Book Review: Bleak House, by Charles Dickens

Bleak House is a satire set around the 1830’s in and around London. It’s about a group of characters, who are tied together together, in some cases very loosely, by the case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, a long-running court battle to resolve how a large inheritance will be divided up. The book alternates between third-person and first person, the latter being told by Esther Summerson, who does not stand to gain from the case, but ends up with links to several who do.

There are many characters, at times it’s hard to keep track of them all, especially early on, when they’re all being introduced and you’re not sure of the interrelationships. It’s one of those books where after a while I felt I should be keeping notes, and drawing diagrams to keep track of the various linkages.

At times Dickens gets a bit carried away with the language, and rambles on. At other times i just felt caught up by the story, and wanted to keep reading on to find out what happened. Especially the last couple of hundred pages.

The least subtle part of the book is the political satire, with descriptions of Coodle, Doodle, and other nonsensically named politicians. These didn’t really fit with the rest of the book, nor did they add anything to it. As with much of his works, if Bleak House was published today I think it would be trimmed by an editor.

I came to this expecting it to be hard work, and perhaps less enjoyable than the other Dickens I’ve read so far. This was based on comments from various people, and some found online. While at times it is harder work — for example I found it a harder read than David Copperfield — I think this is one of my favourite Dickens novels, along with David Copperfield. It is a complex story, with a lot of ruminating on the human condition, but it is a well-told story.

It suffers from something that most Dickens books do: the characters tend to be caricatures, and their motives simplistic at times, but it’s still a great read, and deservedly labelled a classic.

I read the Penguin Classics edition, and as with most of the penguin classics there are many endnotes, many of which are just one-line definitions of words that are no longer used. These should have been footnotes, as it breaks the flow to keep diving to the back of the book.

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