The great thing about re-reading Dickens, as I recently found when I returned to Bleak House, is that you mostly know which parts you should skip. There is, after all, much to enjoy—he creates a fabulously dense atmosphere, for one thing. In this case, the fog and smog and mud of London are a macrocosm of the futile, constipated quicksand of the Chancery court; the lawyers even address the Lord Chancellor as “M’lud.” The legal system, like London, is a machine for producing useless filth. The refuse of Chancery ends up in the warehouse of Mr Krook, the rag-and-bottle man who collects everything and never sells anything. Krook himself spontaneously combusts, generating a nasty oily substance that coats the walls and ceiling and even permeates the air (we first encounter this when his lodger, Tony Jobling aka Mr Weevil, notices that his candle is sputtering and seems to be surrounded by a cabbage-like halo. Mr Krook has, or had, another lodger, Miss Flite, herself a party in a Chancery suit who has confused the judgment she is waiting for with the Judgment described in Revelations. Pending such judgment, she keeps birds (larks, linnets, and goldfinches, to be precise), and of course we learn their names: "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. I especially love Gammon and Spinach. Such bizarreries draw part of their charm, as do the gadgets of steampunk, from the drab and stodgy Victorian background. Rigid linguistic etiquette serves as a straight man for characters who violate it, as when a lady, infuriated by the preening of Mr Turveydrop (an aging fop who maintains his rock-and-roll lifestyle on the back of his son’s drudgery), becomes more and more worked up and finally boils over with “Oh, I could bite you!” The irascible invalid Mr Smallweed, irritated at the unsatisfactory progress of an interview in a law office, shouts out “Brimstone beast!” and then, in an effort at repair, turns to his granddaughter and explains, “I was thinking of your dear grandmother.” Now that I’ve given the Dickens his due, though….Virginia Woolf’s comment that Middlemarch is one of the few English books written for grown-up people always makes me think of Dickens as the obvious contrast. I do not begrudge Chuck his absurdly contrived coincidences; of course we know that Esther will learn the truth about her parentage and will just happen to run into her mother, from whom she was separated at birth. But he stage-manages his emotional scenes with the artistry and tact of a porn director. To understand this one, it is probably helpful to know that Esther’s looks have been ruined by the ravaging scars of smallpox:
I cannot tell in any words what the state of my mind was when I saw in her hand my handkerchief with which I had covered the dead baby.
I looked at her, but I could not see her, I could not hear her, I could not draw my breath. The beating of my heart was so violent and wild that I felt as if my life were breaking from me. But when she caught me to her breast, kissed me, wept over me, compassionated me, and called me back to myself; when she fell down on her knees and cried to me, “Oh, my child, my child, I am your wicked and unhappy mother! Oh, try to forgive me!”—when I saw her at my feet on the bare earth in her great agony of mind, I felt, through all my tumult of emotion, a burst of gratitude to the providence of God that I was so changed as that I never could disgrace her by any trace of likeness, as that nobody could ever now look at me and look at her and remotely think of any near tie between us.
I raised my mother up, praying and beseeching her not to stoop before me in such affliction and humiliation. I did so in broken, incoherent words, for besides the trouble I was in, it frightened me to see her at MY feet. I told her—or I tried to tell her—that if it were for me, her child, under any circumstances to take upon me to forgive her, I did it, and had done it, many, many years. I told her that my heart overflowed with love for her, that it was natural love which nothing in the past had changed or could change. That it was not for me, then resting for the first time on my mother’s bosom, to take her to account for having given me life, but that my duty was to bless her and receive her, though the whole world turned from her, and that I only asked her leave to do it.
It goes on for quite a while in a similar vein, but you get the idea. Oscar Wilde famously said that one must have a heart of ston to read of the death of Little Nell without laughter, and I applaud the sentiment, though my own reaction is not so much mirth as embarrassment that the author has let himself go in such an obvious way. In his pursuit of the tear-jerking money shot, Mr D is willing to sacrifice not only taste but also psychology and ethics. Can he really be so naïve as to think that a person can be overwhelmed with “natural love” for someone they’ve never met? And her first thought is to be extra super grateful to God for giving her the pox? This is a quibble, though, compared to his characteristic handling of Esther’s marriage. Esther is engaged to her benefactor, the much older Mr Jarndyce, a saintly figure who is supposed to strike us as adorable but is actually really annoying. He doesn’t seem to be attracted to her, even before the smallpox, which is just weird, but whatever, he decides at some point that she’s really in love with the rather wooden Dr Woodcourt, who is certainly in love with her. Does he talk to her about it? No, of course not, he arranges a wedding date with her, has her make all the plans and pick out her wardrobe and stuff, then tells her he’s bought a house for Woodcourt and will she come look at it. She dutifully appears, notices that the house seems to be decorated in her taste, and now Jarndyce reveals what’s behind door #2. He’s not going to marry her at all, he’s arranged for her to marry Woodcourt. Har har, what a lovely surprise. Me, I would kick him in the shins and call him a manipulative bastard at this point, but of course Esther just melts with gratitude. To be fair, this whole thing isn’t actually Mr. J’s fault—he is tiresome, always going on about the east wind, but he isn’t the kind of power-tripping asshole who would pull this stunt. He is a mere puppet, with Mr. Dickens’ hand up his ass, and must do whatever milks the maximum melodrama out of the situation. I won’t bore you with more examples, but Dickens does this all the time, not only wringing extra emotion out of contrived set pieces, which would be enough of a sin for a serious writer, but making his characters do his dirty work when he can’t invent the means himself. For a man who otherwise appeared to harbor such affection for his creations, this is a sad bit of double-dealing. OK, I obviously didn’t manage to fast-forward over all the parts that I should have skipped, but I was able at least to avoid throwing my reader against the wall. Perhaps the third reading is the charm.