Reflections on reading Bleak House: Charles Dickens just isn’t very good, is he?

If you have a long memory, you may remember that away back at the beginning of the year there were a number of events marking the bicentenary of Charles Dickensspecial programmes on the BBC, a memorial ceremony in Westminster Abbey attended by the great and good of the establishment, and so on. I decided that, as someone who pretends to have an interest in literature, I ought to mark the occasion in my own private way, and that I would – my own comfort and safety be damned – read one of his interminable door-stoppers great works. I settled on Bleak House because it often seems to feature at or near the top of ‘Best Novel by Dickens’ lists. Nearly nine months after I started I have finally – finally! – finished it.

Before we get going properly, I’d just like to say that I have something of a love/hate relationship with Dickens’ work. I’d like to say that, because it seems to be the maximum level of antipathy that’s permitted before one is condemned as an unwashed philistine, but it wouldn’t be accurate. I actually have much more of a hate/hate relationship with him, although that overstates the depth of my dislike. I studied Dickens twice in my career as a student of literature, once as an undergraduate and again as a postgraduate. Those two experiences rather confirmed in me the view I’d formed when I’d attempted and then abandoned a couple of his books in my own time: that his novels are filled with half-arsed plots, formulaic characters, painfully unfunny ‘jokes’, embarrassingly bad dialogue, dollops of sentimentality so large they make a Hallmark card seem positively hard-bitten by comparison – and beautifully evocative, emotionally resonant descriptive passages that make you wonder why, if he’s capable of writing that well, he so rarely does.

As I’ve been struggling through Bleak House over the last few months, I’ve put a fair amount of effort into trying to put my finger on exactly what it is I dislike in Charles Dickens’ work. It would be fair to say that I’m not a major of fan of Victorian fiction at the best of times – it lacks either the scurrilous wit of the 18th Century or the formal inventiveness of the 20th Century – but I’m still able to appreciate some of Dickens’ contemporaries. I can read a novel by Elizabeth Gaskell, say, with genuine pleasure, and her subject matter is not dissimilar to Dickens’ – not to mention the fact that she was published by him, in his role as editor of Household Words.

I think a big part of it is that Dickens’ characters don’t seem, to me, psychologically plausible. I have no sense that they are people who might actually exist in real life (something that I don’t find to be the case with characters dreamt up 500 years earlier by Geoffrey Chaucer, so it’s not just that I have a hard time getting my head round characters who don’t speak or think in the way modern people do). Dickens’ characters are so obviously avatars of particular attitudes or social problems that it’s very hard to care when the novelist does things to them. Of course, that’s the other big problem I have with Dickens’ novels: that the dead hand of the author in laboriously contriving his plots is always so obvious. There never seems to be even the tiniest hint of the uncertainty or spontaneity of real life in any of the Dickens novels I’ve read. It’s always immediately apparent, even to a casual reader, that events have been clumsily manipulated to provide Dickens with an opportunity to make A Very Important Point about Serious Matters. Didactic literature has its place, no doubt – George Orwell’s fiction, for one very good example – but I must admit that I find laboured instruction in a particularly insipid form of milk-and-water Christian morality pretty unappealing.

There is no way I can write a proper review of Bleak House. I’ve been reading it over such a long period of time, and in such snatched moments here and there (usually in the few minutes before I fall asleep every night), that I can’t possibly hope to remember enough about it to produce a coherent review. If that’s what you’re looking for, I’d recommend this recent post by Bibliofreak (he seems to have enjoyed the book rather more than me), and if you want a tongue-in-cheek summary that’s entertainingly alert to the ludicrousness of the plot, you can’t do better than John Crace’s digested read at The Guardian. All I can hope to do here is provide is an overview of some of the things that most struck me about the book. [Perhaps I should give a SPOILER WARNING here, and recommend that people who don’t want to know some of the plot twists should stop reading at this point, although that seems a little odd with a book that’s 160 years old.]

The first thing I want to mention is just how ludicrous the plot is. Most people know, I think, that Dickens’ novels first appeared in monthly instalments, and that he was typically no more than two or three months ahead of his publication schedule. This meant that he had no opportunity to go back and redraft earlier sections of the novel if he found that a particular storyline wasn’t working out in the way he hoped, or he realised that he had painted himself into a narrative corner from which he had no credible means of escape. That means, in turn, that there are more loose ends and abrupt plot shifts than you would expect if Dickens had enjoyed the luxury of completing his books before he published them. There’s a good example of this in Bleak House, when Dickens ratchets up the pathos by having his heroine go blind during a bout of smallpox only to have her sight spontaneously return in the next month’s instalment, it clearly having dawned on him that the rest of the novel would be unworkable if his heroine couldn’t see anything. Personally I always think of this more as explanation than justification anyway – it explains why Dickens’ novels are confused and incoherent, but it doesn’t make them any more satisfying to read. Yet even this standard explanation for Dickens’ shortcomings in plotting can’t justify his decision to have one of his characters in this novel spontaneously self-combust.

There’s simply no valid plot reason for this improbable act of auto-conflagration. Dickens needs a way of getting some incriminating letters out of the possession of a minor character, and he needs it to seem temporarily plausible that the letters have been destroyed (though we later discover that another character has taken them for nefarious purposes). Even if we concede that it’s necessary for the character to die to accomplish this – although why the character, who is carefully established as illiterate, couldn’t just have them stolen and replaced with others that looked similar would seem a reasonable question – it isn’t necessary for him to self-combust. An ordinary chimney fire (which were very common at the time) and a mysterious figure seen entering the smoking ruin immediately afterwards would cover the necessary plot ground just as effectively.

The truth is that, just as this novel contains some rather awkward nods in the direction of emerging detective fiction in the shape of Mr Bucket, it also contains slightly uncomfortable nods in the direction of other genres of popular fiction. The ghost that patrols the walks at Chesney Wold seems like a gesture towards one of the major staples of gothic fiction, while the implausibly inflammable Mr Krook and the scandalous secret of Lady Dedlock’s sexual history prior to her marriage are the kind of thing that drove the plots of the ‘sensation novels’ that came into their own in the following decade.

I describe these nods as uncomfortable because they are underdeveloped. There’s nothing wrong with any of these genres of popular writing – on the contrary, when they’re done well they’re amongst my favourite kinds of novel – the problem lies in Dickens’ half-hearted attempts to shoehorn them into a novel that is in essence a worthy but ultimately rather dull critique of the 19th Century legal system. You can almost hear the desperate scrabblings of the author as he tries to find a narrative hook that will make his story readable, and the sense of relief when he hits on the (poorly executed) device of a police detective is almost palpable.

If the plot of Bleak House is underdeveloped, the same is true for its characters. I obviously can’t claim to be a Dickens expert (I’ve now read a grand total of three of his novels), but on the basis of my limited experience this would seem to be one of the most consistent hallmarks of his writing – that he gives a character one, or at the most two, idiosyncratic character attributes, and thereafter simply rehashes these attributes in any subsequent descriptions of the character, rather than adding detail or nuance. Perhaps the most blatant example of this is Mr Bagnet, who pretends to be strong and independent-minded but actually allows his wife to ‘speak for him’ at every turn (by which he means she actually formulates his opinions for him). Or maybe, thinking about it, Old Mr Turveydrop, who is driven by an absurdly self-regarding interest in the importance of his own ‘deportment’ and absolutely nothing else, is a better example.

Both Bagnet and Old Turveydrop are comic characters, and for Dickens creating a comic character always seems to involve generating a grotesque (and painfully unfunny) caricature, but it’s not just comic characters who are treated in this reductive way. Harold Skimpole is supposed to be laughable at points, but also unlikeable and even sinister in other scenes, yet his character is never developed beyond his wilfully deluded sense of entitlement. His apparent ingenuousness never shades across into disingenuousness, even as he betrays his closest friend and benefactor. Skimpole fulfils the role of a character making this journey, his behaviour conforming neatly to the exigencies of the plot, but there is no sense of an internal emotional or intellectual landscape that makes this change explicable.

In other hands this wouldn’t necessarily be a weakness. In fact it’s a pretty common feature of many genres of popular fiction that they have little interest in the inner lives of their characters, or outline them in accordance with very well established patterns. There are really two problems when Dickens does the same thing. First, it makes a mockery of the frequent praise for him as a master of rich characterisation and creator of psychologically complex characters because, really: if this is psychological complexity then what does one dimensionality look like? Second, the kinds of popular fiction that skate lightly over the inner lives of characters can afford to do so because of a sharp and sustained focus on plot and narrative – when you’re reading about Sherlock Holmes you don’t care that he’s little more than a random and frequently contradictory assemblage of quirks because you’re so busy trying to work out whodunit (or, sometimes, howdunit). The problem for Bleak House is that if it doesn’t have psychological complexity, and it doesn’t have a compelling and engaging plot, and it doesn’t have humour that’s actually funny, then what’s left?

Well, as I’ve suggested already, it has the worthy but rather dull critique of the English legal system, and occasional flashes of descriptive brilliance. It has, as well, a few scattered moments of genuine pathos – Miss Flite and her caged birds are properly sad, even if Dickens does milk it to an extraordinary degree. And it has that Dickensian approach to naming characters which some people find whimsical and charming, but just makes me rather cross. (A party to a deadlocked court case who’s called Dedlock; in what world is that an acceptable way of generating character names?) More seriously, it also has some really rather unpleasant undercurrents.

Let me start with the blatant anti-Semitism. I know anti-Semitism was in the air in Victorian England, and that it’s frequently a mistake to read personal animus into what would strike us as thoroughly racist character studies, since the authors who wrote them may have never stopped to consider them in this light. Unfortunately, Dickens’ portrayal of Mr Smallweed stretches this principle to absolute breaking point. Consider the facts.

Smallweed (note the disparaging name) is a moneylender who pursues debtors without compassion or compunction, even when they are war veterans trying to help out an ex-comrade who has fallen on hard times. He’s disabled and physically repulsive (Dickens subscribing, of course, to the popular view at the time that physical deformity was a symptom of moral corruption). He’s dependent on the kindness of others to overcome the effects of his disability, but refuses to offer even the slightest kindness in return (thus reaffirming the familiar story of ‘good’ Christians motivated by mercy and charity, and ‘bad’ Jews who lack these virtues themselves but exploit them in others). And, finally, his home life is presented as a grotesque inversion of the idealised Victorian household; where Victorians would expect to find comfort and order and deep bonds of affection and loyalty (as is displayed at Bleak House itself), the Smallweeds exist in a state of discomfort, chaos and continual bickering. What’s perhaps worst of all is that it’s completely unnecessary – the whole sub-plot featuring Smallweed goes precisely nowhere, it barely links into any other sub-plots, and could very easily have been left out altogether. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that Dickens included his viciously anti-Semitic portrait of a Jew just because he wanted to write a viciously anti-Semitic portrait of a Jew.

Another of the unpleasant undercurrents in the novel is the frankly creepy nature of John Jarndyce’s relationship with the heroine of the novel, Esther Summerson. Keep in mind that she falls under his protection as a very young child, and that this is later converted into a formal legal guardianship – in effect, Jarndyce becomes something a little like Esther’s foster-father. And then, after a few years of watching her work for her keep as his housekeeper, he proposes marriage. Sex and sexual attraction are not directly mentioned at any point – this is a Victorian novel – but make no mistake that sex is what it’s all about. Jarndyce (a single man in middle age) has been living for a number of years with a vulnerable orphan for whom he has quasi-parental responsibility, and as he watches her grow into her teenage years and then on into adulthood he decides he wants to sleep with her.

What makes this even creepier is that Dickens has Esther make it very clear to the reader that she is deeply aware that she is entirely dependent on her guardian’s ‘kindness’ for everything she has in life; this raises the very real prospect that Esther’s obedience to her guardian’s sexual desires results from her knowledge that she cannot afford to displease him. Creepier still, Dickens has Esther confess to ‘gratitude’ that Jarndyce still wants to have sex with her, even though she has been disfigured by smallpox. This is a young woman supposedly grateful that the man who is the closest thing she’s ever had to a father wants to take her virginity: see what I mean about creepy?

Disturbingly, this desire on the part of John Jarndyce to have sex with his former ward does nothing to damage his status in the novel. We are encouraged throughout to view him as wonderful, kind, selfless – even though he harbours a sexual interest in a young woman who has become, to all intents and purposes, his daughter. The creepiness reaches its apotheosis when you step temporarily outside the novel and think about the parallels with Dickens’ own life – in particular his obsession with his wife’s teenage sister, who came to live with them when they married. I realise it’s a mistake to judge people from the past by modern standards, and that the Victorians had a very different take on sexual matters – and in particular the propriety of sexual relationships between members of the same extended family circle – but this is creepy by any standard, and not at all pleasant to read.

Unpleasant in a slightly different way is the manner in which this novel tries to establish models of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ feminine behaviour, and invites the reader to judge female characters accordingly. To be fair to Dickens, he is not particularly judgemental when it comes to sex. The reader is encouraged to feel sympathy for Lady Dedlock’s plight (she had an illegitimate daughter prior to meeting and marrying her husband), to approve of Lord Dedlock’s determination to stand loyally by his wife even once the details become public, and to resent the lawyer who harries Lady Dedlock over her youthful indiscretion and drives her ultimately to her death. Although Lady Dedlock still ends up dead – the only possible ending in respectable Victorian fiction for a woman who has sex outside marriage – there is little evidence of the moral hypocrisy that saw women shoulder a disproportionate share of the blame for sexual misdemeanours. The policing of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ female behaviour instead takes place in the domestic sphere.

This is achieved mainly achieved by the comparison between the ‘good’ woman, Esther Summerson, and her opposite, the ‘bad’ woman Mrs Jellyby. Esther always places her domestic duties first; she never thinks of leaving the house until she has completed the housework (Dickens stresses that she gets up extra early if necessary), she confines her activities outside the house to conventional patronage of the local poor, and she sees the creation of a happy home for the people who surround her as giving meaning and significance to her life. This is sharply contrasted with Mrs Jellyby, who is portrayed as uninterested in the happiness, moral welfare or even physical safety of her children (Esther has to step in as surrogate mother), and neglectful of her husband; these radical failings stem from Mrs Jellyby’s all-consuming interest in a charitable venture in Africa. The message here couldn’t be clearer: first that good women find their happiness in working to support the happiness of others in the domestic sphere; and second that women who concern themselves with matters outside the home are behaving unnaturally by neglecting their families and domestic responsibilities. It’s hard to imagine a more precisely crafted anti-feminist statement.

This is unpleasant because of the message it sends out, and the attitude to women that it implies, but it’s also a significant cause of Bleak House‘s failure as a novel. The constant need to make Esther out to be the perfect woman, together with such a limited and parsimonious understanding of what ‘virtuous womanhood’ looks like, results in a novel that has a central figure who is passive and uninteresting. It would be true to say that I dislike the heavy-handed insistence on a particular kind of femininity because I find it objectionable on its own terms, but in some ways this pales into insignificance when compared to other reasons for objecting. Dickens is so preoccupied with his didactic project he makes the central figure of his narrative deathly dull – and it’s this that’s unforgivable in a novelist. We might be prepared to make allowances for Dickens reflecting and transmitting the mores of his time, but we shouldn’t make allowances for him writing a bad book.

That said, I’m struck by how often people do make allowances for his failings as a novelist, or imply that criticisms that would be routinely levelled at other writers are somehow impertinent when they’re levelled at Dickens. “Well, yes, the plot’s ridiculous,” people seem to say, “but it’s Dickens!”; or “Well, no the characterisation’s not really there – but it’s Dickens!”; or, “Of course the humour’s not actually funny funny – but it’s Dickens!” The thing that strikes me is that, if it weren’t for these kinds of routine allowances for failure that are granted to Dickens but to few other writers, we’d end up looking at Dickens for what it seems to me he actually is – a tediously humourless, tiresomely sentimental, agonisingly long-winded boor (or bore – take your pick). It strikes me that, if it weren’t for the special dispensations granted to him because he is supposedly the greatest English novelist, no-one would think of him as a great novelist in the first place. He’d be the prose equivalent of the ‘great poet’ of the Victorian era, Alfred Tennyson – praised to the skies in his lifetime, but regarded with a kind of foot-shuffling embarassment ever since.

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9 Responses to Reflections on reading Bleak House: Charles Dickens just isn’t very good, is he?

  1. gun street girl says:

    Yeah. Dickens. The only works of his that I’ve really enjoyed are A Christmas Carol and The Mystery of Edwin Drood (which he never finished). These are short works and far less convoluted than his longer novels. I read A Tale of Two Cities a really long time ago and recall liking it, but it’s been so long I couldn’t tell you why. Perhaps it is time for a re-read.

    Everything else of his I’ve tried to read (Great Expectations, Bleak House, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby) just annoyed the hell out of me. Pretty much for all the reasons you mentioned above.

  2. gabbyjulie says:

    I started ‘Great Expectations’ three times and never got past the first chapter. Dickens is much better on the telly than written; the medium of film means you can cut out a lot of the drudgery in it. Incidently, Trollope didn’t like Dickens either and made fun of his style in The Warden, where a writer cariactures the well looked after bedesmen in a newspaper, as poor oppressed starving paupers. I suppose Dickens’ value is that he did record a side of London that didn’t normally find its way into books and they did do a lot to get people to address the poverty that was there. It makes for a heavy read nonetheless. Walter Scott is the Scottish equivalent, btw. I had to read Heart of Midlothian for my degree and was ready to kill Jeannie Dean at the end of it. I suppose it didn’t help that I had an essay deadline and ended up trying to read the book and write the essay within two days.
    Incidently, the reason these books were all so long and had so many plot turns,was because they were paid by the word then. Walter Scott nearly crippled his hands writing himself out of debt, and there’s an account of someone who stayed opposite his house, who could see a desk and Sir Walter Scott’s hand, writing and writing all day long.

  3. If Dickens was a woman, would she have had such a dream run? Hardly…

    Totally agree about his plots and characters being shit, but somehow there’s still enough in a few of his novels to keep me forging on. A Tale of Two Cities and Hard Times were good despite the syrup.Then again, like the previous commenter, I don’t think I ever actually managed to finish Great Expectations – but I’ve read the opening scene heaps of times.

  4. Mikkel Lund says:

    I firmly disagree with those who think Bleak House is not an enjoyable novel. Besides which it is a very remarkable detective story forerunning Sherlock Holmes. I have read Bleak House at least three times and discovered new aspects of this wonderfull gem every time I reread it – just like my reading experience with Holmes, Dupin, Cuff, Utterson (The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde) etc. Bleak House is also full of symbols, allegory, satire ánd just about everything you look for in a 19th (or 20th) century novel. A must read!!!

  5. Tim Mason says:

    Smallweed is Jewish? So far as I know, his ethnicity isn’t mentioned in the novel, so you’re perhaps assuming that he is because he’s a money-lender? Riah, in Our Mutual Friend is Jewish, and he’s referred to as such throughout, so Dickens wasn’t shy about labels. Perhaps it’s the names? But Biblical names were common in 19thC England, and Joshua or Judith might be found amongst NonConformists – both are, indeed, still to be encountered today. I think the worst you can say about Dickens on this account was that he was antisemitic, but tried very hard not to be (see OMF, where Riah is an attempt to undo Fagin). He certainly comes off a lot better than his friend Carlyle.

    Dickens collected misers, and Smallweed is part of that collection. Which, I think, brings us to another of your gripes – the thin nature of Dickens’ ‘characters’. (I have to say that I find them no thinner than Chaucer’s, but there you go). But Dickens is about the presented self, a 19thC Goffman, rather than about interior depths. And I’m not persuaded that people are as deep as Richardson, James, or Freud would have them be (or rather, as they would have the upper middle-classes be. Neither Freud nor James thought the working classes had anything much to analyze).

    Dickens is often very annoying; I agree with you on that. And his personal behaviour was often nasty (although I wonder how many of us would come well out of the kind of scrutiny to which his life has been subjected). His plots were often wonky, but no real novelist will let anything as restrictive as a story-line tie him or her down. I think he was a very fine novelist indeed. But you don’t have to read him

  6. dfkinjer says:

    Smallweed wears a black skullcap. Is that an indication that he is supposedly Jewish?

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  8. Mike says:

    So does Mr. Weevle:

    “Since the Chancellor shut up his shop, which he did very early to-night, Mr. Weevle has been down and up, and down and up (with a cheap tight velvet skull-cap on his head, making his whiskers look out of all proportion), oftener than before.”

    And in Sketches by Boz:

    “But the party arrives, and Dando, relieved from his state of uncertainty, starts up into activity. They approach in full aquatic costume, with round blue jackets, striped shirts, and caps of all sizes and patterns, from the velvet skull-cap of French manufacture, to the easy head-dress familiar to the students of the old spelling-books, as having, on the authority of the portrait, formed part of the costume of the Reverend Mr. Dilworth.”

    I believe it is similar to a monmouth cap or toque. I don’t believe the Smallweed’s ethnicity is referred to in the novel.

  9. Mikkel Lund says:

    I do believe that I’ve allready written that I find Bleak House is a masterpiece partly because in
    many respects it is an early detective story forerunning the style of Collins and Doyle and I do not think Dickens is as prejudiced as he is made out by modern readers!

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