The BBC adaptation of Bleak House from 2005 stands as one of the best television miniseries that I have ever seen. Therefore, it made sense to me that if I were read my first Dickens novel that this would be the place to start. After all, I know the story and already have a pretty vivid image of all the characters. The fact that this would be the third behemoth of a novel in a row (after Gone With The Wind and Moby Dick) did not put me off from Dicken’s longest novel (by page number but not by word count… strangely).
Having taken the last month to read it I have to say that it was worth making my way through. Sure, there are parts of it that I could have done without but on the whole it’s a novel that I have already found myself talking a lot about during and afterwards.
The novel itself is a sprawling, living, breathing world of characters and sub-plots. It is, at times, hard to keep up with the sheer number of names. He has an entire section where there are a lot of people whose names end with -oodle, slightly confusing until I realised that actually these are people with no effect on the stories I cared about so I was able to glide over them.
In fact, during this novel there are four characters that managed to grip me whenever they appeared upon the page. Luckily for me one of them was Esther, the character who provides a first person narrative for about half the book. Many people, including my mum, have criticised her for being a bit too modest and a bit of a goody-goody. I guess what helped me was that during my entire read I had the image of Anna Maxwell Martin in my brain. Sure, at times Esther is too good to be true, but she gets put through the ringer and manages to touch so many lives through just being a good person. Sometimes we just need characters like that.
This brings me neatly onto John Jarndyce, who I have developed a fictional crush on. He is someone in the realms of Melanie from Gone With The Wind, a character of such goodness that remains strong in the face of everything even if it means their own unhappiness. Sure, he comes from money which means he is able to engage in his acts of philanthropy, but unlike characters such as Mrs Jellyby he does not forget the fellow men and women in his immediate surroundings. Maybe he acts this way through guilt from what the central chancery case has done to many that came before him, but also maybe he is just a great man.
I am also a big lover of any scene with Inspector Bucket. There is a knowing wink to a lot of his dialogue as he manoeuvres through all the worlds of Bleak House. He is clearly very smart, but also honest and remarkably friendly to nearly everyone he comes across. Even those who he has just arrested for murder.
The main character that got to me, however, was Lady Dedlock. In a way she is the pivot that most of the interesting things in Bleak House happens around. Nearly all the threads intersect the tragic story of her undoing, and it is sometimes just gut-punching to read. Gillian Anderson truly embodies the role in the television adaptation and it is hard to separate the two as you read, such was the brilliance of her portrayal.
In the end, this book also made me long to re-watch the miniseries (which I started the night I finished it). It was brilliant, if very very long. There were bits I skimmed because they involved characters I cared little for or because the story was one of little consequence to the main threads… but on the whole it was great.