Thursday, July 24

Bleak House

Starting next Monday, I'm beginning Charles Dickens' Bleak House. This is the thread where I'll be posting notes as I read the book. Here's the permanent address of this post:

http://babyruthless.blogspot.com/2008/07/bleak-house.html

As always, you can either bookmark it or subscribe to the post's RSS feed. If you'd like to read along and join the discussion, here are some links to online versions of the book:

Project Gutenberg
Wikisource
University of Adelaide (this version seems very readable)

You'll find the reading schedule I'll be following in the first comment of this thread, as well as links to the text.

18 comments:

Johnny said...

For the first week I'll be on vacation, so we're only going to read one chapter a week. What better time to start a dreary 1000 page novel than on a trip to the ocean? In my defense, I thought the title was Beach House...

July 28: Preface, 1
July 29: 2
July 30: 3
July 31: 4
August 1: 5
August 2: 6
August 3: 7
August 4: 8-9
August 5: 10-11
August 6: 12-13
August 7: 14-15
August 8: 16-17
August 9: 18-19
August 10: 20-21
August 11: 22-23
August 12: 24-25
August 13: 26-27
August 14: 28-29
August 15: 30-31
August 16: 32-33
August 17: 34-35
August 18: 36-37
August 19: 38-39
August 20: 40-41
August 21: 42-43
August 22: 44-45
August 23: 46-47
August 24: 48-49
August 25: 50-51
August 26: 52-53
August 27: 54-55
August 28: 56-57
August 29: 58-59
August 30: 60-61
August 31: 62-63
September 1: 64-65
September 2: 66-67

Johnny said...

PREFACE
It's always a good sign when the author takes a few minutes at the start of his novel to vociferously defend his belief in spontaneous human combustion.

One page down, 911 to go!


CHAPTER 1
This book is dedicated to The Guild Of Literature And Art, which Dickens started with his friend Edward Bulwer-Lytton. The latter is of course famous for beginning a novel with:

"It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness."

What's interesting is contrasting that opening with Bleak House's opening. Both are concerned with the setting's weather (to the point of belaboring the point), but Dickens' intro--though fundamentally the same--is so much more artful and intriguing:

"Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls deified among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ‘prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds."

Johnny said...

CHAPTER 2
I'm going to quote an entire paragraph here because, like the rest of this whole chapter, it's just utterly perfect:

"Sir Leicester Dedlock is only a baronet, but there is no mightier baronet than he. His family is as old as the hills, and infinitely more respectable. He has a general opinion that the world might get on without hills but would be done up without Dedlocks. He would on the whole admit nature to be a good idea (a little low, perhaps, when not enclosed with a park–fence), but an idea dependent for its execution on your great county families. He is a gentleman of strict conscience, disdainful of all littleness and meanness and ready on the shortest notice to die any death you may please to mention rather than give occasion for the least impeachment of his integrity. He is an honourable, obstinate, truthful, high–spirited, intensely prejudiced, perfectly unreasonable man."

Just brilliant. Why didn't anyone tell me Dickens was like this?

*

"My Lady Dedlock, having conquered HER world, fell not into the melting, but rather into the freezing, mood."

Oh, shit. The footnotes tell me this is a Othello reference, which YOU WOULD THINK I'd have gotten. Grr. Why am I reading all this shit again?

(For the record, just before his suicide, Othello describes himself, after killing his wife--spoiler!--as one "whose subdu'd eyes, albeit unused to the melting mood,drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees their med'cinable gum." Ooookay.)

*

Great description of a well-appointed but barren house: "Across the hall, and up the stairs, and along the passages, and through the rooms, which are very brilliant in the [London social] season and very dismal out of it--fairy–land to visit, but a desert to live in..."

*

And finally another long paragraph because it BLOWS MY MIND it's so great:

"There is this remarkable circumstance to be noted in everything associated with my Lady Dedlock as one of a class—as one of the leaders and representatives of her little world. She supposes herself to be an inscrutable Being, quite out of the reach and ken of ordinary mortals—seeing herself in her glass, where indeed she looks so. Yet every dim little star revolving about her, from her maid to the manager of the Italian Opera, knows her weaknesses, prejudices, follies, haughtinesses, and caprices and lives upon as accurate a calculation and as nice a measure of her moral nature as her dressmaker takes of her physical proportions. There are deferential people in a dozen callings whom my Lady Dedlock suspects of nothing but prostration before her, who can tell you how to manage her as if she were a baby, who do nothing but nurse her all their lives, who, humbly affecting to follow with profound subservience, lead her and her whole troop after them."

That should be published in the front of every issue of every lifestyle magazine on the planet.

Johnny said...

CHAPTER 3
Let me echo generations of readers when I say: Weird, a first person narration out of nowhere!

Holy crap, I hope the majority of the book isn't like this. Charlotte Bronte, who knew a thing about orphans sent to live in oppressive mansions, called Esther "weak and twaddling" and I certainly don't disagree.

*

Despite the maudlin tone of this chapter, I did find this section pretty affecting:

"I went up to my room, and crept to bed, and laid my doll’s cheek against mine wet with tears, and holding that solitary friend upon my bosom, cried myself to sleep. Imperfect as my understanding of my sorrow was, I knew that I had brought no joy at any time to anybody’s heart and that I was to no one upon earth what Dolly was to me."

(I feel the same way about my Fleshlight.) Even more touching is this bit, after Esther's guardian dies, where she buries Dolly:

"I had wrapped the dear old doll in her own shawl and quietly laid her—I am half ashamed to tell it—in the garden-earth under the tree that shaded my old window."

*

There IS one pretty funny part where a lawyer keeps dispassionately saying the worst things about Esther's future, then begging her to calm down before making it even worse. Like something from a Mel Brooks movie. It's not an LOL moment, but I'll admit I was chuckling as I read it.

*

Then, off to boarding school. Oh man, I wish Becky Sharp were here to slap Esther around a little bit...

*

"I had youth and hope. I believe, beauty. It matters very little now. Neither of the three served or saved me."

Johnny said...

CHAPTER 4
Man, I'm really surprised by how genuinely funny parts of this book is. It's not the darkly cynical humor of my beloved Vanity Fair, but rather just straight up comedy. This chapter features some pretty hilarious child endangerment. For instance, a kid falls down an entire flight of stairs and is at most ignored.

Trust me, it's funny.

Johnny said...

It's always interesting to see how much things have changed: in this scene, Richard discreetly leaves some money on a poor old madwoman's hearth, and it's presented as noble and charitable, not wildly condescending and presumptious.

(And, based on the foreshadowing, I'm guessing "ironic" as well. Are mad penniless widows in Victorian novels ever really mad penniless widows?)

Johnny said...

CHAPTER 6
I really like the characterization of the "child-like" "genius" Skimpole, and the subtle skewering that Dickens gives his affectations and manipulations. Oh man, it reminds me so much of about half of the customers we had at the bookstore...

Johnny said...

I just found out that Skimpole is based strongly on Dickens' friend Leigh Hunt. In a letter about the portrayal, Dickens wrote: "I suppose he is the most exact portrait that was ever painted in words!"

Uh...settle down, Beavis.

Johnny said...

CHAPTER 7
I seriously have no idea what is going on in the first ten paragraphs of this chapter...

*

An aristocrat "supposes all his dependents to be utterly bereft of individual characters, intentions, or opinions, and is persuaded that he was born to supersede the necessity of their having any."

*

Heh:

“It’s unaccountable to me,” he says, still staring at the portrait, “how well I know that picture! I’m dashed,” adds Mr. Guppy, looking round, “if I don’t think I must have had a dream of that picture, you know!”

As no one present takes any especial interest in Mr. Guppy’s dreams, the probability is not pursued.

*

CHAPTER 7
I'm sorry I just keep quoting stuff, but the chapters that aren't narrated by dreary old Esther are so funny.

"Mrs. Rouncewell considers that a family of such antiquity and importance has a right to a ghost. She regards a ghost as one of the privileges of the upper classes, a genteel distinction to which the common people have no claim."

Johnny said...

NABOKOV: "All we have to do when reading Bleak House is to relax and let our spines take over. Although we read with our minds, the seat of artistic delight is between the shoulder blades. That little shiver behind is quite certainly the highest form of emotion that humanity has attained when evolving pure art and pure science. Let us worship the spine and its tingle. Let us be proud of our being vertebrates, for we are vertebrates tipped at the head with a divine flame. The brain only continues the spine: the wick really goes through the whole length of the candle. If we are not capable of enjoying that shiver, if we cannot enjoy literature, then let us give up the whole thing and concentrate on our comics, our videos, our books-of-the-week. But I think Dickens will prove stronger."

Johnny said...

CHAPTER 8
Dear Jane Austen: I'm so sorry I ever got mad at you for Fanny's character in Mansfield Park, when Esther is seriously ten times worse. (Well, not really, but Bleak House is ten times longer, so...)

*

This does bring up an interesting question, though: how do you write innocence without making the character mawkish or contemptible? Based on this book, you DON'T. Though I think Thackeray does it well with Amelia in Vanity Fair.

*

MotherFUCKER...according to the footnotes, I missed a Midsummer Night's Dream reference! Why am I even reading these books?

*

This is true: one of the original titles of Bleak House was "The Solitary House Where The Wind Howled." Ha! Why did you ever change it!?

*

The bulk of this chapter is taken up with a hilarious jeremiand against charities (!) who always want to take money from Jarndyce (and, by extension, Dickens.)

In fact, this wouldn't be the last time Dickens wrote about this: see The Begging Letter Writer

As funny as this chapter is--both genuinely funny and WTF, DICKENS!? funny--I should point out that out of nowhere Esther acquires a dark cynicism when writing about the charity seekers that's TOTALLY out of character. Sure, I hate her, but this is just the author confusing his views with what his character's views would be.

*

One of the charities is named Infant Bonds Of Joy. (I smell a band name!)

*

Ha! "We had never seen such dissatisfied children. It was not merely that they were weazened and shrivelled—though they were certainly that too—but they looked absolutely ferocious with discontent. The face of each child darkened in a peculiarly vindictive manner. I must except, however, the five-year-old, who was stolidly and evenly miserable."

*

Holy shit! This chapter takes a totally bizarre turn towards the end. Not bizarre like "kooky"...bizarre like David Lynch. Wow.


CHAPTER 9
This isn't from Bleak House, but here's Dickens on the Chinese: "They have made no advance and been of no earthly use for thousands of years." (By contrast, Europeans and especially the British exhibit "signs and tokens of the peaceful progress of the world.")

*

Oh my god, just like fucking Fanny Price, Esther gets a proposal of marriage and of course refuses for no clear reason other than the fact that she's a gasping loon.

No, seriously: why would an orphaned housekeeper turn down a marriage offer from an attorney? It makes no sense, and Dickens isn't very forthcoming.

Jesus H. Christ, how many of these chapters are narrated by Esther?

Johnny said...

CHAPTER 10
I was reading a bit about Bleak House online, and the writer had a really good point: a large chunk of what irritates me about Esther's narrative is how she always demures from the voluminous praise others give her...but the fact that Esther goes out of her way to tell us about the compliments in great detail is actually proof of her narcissism.

In a way, this makes me like like Esther's section of the book more (and Esther herself less.)

*

"Here, in a large house, formerly a house of state, lives Mr. Tulkinghorn. It is let off in sets of chambers now, and in those shrunken fragments of its greatness, lawyers lie like maggots in nuts."

We get it, Dickens, you don't like lawyers. Geez.


CHAPTER 11
The mysterious death of an opium addict, the only friend of a penniless urchin...now THIS is the Dickens I signed up for.

Johnny said...

CHAPTER 12
"...her Ariel has put a girdle of it round the whole earth, and it cannot be unclasped..."

You suck, Dickens. It was Robin Goodfellow from Midsummer, not Ariel from The Tempest, who put a girdle around the world.

*

I know Dove commercials and Feministing are always going on and on about how tough today's beauty standards are, but the more I read these 19th century books, the more I see how much pickier everyone used to be:
"A large–eyed brown woman with black hair who would be handsome but for a certain feline mouth and general uncomfortable tightness of face, rendering the jaws too eager and the skull too prominent. "

That's, like, how a serial killer describes a woman.

*

This doesn't really have anything to do with this chapter, but Dickens makes a reference to it here, so I'll quote it. When Beau Brummel was asked whether he ate vegetables, he replied, "I once ate a pea."

(Another good one: when he saw a friend of his speaking to the Prince Of Wales, he approached and, without introduction, asked "Who's your fat friend?")

*

Uh...I think Dickens predicts steampunk here:

"There are also ladies and gentlemen of another fashion, not so new, but very elegant, who have agreed to put a smooth glaze on the world and to keep down all its realities. For whom everything must be languid and pretty. Who are to rejoice at nothing and be sorry for nothing. Who are not to be disturbed by ideas. On whom even the fine arts must array themselves in the milliners’ and tailors’ patterns of past generations and be particularly careful not to be in earnest or to receive any impress from the moving age."


CHAPTER 13
"The name of Professor Dingo is one of European reputation."

(I'm gonna start saying that about myself all the time.)

*

Dickens ends this chapter with: "I have omitted to mention in its place that there was some one else at the family dinner party..." Which is sorta funny because, you know, you can't really DO that any more.

Johnny said...

CHAPTER 14
"There was a general putting on of bonnets."

*

I guess we're supposed to be amused by Mr. Jarndyce always being so put-upon with his "wind is in the east" schtick, but it's really starting to get on my nerves. Sorry if it's tough for you to talk to a peasant for like ONE MINUTE.

*

At the end of this chapter, we're told again:

"I have forgotten to mention—at least I have not mentioned—that Mr. Woodcourt was the same dark young surgeon whom we had met at Mr. Badger’s. Or that Mr. Jarndyce invited him to dinner that day. Or that he came. Or that when they were all gone and I said to Ada, 'Now, my darling, let us have a little talk about Richard!' Ada laughed and said—But I don’t think it matters what my darling said. She was always merry."

Ah, NOW I see what you're up to, Dickens. That's actually pretty clever and awesome.

*

CHAPTER 15
Beautiful: "I have lost the habit of treading upon velvet."

What's especially nice about this is that the speaker is talking about how he's lost any patience he's had in his life since the Chancery robbed him of his fortune...the velvet is both metaphorical AND literal.

*

Also gorgeous is the final paragraph of the novel. Esther and family have met a child laborer:

"We kissed her, and took her downstairs with us, and stopped outside the house to see her run away to her work. I don’t know where she was going, but we saw her run, such a little, little creature in her womanly bonnet and apron, through a covered way at the bottom of the court and melt into the city’s strife and sound like a dewdrop in an ocean."

Johnny said...

CHAPTER 16
"Sir Leicester receives the gout as a troublesome demon, but still a demon of the patrician order. All the Dedlocks, in the direct male line have had the gout. It can be proved, sir. Other men’s fathers may have died of the rheumatism or may have taken base contagion from the tainted blood of the sick vulgar, but the Dedlock family have communicated something exclusive even to the levelling process of dying by dying of their own family gout. It has come down through the illustrious line like the plate, or the pictures, or the place in Lincolnshire. It is among their dignities. Sir Leicester is perhaps not wholly without an impression, though he has never resolved it into words, that the angel of death in the discharge of his necessary duties may observe to the shades of the aristocracy, 'My lords and gentlemen, I have the honour to present to you another Dedlock certified to have arrived per the family gout.'"

Johnny said...

CHAPTER 18
In this chapter, Boythorn calls Dedlock "Sir Arrogant Numbskull." Ha! Good one!

*

These are the warning signs that Boythorn puts up on the contested property he and Dedlock are fighting over:

“Beware of the bull–dog. He is most ferocious. Lawrence Boythorn.”

“The blunderbus is loaded with slugs. Lawrence Boythorn.”

“Man–traps and spring–guns are set here at all times of the day and night. Lawrence Boythorn.”

“Take notice. That any person or persons audaciously presuming to trespass on this property will be punished with the utmost severity of private chastisement and prosecuted with the utmost rigour of the law. Lawrence Boythorn.”

The second I buy a house, these are going in the front yard.

*

Dickens has Esther, who barely knows anything, identify a person she's never met: "Her face was not an agreeable one, though it was handsome. It was a Frenchwoman’s."

Really? Was she wearing a beret? Was her face painted like a mime?

But the truly ridiculous part is that the lady WAS French. Please tell us, Dickens, how your idiot of a narrator is able to identify regional variations among caucasians...

*

It's really hard to read Skimpole's thoughts on slaves, and not want to beat the shit out of him.

*

OMG, Lady Dedlock is a total badass! She slices through the Jarndyce party like a robot samurai made out of ice.

To Jarndyce, she cuts to the heart of the matter and describes his "I can barely suffer these people" stance as "the disinterested part of your Don Quixote character." OH SNAP!


CHAPTER 19
"Mr. Chadband moves softly and cumbrously, not unlike a bear who has been taught to walk upright. He is very much embarrassed about the arms, as if they were inconvenient to him and he wanted to grovel"

(I feel like that's how others might describe me.)

*

Goddamnit! The footnotes tell me I missed ANOTHER Othello quote!

*

Ah, Dickens and the art of perfectly crafting his loveable scamp's dialect:

"I can’t go and live in no nicer place, sir. They wouldn’t have nothink to say to me if I wos to go to a nice innocent place fur to live. Who ud go and let a nice innocent lodging to such a reg’lar one as me!"

Bravo, sir.

Johnny said...

CHAPTER 20
"But fashion is Mr. Weevle’s weakness. To borrow yesterday’s paper of an evening and read about the brilliant and distinguished meteors that are shooting across the fashionable sky in every direction is unspeakable consolation to him. To know what member of what brilliant and distinguished circle accomplished the brilliant and distinguished feat of joining it yesterday or contemplates the no less brilliant and distinguished feat of leaving it tomorrow gives him a thrill of joy. To be informed what the beauties are doing, and mean to be doing, and what marriages are on the rocks, and what rumours are in circulation, is to become acquainted with the most glorious destinies of mankind."

Johnny said...

Again, these Jellyby chapters are the funniest and darkest. Mr. Jellyby meets with his creditors after declaring bankruptcy, and Esther takes the children downstairs to play in the courtyard as loud noises issue from the upstairs dining room:

"The last effect I am afraid was caused by poor Mr. Jellyby’s breaking away from the dining–table and making rushes at the window with the intention of throwing himself into the area whenever he made any new attempt to understand his affairs."


CHAPTER 24
"He reddened a little through his brown and made me a trooper’s bow. 'No offence, I hope, miss. I am one of the roughs.'"

I'm going to start using that excuse for EVERYTHING.