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Tony Grist

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Bleak House [Jun. 22nd, 2005|08:26 am]
Tony Grist
Bleak House is a tremendous novel. There is, however, a problem. It doesn't have a centre. Or, rather, it doesn't have a satisfactory centre.

John Jarndyce, Esther Summerson, Rick and Ada just aren't interesting enough. The tragedy of Richard Carstone- which ought to be the emotional heart of the book- simply registers as one of its many incidents.

Dickens' decision to write as Esther Summerson is an interesting experiment. Esther's voice is largely convincing- if a little irritating at times- but to make it convincing Dickens has to dumb down.

As if to compensate for the constraints of vocalising Esther, Dickens cuts loose in the sections of omniscient narration. These contain some of the most sustained, the most gorgeous, the most brilliant writing he ever did.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2005-06-22 06:45 am (UTC)
I think he was brave to try.

Summerson is just too sweet and good and self-effacing. And the way she is made to blushingly record the praises everyone one else heaps on her head creates an unintended impression of insufferable coyness.

The opening of the novel is a bravura piece of writing- but it's matched, I think, by the seasonal descriptions of Chesney Wold.



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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2005-06-22 07:05 am (UTC)
Lady Dedlock is a missed opportunity. It's a curious feature of this novel that the liveliest characters are those who have least to do with the plot.

I just adore young Smallweed.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2005-06-22 08:52 am (UTC)
That analogy of Mansfield's is new to me. I like it.

I think Great Expectations is Dickens's best novel- at least in terms of structural coherence etc, but my personal favourite is Little Dorrit- it's just so daaark!
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2005-06-22 09:11 am (UTC)
Copperfield was Dickens's own favourite, but it's a much bigger mess than Bleak House. I don't like it nearly as much as the novels that came after it.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2005-06-22 09:36 am (UTC)
Dickens is very good on David's childhood, but, yes, Dora and Agnes- who needs 'em?

I guess it contains one of the strongest galleries of Dickensian grotesques- Betsy Trotwood, Mr Dick, Barkis, the Micawbers, Uriah Heap, etc...etc....
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2005-06-22 09:41 am (UTC)
But Mr Dick is sublime- right? King Charles's head and all that.....
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2005-06-22 11:07 am (UTC)
The Murdstones are pretty fearsome.

They ran a TV sitcom recently based on the Micawber family- using Dickens's characters but not his plots or words. What a positively frightful idea! I'm glad to say it sank without trace.

I do think the novel gets ragged and limp towards the end. Plot takes over- and it's a silly, melodramatic plot.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2005-06-22 12:57 pm (UTC)
Steerforth is interesting. A bastard, but a glamorous bastard. Dickens had a thing about people who sailed through life on cheap charm and pretensions to gentlemanliness. His work is full of them and they're all swine. The most interesting is Eugene Wrayburn in our Mutual Friend- who is so utterly charming that Dickens relents and allows him to be saved by the love of a good woman.
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[User Picture]From: jackiejj
2005-06-22 08:17 am (UTC)
I've never read it...now I will. I want to read "...some of the most sustained, the most gorgeous, the most brilliant writing he ever did."
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2005-06-22 09:07 am (UTC)
Yes!

It's not my favourite Dickens novel, but a lot of critics think it's his best. It's certainly a tremendous piece of work.

And compulsively readable. Of how many "classics" can that be said?

It's also very funny and has some claims to be considered the first ever detective novel.

Its detective- Inspector Bucket- is highly reminiscent of Peter Falk's Columbo.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2005-06-22 01:01 pm (UTC)
Early critics of Dickens (Chesterton for instance- who is very perceptive and very quotable) tended to see Dickens as first and foremost a humourist. Then there was a reaction and the comedy got overlooked in favour of Dickens the social realist and precursor of Dostoevsky. I think it could be time for the pendulum to swing partway back.

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