"I have not the slightest doubt that the scoundrel has passed his whole existence in misdirecting travelers" — Bleak House has begun
This book. THIS BOOK. Is what started me on Dickens. I hated him. HATED. And then when I was 18, my professor assigned it and Bleak House became one of my favorite books of all time, and its author the biggest love-hate relationship of my life.
|Let the words of Joan Jett guide our hearts|
Bleak House is a massive undertaking. Immediately before it, he published the fairly autobiographical and still widely read David Copperfield, but before THAT you had his road trip novels, none of which had much structure, and Martin Chuzzlewit and Dombey and Son, which could be excellent, but I haven't read them yet, so I don't know. Also no one talks about them, so, whatever.
Bleak House. This enormous mass of invective against Chancery, which, let's hope, contributed to the passing of the Common Law Procedure Act of 1854 (Bleak House was written 1852-3), which "eliminated many of the lengthy delays" associated with the Court of Chancery. This book is huge and complex and has a FASCINATING narrator you should all love. If you do not love Esther, I peer suspiciously at you.
As with any massive work of literature, there are more themes than can be touched on here, so I'm going to hit on the two I'm most interested in. NUMBER ONE: All the mothers in this book are shitty. Except one or two. Prof. Mary Armstrong called it the novel's "insistence upon the maternal figure as all-necessary yet inherently destructive."
Esther grows up desperately wanting a mother, but not even letting herself really admit that, because she also doesn't believe she is worthy of one. Because Esther had a ridiculously terrible childhood. A ridiculously terrible childhood that Dickens KNOWS would scar her. If you think Esther has no issues and is this just perfect ideal of annoying Victorian womanhood, LOOK at her. Remember when she freaked out as a child and clung to her aunt's skirts while saying "What did I do to her? How did I lose her? Why am I so different from other children, and why is it my fault"?
How is this answered? Other than by shaking her off? "Submission, self-denial, diligent work." And that's...all she then does. We're going to see more of her psyche break out in the future, but just watch for whenever she does things despite herself. Because that's the only way her true self comes out. Whenever it's "I hardly knew what I did" or "I couldn't help it," THAT'S Esther.
So all the mothers are terrible, and Esther doesn't even have one, so she mothers herself ("Dear, dear, you tiresome little creature, I wish you wouldn't!") and everyone around her. How is this going to play out in the long run? Well, we'll see.
Now we have to touch on...because you've all been tweeting at me about it...Esther and Ada.
When I was doing All the Research on Rosa/Helena from The Mystery of Edwin Drood, I cannot TELL YOU how annoyed I was that pretty much the only Dickensian lesbian subtext people consistently wrote about was in Little Dorrit, or between Esther and Ada in Bleak House.
There's way more to discuss later in the book, but for now let's touch on what Mary Armstrong said (...in her thesis that I had Duke University send me):
Esther's homoerotic desire — indeed, her narrative itself — is always subsumed under the involuntary and unintentional. Just as she protests she doesn't pretend to know, or doesn't mean to complain, or doesn't intend to criticize, she never 'means' the outbursts of ardor and physical impulses towards Ada.
Maybe just watch for that for now. And also maybe the constant digressions on how beautiful Ada is — Armstrong points out that Ada is "primarily an object of desire," her beauty is "[her] singular defining characteristic" and, awesomely, that she does not "labor under any appreciable amount of personality." Heh.
I haven't talked about Lady Dedlock, who was my favorite character for aaaaages and maybe still is. Or Mrs Jellyby, who, I'm telling you, STICKS WITH YOU. You'll be thinking of Mrs Jellyby ten years from now. Or Mr Guppy, whose main role in the book is to suck.
So many mysteries! So many more characters to encounter! Prepare to get overly attached.