Most readers who love literature would, I’d guess, have, some time or other, imagined themselves as writers. Well, Dear Reader, imagine yourself a writer now. And imagine that you are creating a location in your novel that is dark and desolate, filthy and poverty-stricken and diseased. What appropriate name would you give it? Something like, say, Acacia Gardens would certainly be out of place, unless one is trying one’s hand merely at heavy-handed sarcasm. I suppose I would come up with something like Barebones Alley: readers possessing richer imagination than mine would, no doubt, come up with names more richly imaginative. But I doubt anyone would be able to come up with Tom-All-Alone’s. Once you hear it, you realise that this has to be the name – that nothing else will do: that this name alone removes the location from a mere physical hell-hole into some region set deep within the dark interior of the mind itself. But who else other than Dickens could have thought up such a name?
The fictional world of Dickens had always presented us with a stylised version of reality – grotesquely disfigured either for comic purposes, or to inspire horror: the mirror it holds up to nature is a distorting mirror. But in Bleak House, these distortions create an effect new in Dickens – and new, I think, in any fiction: it gives us access to a world that is not merely physical. But it is difficult to describe the exact nature of this world. Psychological? Metaphysical? Perhaps. Dickens does not describe Tom-All-Alone’s in physical detail, as, say, Zola might have done: he gives us instead a powerful sense, an impression, of the desolation of the place, of a degradation of the soul that is more than merely physical. It strikes terror to the very heart.
Similarly with that famous opening chapter, describing the fog: what we get is not so much a description of the fog, but, rather, a sense of something far more overwhelming, and all-embracing. The fog of wintertime London soon envelops the entire novel. And similarly with the filth: the mud on the streets almost immediately becomes transformed to “M’Lud” of the law-courts. Words themselves become malleable: later in the novel, the hospital becomes “horse-spittle”; the inquest becomes “inkwhich”; and the little boy Jo, whose horizons have never extended beyond the degradation of Tom-All-Alone’s, knows “nothink”. All literature is constructed, after all, out of language, out of words, and it is hard to think of any novelist other than Joyce who took such delight in transforming language, distorting it as he distorts reality itself, for expressive ends.
Take, for instance, that opening chapter, which is but a series of fragments. No sentence is grammatically complete: most are missing subjects and verbs. And yet, such is Dickens’ ear for rhythms and cadences, not one of these grammatically faulty sentences could be improved upon. Let us consider that first paragraph, starting with a sentence consisting of a single word:
London. Michaelmas Term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow-flakes — gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill-temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if the day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.
Let us now try to correct the grammar, as unobtrusively as we can:
The scene is London. Michaelmas Term is lately over, and the Lord Chancellor is sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. The November weather is implacable. There is as much mud in the streets as there would have been if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke is lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow-flakes — having gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs can be seen in the mire, undistinguishable from each other. The horses are scarcely better; they are splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers are jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill-temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if the day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.
Every point where a “correction” has been made dilutes the effect absurdly. One may set oneself an exercise to re-write this passage in any way one wants, and we would see merely the same dilution. Dickens’ idiosyncratic syntax, his choice of words and images, are all so precise, so carefully calculated, that not the slightest detail could be changed without weakening the whole. And it continues like this for page after page.
It is a virtuoso piece of writing that sets the scene of the novel – and not merely in physical terms. It presents a deep gloom and an almost primeval murk out of which the characters eventually emerge. And it is quite not a real world they emerge into: it is a world in which metaphor can become reality – a world that can accommodate even a death by spontaneous combustion.
This world is dominated by the law-courts, and, in particular, by the Jarndyce vs Jarndyce case. It has dragged through the courts for generations, and there is still no sight of an end. Nobody really knows what this case is about. It has brought in its wake suffering and madness and death. There are documents a-plenty, but there isn’t time enough in the world for anyone to go through all these documents, and get to the bottom of it all. And in any case, these documents are in the possession of Krook – he who is later visited with spontaneous combustion – who cannot read. All of these seem like symbols in search of interpretations, but, as in the works of Kafka (who was surely the spiritual heir of Dickens), they seem to embody a mystery that is greater than the sum of all possible interpretations. It is a world that simultaneously invites and defies interpretation. Indeed, the very issue of interpretation seems to be at the heart of it all.
Miss Flite, a woman driven mad by the case of Jarndyce vs Jarndyce, awaits the judgement of the court. And, once again, we are not merely talking about the physical: “I expect a Judgement”, she says, “on the Day of Judgement”. And on that Day of Judgement, she will release all her caged birds. She names these birds in a monstrous Rabelaisian list: “Hope, Joy, Youth, Peace, Rest, Life, Dust, Ashes, Waste, Want, Ruin, Despair, Madness, Death, Cunning, Folly, Words, Wigs, Rags, Sheepskin, Plunder, Precedent, Jargon, Gammon, and Spinach.” As ever, Dickens was a man in love with words, and the sheer linguistic plenitude of this list, words toppling over one another in mad profusion, opens the door to a world that appears, like Miss Flite herself, to have lost its sanity; a world that is simultaneously terror-stricken and absurd – a world that is, by the end, merely “gammon and spinach”.
This gammon-and-spinach world is presented to us through two very different but intertwining voices. There is the voice of Esther Summerson, principled and courageous but also mannered, and, to many readers, self-satisfied and coy; and there is also an impersonal, third-person voice that we hear at the very start of the novel, speaking throughout in the present tense. Esther is illegitimate: she has grown up having had it hammered into her head that her very existence is an abomination. She finds herself ward to the kindly Mr Jarndyce, a man, who, for all his benevolence, is subject to bouts of such extreme depression that he has to shut himself away into what he calls his “growlery”: Esther is grateful to him, not merely for his adoption of her, but also for the love he offers. Indeed, so starved has she been of love, that any expression of affection she encounters she cherishes. And she tries her utmost to bring order into the world around her. But even as she congratulates herself for doing so, the other voice presents us with a world in which no order can ever be established. Esther’s view of the world is, necessarily, a limited one, and her narrative is only partly reliable: that other voice that counterpoints hers gives us a somewhat different perspective. I know of no moment in all of fiction more chilling than that when another of Jarndyce’s wards, Richard Carstone, disappears from Esther’s narrative and appears in the other.
It is up to the reader to balance the different perspectives, to judge between the different voices. And it is up to the reader also to piece together the very many seemingly disparate elements of the narrative. For, amongst other things, Bleak House is also a detective novel – possibly the first of its kind: Dickens presents us with a bewildering maze of different characters and different milieux, and challenges us to find the connections. These connections, though intricate and well hidden, are very closely plotted. And the reader has to work at it: there is no Poirot to give us a lucid exposition at the end of this immensely tangled web.
The character who comes closest to untangling the web is a comic character – Guppy, the legal clerk, in love with Esther and determined to unearth the mystery of her birth. By the time he is close to the solution, Esther herself has come to know it, and this knowledge, she realises, is a terrible secret. With commendable moral integrity and sense of purpose, she instructs Guppy not to enquire further; and the truth she now knows she does not reveal to anyone – not even to her trusted guardian Mr Jarndyce. But there are other wheels already in motion over which Esther has no control: the order she brings to the world can only be limited.
There is also the lawyer, Tulkinghorn. He is lawyer to the crusty old aristocrat Sir Leicester Dedlock. Out in the stately home of Chesney wold in Lincolnshire, Lady Dedlock is bored; Sir Leicester, on the other hand, is never bored, for “when he had nothing else to do, he can always contemplate his own greatness”. But when Tulkinghorn presents him with legal documents, Lady Dedlock, for all her immense self-composure, nearly faints. Sir Leicester is solicitous for his wife’s health, but attaches no particular significance to this; Tulkinghorn, however, is more suspicious: he knows what has brought on Lady Dedlock’s discomfiture – the handwriting on the document. So he, like Guppy, starts digging.
That handwriting was the work of a man who is now dead. His work it was, towards the end of his life, to copy legal documents – those signifiers that may, if one has the time to pursue them, lead one to the truth. He had died in poverty, and was known merely by a pseudonym – Nemo, “nobody”. Soon, a strange lady appears in Tom-All-Alone’s, heavily veiled. And she instructs Jo, the little street-sweeper who “knows nothink”, to show her around all those places that this Nemo had once frequented. She tells Jo she is a servant, but Jo has never seen a servant before with such sparkling rings on her fingers. And she is shown all these terrible places, so far removed from her own bored existence. Finally, in a scene that haunts the rest of the novel, Jo points to the awful place where Nemo is buried:
“There!” says Jo, pointing. “Over yinder. Among them piles of bones, and close to that there kitchin winder! They put him wery nigh the top. They was obliged to stamp upon it to git it in. I could unkiver it for you, with my broom if the gate was open. That’s why they locks it, I s’pose,” giving it a shake. “It’s always locked. Look at the rat!” cries Jo, excited. “Hi! Look! There he goes! Ho! Into the ground!”
The servant shrinks into a corner — into a corner of that hideous archway, with its deadly stains contaminating her dress; and putting out her two hands and passionately telling him to keep away from her, for he is loathsome to her, so remains for some moments. Jo stands staring, and is still staring when she recovers herself.
“Is this place of abomination, consecrated ground?”
“I don’t know nothink of consequential ground,” says Jo, still staring.
“Is it blessed?”
“WHICH?” says Jo, in the last degree amazed.
“Is it blessed?”
“I’m blest if I know,” says Jo, staring more than ever; “but I shouldn’t think it warn’t. Blest?” repeats Jo, something troubled in his mind. “It an’t done it much good if it is. Blest? I should think it was t’othered myself. But I don’t know nothink!”
The mystery at the heart of this novel goes further and deeper than the mystery at the heart of the intricate plot. But Dickens, being Dickens, overlays these mysteries with his characteristic exuberance – eccentrics, comic grotesques, scoundrels and madmen, all depicted in his idiosyncratic prose. Here’s Chadband, for instance, the lay preacher, “a large yellow man with a fat smile and a general appearance of having a good deal of train oil in his system”. And this is how he talks:
‘My friends,’ says he, ‘what is this which we now behold as being spread before us? Refreshment. Do we need refreshment then, my friends? We do. And why do we need refreshment, my friends? Because we are but mortal, because we are but sinful, because we are but of the earth, because we are not of the air. Can we fly, my friends? We cannot. Why can we not fly, my friends?”
Or there’s Mrs Jellyby, unconcerned with her own chaotic family (whom she leaves to take care of themselves), but obsessed with charity, though not out of love: love is a concept alien to her; but, rather, out of a desire for self-aggrandisement. Or the loathsome loan shark Smallweed. Or the demented Miss Flite, with her cage of captive birds. The sinister lawyer Tulkinghorn. The boisterous Mr Boythorne. And so on. Perhaps no other novel, not even by Dickens, is so full of such a vivid gallery of characters, for whom the term “caricature” seems somehow inadequate: these grotesques, for all their grotesqueness, are living people. Even Sir Leicester Dedlock, the contemplator of his own greatness: when the truth is revealed, and the assumptions on which his entire life had rested disintegrate, he can redeem himself morally – and, hence, take on a tragic dimension – by forgiving. But this moral redemption does not, can not, bring him happiness, or even help salve his wounds: we are far here from the simpler world of Dickens’ earlier novels in which goodness resulted in happiness. But it does allow Sir Leicester to develop into a character possessing nobility, though not the nobility that Sir Leicester had previously imagined for himself. When he had thought himself noble merely on account of his birth, he was but a caricature; but when his entire life collapses, he becomes real. Ordinary caricatures do not have the scope for development: those of Dickens do.
Perhaps best of all is Skimpole. In a novel filled with pictures of childhood betrayed, childhood abused, and childhood brutalised; of children forced by cruel circumstance to become adults; Dickens presents us with an adult who pretends to be a child. Skimpole doesn’t understand the world, not he: it is far too complex for a soul as simple and as innocent as his. Skimpole, we find, had actually trained as a doctor, but he does not practice medicine: he is far too childlike. Esther is, at first, charmed by Skimpole, but, as she matures, sees him for what he is – as yet another manifestation of the moral corruption that surrounds them all. At a strategic point in the novel, we are taken into Skimpole’s house, where he introduces Esther to his own children:
“Here I am, you see!” he said, when we were seated: not without some little difficulty, the greater part of the chairs being broken. “Here I am! This is my frugal breakfast. Some men want legs of beef and mutton for breakfast; I don’t. Give me my peach, my cup of coffee, and my claret; I am content. I don’t want them for themselves, but they remind me of the sun. There’s nothing solar about legs of beef and mutton. Mere animal satisfaction!”
“This is our friend’s consulting room (or would be, if he ever prescribed), his sanctum, his studio,” said my guardian to us.
“Yes,” said Mr Skimpole, turning his bright face about, “this is the bird’s cage. This is where the bird lives and sings. They pluck his feathers now and then, and clip his wings; but he sings, he sings!”
Quiet unexpectedly, Dickens combines here the adult-child motif with a rather different one from earlier in the novel – that of Miss Flite’s captive birds, waiting for the Day of Judgement to be set free. Entire theses can be written – and, I’m sure, have been written – about Dickens’ use of symbols and motifs.
For all its comic exuberance, Bleak House remains a tragic novel. There can be no entirely happy ending. Yes, young lovers do get to marry each other – as they had done at the end of Dickens’ earlier works – but there can be no happy-ever-after: life is too complex to allow for that. It is too inscrutable. There are signs and symbols a-plenty – if only we knew how to interpret them.