team (all of whose contributions the chief vetted and often rewrote) discoursed on contemporary life, sometimes presenting with a sharpened edge topics of the day for readers who did not habitually read The Times or government blue-books, sometimes presenting new material, the result of first-hand investigation. And everything served the journal’s declared aims—to entertain, to enliven, above all to foster imagination in the service of ‘the raising up of those that are down, and the general improvement of our social condition’ (letter to Elizabeth Gaskell, 31 January 1850).
The intensified sense of purpose that inspired the foundation of Household Words. and the work Dickens did for it, also fuelled the series of extraordinarily powerful and original novels beginning with Bleak House on which his current reputation largely rests. Articles coming across the editor’s desk on contemporary topics were, in Susan Shatto’s apt analogy, ‘for the novels of Dickens what Holinshed’s Chronicles and North’s Plutarch were for the plays of p. viii↵Shakespeare’ (The Companion to Bleak House (1988), 5). Slum houses, without sanitation or pure water, the breeding grounds for disease; the lack of even basic medical provision for the poor; the noisome, pestilential state of many city graveyards; the inhuman treatment of pauper children, the unwanted offspring of a rapidly growing but unknown underclass—such topics, so rebarbative in themselves, struck Dickens as full of meaning, portentous signs of the times. Above all he was seized by the campaign for the reform of the Court of Chancery. Himself a recent victim of Chancery ‘justice’, Dickens had declared in 1846 that ‘it is better to suffer a great wrong than to have recourse to the much greater wrong of the law’ (letter to John Forster), and public revelations since then of how Chancery’s hallowed practices actually bore on given individuals had only intensified his anger.
Bleak House, however, would be as unread as Household Words itself is were it no more than an assemblage of mid-century topicalities. What made and still makes it so compelling is the imaginative intensity of this novel. Apparently unconnected topics, from the small, such as the treatment of an ignorant little boy at an inquest, to the great, such as a governmental crisis, are fused in a densely specific representation of contemporary society that is also a diagnosis of its values and morals. Never before had Dickens worked on such a large scale, to such an ambitious end, in an aesthetic structure of such demanding complexity.
Ambition is of little value, of course, if readers find the complexity too much to take—Finnegans Wake is a case in point. No one knew this better than Dickens, and when he remarked in the 1853 preface to the first book edition of Bleak House, ‘I believe I have never had so many readers as in this book’, relief must have mingled with delight. Difficult and demanding though the new novel was in many ways, his readers, it seemed, were still with him. The first monthly part was issued in March 1852 and over the next three months 38,500 copies of it were printed. Sales remained buoyant and were soon ‘markedly greater than [those] of any of the monthly serials written during the 1840s’ (Robert L. Patten, Charles Dickens and his Publishers (1978), 216).
Sales are not the only measure of success, however, and a few reviews were straws in the wind that was to blow more coldly on Dickens over the next two decades. Many critics, as was usual in the period, picked over Bleak House as if it were a box of assorted p. ix↵sweets, savouring what they had always enjoyed—the humorous characters, for example—and passing over what was not to their taste. And though as Philip Collins has noted, ‘special-interest groups were offended by particular elements in the story: low-churchmen by Chadband’, for example, and enthusiasts for foreign missions by Mrs Jellyby (Dickens: The Critical Heritage (1971), 272), the critical reception of the novel was generally positive. A few reviewers, however, voiced more substantial reservations about the new offering. Because Dickens was so popular it was all the more irresponsible, thought G. H. Lewes, that he should have propagated scientific error: ‘according to all known chemical and physiological laws, Spontaneous Combustion is an impossibility’ (ibid. 275). Henry Chorley in the Athenaeum regretted that Dickens’s ‘resolution to startle’ was betraying him into an ever more exaggerated representation of ‘the world we live in’ (ibid. 276—7). George Brimley picked up on that point in the Spectator, deprecating Dickens’s ‘habit of seizing peculiarities and presenting them instead of characters’, and added the extra charge that the novel suffered from ‘absolute want of construction’ (ibid. 283—5). When fully developed later by Lewes, George Eliot, Henry James, Anthony Trollope, and other lesser fry, these criticisms formed the charge against the most popular serious novelist of the age—that his vision was unreal, that he was a literary conjuror, that he could not present character. But Dickens’s faithful readers cared not a jot for the disdain of a handful of intellectuals, and for once the later twentieth-century critical consensus concurs without embarrassment with the earlier popular one. Bleak House has attracted a great deal of criticism from across the range of contemporary critical perspectives, all of which agree on one thing, that it is one of the finest Victorian novels.
To a considerable extent the immediate popular success of Bleak House was due to the fact that, having learnt what his readers liked, Dickens provided it, relishing to the utmost what George Brimley pompously called ‘the noisy and profitable applause of crowded pit and gallery’ (Spectator, 24 September 1853). Dickens was too restless an artist ever just to mark time, and not one of his novels is simply a réchauffé of the usual ingredients. But he always built on strength and Bleak House offered his readers many familiar pleasures. Two in particular are worth dwelling on.
p. x↵First and foremost of these pleasures is the language. In the course of solemn animadversions on Our Mutual Friend in 1865 the young Henry James (of all people) commented on how ‘intensely written’ that novel is, linking the intensity to a perceptible decline in truth and imaginative realization. But Dickens’s novels had always been intensely written. Not without reason did he style himself ‘the inimitable Boz’. From Pickwick Papers onwards he had been exploiting his prodigious power over words and in Bleak House it is the language that seizes the attention from the very first page. The set-piece evocation of ‘implacable November weather’ is too famous to need quotation, but what must be stressed is how many other passages throughout the novel exhibit the same linguistic flexibility and make the same unremitting demand on the reader’s attentiveness.
Consider the opening to Chapter seven, for example. Sir Leicester and Lady Dedlock have escaped from the boredom of the country to Paris, and over Chesney Wold, which never at any time enjoys ‘any superabundant life of imagination’, solitude ‘with dusky wings, sits brooding’. What follows evokes the rain, the deadly monotony, the nothingness of life at the great house, while at the same time calling up their opposites with imaginative gaiety:
There may be some motions of fancy among the lower animals at Chesney Wold. The horses in the stables—the long stables in a barren, red-brick courtyard, where there is a great bell in a turret, and a clock with a large face, which the pigeons who live near it, and who love to perch upon its shoulders, seem to be always consulting—they may contemplate some mental pictures of fine weather on occasions, and may be better artists at them than the grooms. The old roan, so famous for cross-country work, turning his large eyeball to the grated window near his rack, may remember the fresh leaves that glisten there at other times, and the scents that stream in, and may have a fine run with the hounds, while the human helper, clearing out the next stall, never stirs beyond his pitchfork and birch-broom. The grey, whose place is opposite the door, and who, with an impatient rattle of his halter, pricks his ears and turns his head when it is opened, and to whom the opener says, ‘Woa, grey, then, steady! Noabody wants you to-day!’ may know it quite as well as the man. The whole seemingly monotonous and uncompanionable half-dozen, stabled together, may pass the long wet hours, when the door is shut, in livelier communication than is held in the servants’ hall, or at the Dedlock Arms;—or may even beguile the time by improving (perhaps corrupting) the pony in the loose-box in the corner.
p. xi↵Two more fanciful paragraphs on the imaginative life of the mastiff in his kennel, the hunting dogs in their quarters across the park, the turkey, and the goose, further develop the observation that ‘there is not much fancy otherwise stirring at Chesney Wold’. Apparently incidentally, too, the passage gives a lot of factual detail which brings Chesney Wold into realization, the kind of information which a novel must give yet which can too easily remain inert and difficult to assimilate.
There are many such examples of wonderfully inventive writing, which are not ‘fine writing’ in the discredited sense of that term—the series of conceits at the beginning of Chapter nineteen which fantasticates the Inns of Court, lifeless in the long vacation; the opening paragraphs of Chapter thirty-two; the descent into the hell of Tom-all-alone’s in Chapter twenty-two; the masterly amplification of the paragraphs locating Cook’s Court in Chapter ten; the poignant and beautifully cadenced vignette of Jo at the end of Chapter nineteen, ‘munching and gnawing, and looking up at the great Cross on the summit of St Paul’s Cathedral, glittering above a red and violet-tinted cloud of smoke’—all these are passages of amazing complexity and depth, allusive, syntactically agile, multi-faceted, whose exploitation of the poetic resources of the language and the devices of rhetoric offer pleasures as rewarding as any in English fiction.
Bleak House offers too, with as much brio as ever, the pleasure of dramatic variety. The generic flexibility Dickens learnt from Fielding, Smollett, and Hogarth is deployed to the full. There is opera buffa, as in Chapter twenty-five, ‘Mrs Snagsby sees it all’, one of the funniest scenes Dickens ever wrote, where Mr Chadband discourses on ‘Terewth’ to such effect on Mrs Snagsby that, ‘becoming cataleptic, she has to be carried up the narrow staircase like a grand piano’. There is melodrama, as in the confrontation in Chapter forty-one between Mr Tulkinghorn and Lady Dedlock, when these two as yet unacknowledged adversaries gaze at each other silently through a pane of glass before each steps into the chamber, knowing that the first words spoken will begin the destruction of the woman who has ‘for years, now, … been at the centre of the fashionable intelligence, and at the top of the fashionable tree’. There is mystery and suspense—why, the reader wonders, cannot the sagacious Mr Bucket see that it is impossible that trooper George should have committed the crime for which he is certain to hang? And pathos: p. xii↵the scene in which Jo dies mumbling after Allan Woodcourt the words of the Lord’s Prayer, whose efficacy remains even though the ignorant and illiterate waif has no idea of their meaning, is none the less moving because the linguistic devices are so evident in their claim. Dickens was always committed to the big effect and his means of achieving it developed in subtlety of execution. It was once considered sophisticated to sneer at Victorian lachrymosity, but a generation which has yielded so unreservedly to films such as Love Story or Kramer vs. Kramer may have rediscovered one unfailing source of Dickens’s power.
I have stressed two areas of continuity between Bleak House and Dickens’s earlier work, partly because they are the hallmarks of his art and partly because they have not, in my view, received in much recent criticism quite the kind of attention they deserve. One might mention other aspects of the novel, such as the ingenious plotting or the large cast of idiosyncratic characters, to make the point that in many respects Bleak House offered anew what his readers had come to recognize and love as Dickensian. When George Brimley made the point in his Spectator review, however, his drift was that like any tired old performer, Dickens was now going through the stale routines that none the less always got applause, and in this he could not have been more mistaken. When asked whether one of his works was not his greatest, Beethoven replied, ‘Each in its own way. Art demands of us that we shall not stand still.’ Dickens never stood still.
What impression might a reader form who comes to Bleak House for the first, or even the umpteenth, time, after reading the earlier novels in sequence? The first might well be that this one is controlled more magisterially, with a greater intensity, than any previous novel. This suggestion certainly does not mean that Bleak House discloses what it is ‘about’ in a more unified fashion than earlier work. Observing that ‘one must not read Dickens… expecting to find any extractable, unificatory overview of [his] society’, Kate Flint wisely counsels against the temptation to ‘impose unificatory lines of interpretation’ on any of the novels (Dickens (1986), 17, 60), and Peter K. Garrett has stressed in similar vein that one must expect differing ‘principles of coherence’ to be in play (The Victorian Multiplot Novel: Studies in Dialogical Form (1980), 8). Both p. xiii↵critics are right to caution against the desire to unify at all costs, but what the reader of Bleak House soon realizes is that strenuous acts of authorial unification are the dynamic energy of the novel, that Dickens is orchestrating the whole to disclose, little by little and in most unexpected ways, connection.
As the story gets under way with elements that seem more than usually disparate, the dense fog of the opening chapter spreads itself across the text. Two narratives coexist but in different time planes, and what they set out is all mystery—what is the secret of the Dedlock marriage; who is Esther Summerson; how is it that Richard and Ada are enmeshed in a Chancery suit; who is their mysterious benefactor; how can a man be called Nemo (No One); and who is it lying in the ‘foul and filthy’ room, never to be awakened, not even by the sinister Mr Tulkinghorn? As it proceeds, however, this impression that all is confused, random, inchoate, yields to the conviction that everything is involved with, or connected to, or somehow has a bearing on, everything else, a conviction created not simply by plot resolution but by the interweaving of every aspect of the novel—seemingly disparate episodes, structures of imagery and allusion, repetition of thematic keynotes, and the counterpoint of the two narratives.
Fundamental to the success of these and all other aspects of the novel is Dickens’s use of coincidence or the unexpected mishap. This sounds little enough to claim about one of the greatest novelists in the language, but what needs to be emphasized is that he is one of the greatest novelists precisely because he developed such a strong sense of the possibilities of narrative itself. Once we have yielded to the initial scene-setting of one of his later novels, Dickens can make us believe anything. Yielding usually involves the plunge into such extraordinary circumstances that some readers can never do it. Those who do and who are alert to every detail discover that this world has its own laws of probability.
Take, for example, Chapter nineteen, ‘Moving on’. It is early evening in the long vacation of the legal year and Mr and Mrs Chadband are taking tea at the home of Mr and Mrs Snagsby, Cook’s Court, Cursitor Street. The reverend gentleman’s discourse after the anchovies and new-laid eggs is interrupted by the arrival of a policeman clutching a ragged boy. Harassed to ‘move on’, the urchin, Jo, has claimed to know Mr Snagsby, and Mr Guppy, who happened to be strolling by, has vouched for the latter’s existence, p. xiv↵and tagged along. Jo is, as always, telling the truth. He met Mr Snagsby at the inquest on Nemo. But how can he explain the fact that he has a lot of money on him? Again Jo tells the truth—that it is what remains of a sovereign given him by a lady in a veil, who asked him to guide her to where Nemo was buried. The policeman does not believe a word of this cock-and-bull story, but since Mr Snagsby agrees to make himself responsible for Jo’s moving on, he leaves.
So far coincidence has furnished a carefully achieved ‘realistic’ scene-setting. Given that it is the hottest long vacation in years, it is plausible that Mr Guppy should be sauntering in the evening and so witness Jo’s arrest. As he is a lawyer’s clerk he is aware of Mr Snagsby’s respectability, and so on. But once the policeman has left, coincidence and chance, still within the wholly plausible setting created, begin to push open doors which will lead, equally plausibly, into the farthest reaches of the implausible, the grotesque, and the macabre.
Mr Guppy, ‘who has an inquiring mind in matters of evidence’, cross-examines Jo and is impressed by how tenaciously he sticks to his ‘improbable story’. He tucks the details away, where they lie next to the other disturbance in Mr Guppy’s mind, the conviction that the portrait of Lady Dedlock seen at Chesney Wold means something to him. Reporting to the company on his grilling of Jo he mentions his firm, Kenge & Carboy, at which Mrs Chadband perks up and recalls that she once looked after a client of that firm—one Esther Summerson. Mr Guppy is intrigued, not least because he is smitten by Esther. And so begins the trail that is going to lead him so near to the heart of the mystery which draws together an ignorant crossing-sweeper, an illiterate and drink-sodden rag-and-bone man, a dead man with no name, the most elegant lady in the land, and the mysterious Miss Summerson who has captured his affections.
But Mr Guppy is not the only one who ends the evening with something on his mind. Mr Snagsby attended the inquest on Nemo, since the deceased, who was scratching a living as a copyist of legal documents, had been taking in work from him. There the law-stationer hears the evidence of the crossing-sweeper and compassionately gives him half-a-crown, prudently warning Jo not to mention it to Mrs Snagsby should they ever cross at his spot. When Jo is brought into his drawing-room Mr Snagsby is on tenterhooks lest Jo should blurt out something about the money, especially p. xv↵when the policeman reveals that he has found a suspicious amount of cash in the boy’s pockets. Mr Snagsby has other reasons for feeling troubled. Why did the great Mr Tulkinghorn enlist his aid in tracking down a poor copyist to his lodgings? Who was this Nemo he had employed? But uppermost is his fear of his wife—and rightly so. As Mr Snagsby is drawn further into Mr Tulkinghorn’s enquiries, never knowing what it is he is involved in, his mind reels: ‘Something is wrong, somewhere; but what something, what may come of it, to whom, when, and from which unthought-of and unheard-of quarter, is the puzzle of his life’ (p. 374). Seeing her husband’s discomfiture, especially whenever he comes into contact with the crossing-sweeper, Mrs Snagsby begins to weigh the evidence and quite soon comes to her own satisfactory (and crazy) verdict: her husband is that boy’s father. Mrs Snagsby sees it all.
No one in Bleak House sees it all, but many of the characters try to, and this is another reason why the novel is so tightly knit. Although the raw material—the contingencies of lives as they are lived by a baronet and his wife or a brickmaker and his—is presented with all the apparent randomness of the quotidian, it is subject to constant interpretation by those determined to perceive the pattern, who are themselves under scrutiny by other figures. Jo possesses vital evidence but knows nothing. So does Mr Krook, but he cannot read it. While Mr Tulkinghorn methodically works to trap his victim, Mr Guppy blunders with almost as good effect. Trooper George and Mr Snagsby are both enmeshed in other people’s contrivings. Only Inspector Bucket eventually sees it all and when he does, it is too late. What is the evidence and what is to be made of it? These are the questions which resonate throughout the novel.
They are questions which preoccupy the reader, too. Why does Lady Dedlock swoon, something, it is pointedly observed, her husband has never known her do before (Chapter two)? Why does the narrator dwell on the fact that Mr Tulkinghorn seems not to have noticed Nemo’s portmanteau, even though he is standing next to it in a practically bare room (Chapter eleven)? Why does the usually courteous Trooper George deliberately ignore the old lady who emerges from Mr Tulkinghorn’s chambers (Chapter thirty-four)? Dickens always made heavy demands on his readers’ skills as readers, but never before so insistently as in Bleak House, which demands that we be as alert as Inspector Bucket, watching, assessing, interpreting.
p. xvi↵In a sense, however, plucking out particularly delightful and challenging moments such as these misrepresents—or rather, underrepresents—the novel as a whole. For what is so striking about Bleak House is that its highly unusual narrative structure in itself constantly and insistently foregrounds interpretative activity. The story is opened by an anonymous voice, whom it is customary to call ‘the omniscient narrator’. But he is not quite omniscient. Dazzling linguistic virtuosity, the ability to create a world from nothing, which seems to revel in the exploitation of its power—these and many other characteristics of the Dickensian omniscient narrator are on display, but this anonymous narrator is unique in Dickens’s corpus in that he discloses events in the present tense. Hovering as it were above the scene observed, he points out, brings forward, allows to unfold, not from the secure position of one who knows the outcome before the first word of the sentence is uttered, but from the position of the commentator who articulates the scene as it unfolds moment by moment before him.
With such a narrative form the story begins seemingly at an arbitrary point of insertion into the flow of life and it ends with the emphasis not on finality but on continuance: ‘War rages yet with the audacious Boythorn …’ (p. 907). Throughout the story in between the focus has switched from low life to high, from country to town, from a roof-top survey to penetration of the recesses of lawyers’ chambers, but the effect of the present tense—used continuously, not just, as is common, to render a moment of heightened tension—is to convey a sense of the multitudinous, ever-moving, confusingly varied life going on, and still going on, every moment of every day.
Counterpointed with this narrative is Esther’s. First-person narrative looks simple enough, but it is in practice very difficult. Henry James lamented the ‘terrible fluidity of self-revelation’, and shapelessness is only one of the formal problems inherent to the genre. Dickens had experimented with it most recently in David Copperfield, and the presentation of Esther through her own voice is a further exploration of the form he was later to perfect in Great Expectations. It is handled much more skilfully than is sometimes allowed.
Unlike the other narrative, Esther’s is not a presentation of ‘life’, but an act of recollection, a sequential disclosure of how one particular life developed and took its present form. Two time-scales are in play, which the readers have constantly to bear in mind as p. xvii↵they assess not only the facts as Esther presents them but also the language she habitually uses to do so. Within the time-frame of the events of Bleak House Esther’s story climaxes in the discovery of her mother’s identity and ends in her marriage to the right man. Within the sequence of events as they happened the former event was grossly improbable and the latter not a foregone conclusion, since Esther would certainly have honoured her pledge to Mr Jarndyce, had he required her to do so. The narrative rightly allows both of these events full weight to alarm and discomfit the reader, but we understand their place in a romantic narrative in which true love wins out in the end. But there is a richer narrative in a wider time-frame. Esther’s story only really closes when she completes her narrative, writing as a married woman, the mother of two children, seven years after the events which ‘the story’ strictly comprises. Through the act of writing out her memories of being unwanted and unloved, through the revealing disclosures of her craving for affection and a place in the lives of others, she has come to understand in large part a story whose providential design has led her from being the irritatingly busy-bee housekeeper of one Bleak House plagued by the east wind, to being the happy mistress of another, irradiated by the mutual love and dependence of the family she longed for.
Working together, these two very different sorts of narrative continually challenge the reader’s comprehension and assessment of the fictional world taking shape. Consider Chapter fourteen. Having confided to her new friend, Esther, that she is in love, Caddy Jellyby has taken her to meet her beloved’s father, Mr Turveydrop. Now the two young women are walking to Lincoln’s Inn: ‘By this time we were come to Mr Krook’s, whose private door stood open. There was a bill, pasted on the door-post, announcing a room to let on the second floor. It reminded Caddy to tell me as we proceeded up-stairs, that there had been a sudden death there, and an inquest …’. This passing reference to the ‘sudden death’ comes as a shock, since Chapters ten and eleven have consisted of nothing but the discovery of Nemo’s corpse and the inquest, presented by the other narrator with such dramatic exuberance that it seems as if the whole of London is pressing through the door of the Sol’s Arms to get into the inquest and learn the grisly details. Or take Chapter sixteen: ‘In his chambers, Mr Tulkinghorn sits meditating an application to the nearest magistrate to-morrow morning for a warrant. p. xviii↵Gridley, a disappointed suitor, has been here to-day, and has been alarming. We are not to be put in bodily fear, and that ill-conditioned fellow shall be held to bail again.’ In the previous chapter of Esther’s narrative Mrs Blinder has wisely observed that ‘A person is never known till a person is proved’, and in her world of poverty and struggle Gridley has proved a kindly man, whose succour of the orphans contrasts him starkly with the noisy Christians, Mrs Pardiggle and Mr Chadband. In Mr Tulkinghorn’s world, however, he is just an impediment to the smooth running of ‘the system’. Just a few pages on there is a similar effect as Esther and Ada gaze down on Chesney Wold. They delight in the ‘picturesque old house’ and the ‘fine park richly wooded’, and are struck by the ‘serene and peaceful hush’, speaking of ‘undisturbed repose’, that seems to harmonize the whole. But we have already heard of the repose of Chesney Wold from the anonymous narrator in Chapter two. It so depresses Lady Dedlock that, ‘bored to death’, she flees to London and then to Paris—anywhere to get away from the monotony of the ‘“place” in Lincolnshire’.
Such interaction of the two narratives, what W. J. Harvey in a classic essay defined as ‘the effect of pulsation, of constant expansion and contraction, radiation and convergence’ (Character and the Novel (1965), 95), presents on the one hand a teeming world whose inhabitants are mostly adrift and confused, and on the other the world as negotiated by one individual, who becomes increasingly strong as she recognizes—by instinct rather than reflection—that what matters is not the size of one’s world, or its power or wealth, but whether one is securely bonded to others in it by the power of love. And perhaps one might add—at the risk of sounding sentimental and old-fashioned—that one of the reasons why Bleak House is so satisfying is that in creating this impression it endorses what readers feel is true for their own lives.
What anyone reading through Dickens’s work chronologically might also sense is that the magisterial control exercised through the remarkable narrative structure in Bleak House serves a darker vision than in any previous novel. As it opens, ‘Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow-flakes’ forms a canopy over the city, noxious to all but certain forms of parasite. These flourish: lawyers in and around the Chancery suit of Jarndyce and Jarndyce; the ‘respectable’ Mr Vholes, whose desk as he raps it makes ‘a p. xix↵sound as if ashes were falling on ashes, and dust on dust’, if only his doomed client could hear it; Grandfather Smallweed, whose distorted body could be crushed by a blow from athletic Trooper George, but who has him in his toils none the less; Mr Krook, who lives off refuse and sees a lovely head of hair as a cash commodity; Mr Chadband and Mrs Pardiggle, cancerous growths on the tree of Christian faith; and Mrs Jellyby, whose zeal for fertilizing far places prevents her from seeing the waste she is creating near at hand.
Against such figures as these, who roam with predatory confidence in their own territories, are ranged the innocents, victims, and wanderers—Neckett’s orphaned children; the neglected Jellyby offspring; the Bagnet family and Trooper George; the wards in Chancery; crazy Miss Flite; the maidservant Guster; and the little boy she is kind to, Jo, at home in the worst of London’s rookeries but without a home. A child vagrant, ‘moved on’ by mighty powers beyond his comprehension, the illiterate waif dies wasted by disease, having uttered his own epitaph: ‘I never knowd what it wos all about’ (p. 676).
The modern reader cannot sense with the sharpness of Dickens’s contemporaries the topicality that intensifies this dark imaginative coloration. As John Butt and Kathleen Tillotson established in their ground-breaking study of Dickens at Work (1957), Bleak House was ‘a fable for 1852, related to a large extent in terms of the events, the types, and the social groups which the previous year had thrown into prominence’ (p. 179). Not all events and types, but those which indicated decay or entropy, the obverse face of the image of national prosperity presented by the Great Exhibition of 1851—the Court of Chancery; the sanitary condition of the city; the housing of the poor; governmental inertia; vainglorious philanthropy and religious bigotry. Other scholars have piled up evidence that Bleak House bristles with topical references. A throw-away remark about Guster’s ‘amiable benefactor … resident at Tooting’ takes us to the long-forgotten scandal of a baby farm in which 150 pauper infants died. A wonderfully funny passage on one of Mrs Pardiggle’s children who has ‘voluntarily enrolled himself in the Infant Bonds of Joy, and is pledged never, through life, to use tobacco in any form’, turns out not to be Dickensian baroque but sober reporting of the extremes of the temperance movement. The account of the vile place where Nemo is given Christian burial is likewise barely exaggerated from what Dickens had learnt about the state of metropolitan graveyards.
p. xx↵But if even the most historically informed reader cannot respond today to the urgent topicality without scholarly help—and the notes aim to be as full as space permits—no one could fail to sense that if this was a ‘fable’ for the 1850s, it was not only a very sombre one, but one which insisted on its diagnostic structure being recognized. From the fetid air of Tom-all-alone’s, a property blighted by Chancery, Jo contracts disease. He dies, chivvied on, but not before he has infected Esther. The significance of this story (essentially a reworking of one from Carlyle’s Past and Present) is clear enough, but the third-person narrator insists on spelling it out:
There is not a drop of Tom’s corrupted blood but propagates infection and contagion somewhere. … There is not an atom of Tom’s slime, not a cubic inch of any pestilential gas in which he lives, not one obscenity or degradation about him, not an ignorance, not a wickedness, not a brutality of his committing, but shall work its retribution, through every order of society, up to the proudest of the proud, and to the highest of the high. Verily, what with tainting, plundering, and spoiling, Tom has his revenge (p. 654).
Such a crescendo may conjure up an Old Testament prophet foretelling destruction, but the language is wholly contemporary, one that penetrates most readily into the darker recesses of the mid-Victorian reader’s psyche. As Stallybrass and White have suggested in The Politics and Poetics of Transgression (1986), there were few greater fears than that the invisible underclass breeding in the slums would reach out with its particular grasp: ‘fear… was encoded above all in terms of the fear of being touched. “Contagion” and “contamination” became the tropes through which city life was apprehended’ (p. 135).
The darkness of Bleak House must not be exaggerated. ‘I have purposely dwelt upon the romantic side of familiar things’—in the Preface Dickens reminds us that in some sense this novel is a Romance. The abandoned child, born in shame and brought up to believe that it would have been better if she had never been born, marries the dark, handsome doctor. Her capacity for making order and decency in a home, whether it be the chaotic dwelling of the Jellyby family or the grander house of John Jarndyce; her unobtrusive tendernesses to Charley or Caddy Jellyby; her loyalty to Ada and Richard—all of these personal virtues, circumscribed though their action might be by the possibilities determined by Esther’s gender, are not so much counterpointed with as opposed to all p. xxi↵the evidence of cruelty, neglect, chicanery, self-seeking, corruption, and self-righteousness that characterizes the world, and it is she who pens the novel’s closing words.
In previous novels, however, vice has been punished and individual virtue has triumphed in energetic and cathartically satisfying ways. In Dombey and Son the treacherous Mr Carker is not just thwarted: he is cut to pieces by a train. As Mr Micawber unmasks Uriah Heep in David Copperfield he smashes him across the knuckles with a heavy ruler, recalling the highly gratifying thrashing administered by Nicholas Nickleby to Mr Squeers. All the tension that has built up as evil has consolidated its hold over the innocent and unwary is released in physical action and a dramatic expulsion of the wicked. Not in Bleak House. Here the climactic moments that release the strain and tension engendered by the story consist of the reader’s gaze at the wasted body of Jo, or at the corpse of Lady Dedlock crouched near the grave of her lover, or in the knot of lawyers guffawing at the joke that costs have absorbed the whole substance of the Chancery suit, Jarndyce and Jarndyce. Yes, Esther Woodcourt, formerly Summerson, lives in the new Bleak House with her husband and children, but outside its walls nothing has changed or is likely to change. Each morning ‘the great tee-totum is set up for its daily spin and whirl’ (p. 237).