Bleak House is the best novel ever written.
What? You don’t agree? Then let me give you just three reasons to try to convince you…
Apart from the usual Dickens’ stuff – the gorgeous language, the lush descriptions, the humour, the unforgettable characters, the social commentary and, of course, the romance – Bleak House could fairly lay claim to being the first modern crime novel, complete with the earliest appearance in an English novel of a police detective, Inspector Bucket. Wilkie Collins often gets the credit for this with his Sergeant Cuff, but I don’t know why, since he didn’t appear till a full fourteen years after Dickens’ creation and was clearly a derivation. Perhaps it’s because there is so much else in Bleak House that it isn’t primarily thought of as a crime novel, but the detection element is crucial, while the murder is central to the book, and is in fact one of the finest and most atmospheric pieces of writing in the English language. And Bucket is one of the most enigmatic detectives.
Through the stir and motion of the commoner streets; through the roar and jar of many vehicles, many feet, many voices; with the blazing shop-lights lighting him on, the west wind blowing him on, and the crowd pressing him on, he is pitilessly urged upon his way, and nothing meets him murmuring, “Don’t go home!” Arrived at last in his dull room to light his candles, and look round and up, and see the Roman pointing from the ceiling, there is no new significance in the Roman’s hand to-night or in the flutter of the attendant groups to give him the late warning, “Don’t come here!”
The novel is best known, however, for Dickens’ brilliant and excoriating depiction of the Courts of Chancery – a place of ruined hopes and ultimate despair, perhaps best summed up by Miss Flite in the naming of her birds, all to be set free on the Day of Judgement. Who but The Great Man could turn such a dry subject as the processing of wills into a sweeping saga of life and death, hopelessness, madness and cruelty? As always with Dickens, even when he’s in full social-rant mode, he shows his contempt through the human lens of the effect on his characters, major and minor.
“Hope, Joy, Youth, Peace, Rest, Life, Dust, Ashes, Waste, Want, Ruin, Despair, Madness, Death, Cunning, Folly, Words, Wigs, Rags, Sheepskin, Plunder, Precedent, Jargon, Gammon, and Spinach.”
The brilliance of his writing is shown in the reader’s willing acceptance even of his most extreme flights of fantasy. The spontaneous combustion scene paints a picture of such creeping horror – the stench, the drifting soot, the grease, the discovery – that the central incredibility is easily overlooked. A piece of horror writing that stands with the very best.
A thick yellow liquor defiles them, which is offensive to the touch and sight and more offensive to the smell. A stagnant, sickening oil with some natural repulsion in it that makes them both shudder.
“What have you been doing here? What have you been pouring out of window?”
“I pouring out of window! Nothing, I swear! Never, since I have been here!” cries the lodger.
And yet look here – and look here! When he brings the candle here, from the corner of the window-sill, it slowly drips and creeps away down the bricks, here lies in a little thick nauseous pool.
(Now that’s how to use the present tense!)
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This is all a lengthy preamble to introduce this week’s recommendation of how to ensure you…
Have a Dickens of a Christmas!
The 2005 BBC production of Bleak House is my favourite of all the Dickens TV serials. Adapted by the brilliant Andrew Davies (who was also responsible for the Colin Firth/Jennifer Ehle P&P) this was originally produced as a series of half-hour episodes that were aired twice-weekly after one of our leading soap operas, in a largely successful attempt to draw in a new audience.
For the same reason, the casting is a mix of costume drama stalwarts, along with a strange mix of people drawn from popular culture who might be expected to bring their own audience. So we have Alistair McGowan, best known over here as an impressionist; Gillian Anderson, with her following from the hugely popular X-Files; and, most strangely, Johnny Vegas, a somewhat off-the-wall comedian. Lump them together with people of the stature of Charles Dance (a superb Mr Tulkinghorn), Alun Armstrong as Inspector Bucket, Denis Lawson as Mr Jarndyce and Pauline Collins as the most vulnerable Miss Flite of all time – and this should have been a complete mess. But somehow the directors (Justin Chadwick and Susannah White) pulled extraordinary performances out of everyone involved, lit the whole thing in contrasts of light and gloom, shot it in HD, and wove through it the beautifully atmospheric music orchestrated by Julian Kershaw; turning the whole thing into a feast for the senses.
The quality of the casting can be seen by looking at the three central young characters, all of whom have gone on to become leading lights in their profession – Anna Maxwell Martin, Timothy West and a very young Carey Mulligan in her first major role.
Go on – you know you want to…and Have a Dickens of a Christmas!