I have a strict rule when it comes to works by Charles Dickens: watch the dramatizations, but don’t read the books. I was forced to read “Great Expectations” in high school and the experience left me vowing never, ever to read anything Dickensian ever again. And I have kept that vow (with the exception of “A Christmas Carol”) until now.
I am currently reading “Bleak House” and may I say it is one of the most gripping reads I have ever had my hands on. The popularity of Dickens, both during and after his lifetime, has always been lost on me, but now I can see why crowds turned out to find out what happened next in his serialized novels. It’s also easy to see why the BBC wanted to do a television adaptation. Dickens’ third person narration paints a picture of London and the principal characters in the story much as a cinematographer pans over the landscape, setting the scene.
“Bleak House” is Dickens’ screed against the law and lawyers, particularly the Chancery Court which dealt with wills and estates. With no incentive to settle, lawyers and judges dragged out the lawsuits which could go on for years and eventually bankrupt the estate in legal costs. Although legal reforms had begun when Dickens began serializing “Bleak House”, as the author points out in his 1853 preface, there were still cases before the court that had gone on for 20 years and in one case, 50 years.
In the story, Dickens’ far flung cast of characters from all walks of life are tied together by the infamous (fictional) case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, a lawsuit about a contested will that has dragged on for years and years. A great sum of money is at stake should any of the potential litigants or beneficiaries live long enough to see the suit settled. As the story opens, Richard and Ada, two wards of the court, are sent to live with their distant cousin, John Jarndyce. Accompanying them is Ester Summerson, an orphan girl of mysterious parentage, who has been engaged as Ada’s companion and Mr. Jaryndyce’s housekeeper. Meanwhile, the unpleasant Mr. Tulkinghorn (a lawyer naturally enough) brings papers to another party in the suit, the Dedlocks. Lady Dedlock, a beautiful but icy woman, has a dark and painful secret of her own which she has kept hidden for years and which eventually spirals out to touch the other claimants in the case.
The necessity for legal reform is certainly one of the major themes of the book, but it is not the only one. The impossibility of private charity to fix widespread social problems is one. Mysteries, the investigation of same, and a host of detectives, both amateur and professional, are another. The human costs of social repression (repression of one’s fellow citizens and repression of one’s own feelings) are yet another.
I can highly recommend the 2005 BBC adaptation of this novel featuring the luminous Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock, Charles Dance as Mr. Tulkinghorn (another villain, of course), and pretty much a who’s who of British character actors as the rest of the large ensemble cast. Andrew Davies has followed Dickens’ serial format and has broken the story down into 15 half hour programs so you can watch it 30 minutes at a time if you like. The first set of episodes introduces the characters and sets the action up. The second and third set hurtle the story toward its relentless conclusion. I warn you, the episodes are highly addictive and tear jerking in several places.
My only caveat when I was watching the series was the emphasis on handwriting. A crucial plot point is Lady Dedlock’s recognition of a man’s handwriting on a legal document and much is made throughout the show of the “hand” of certain documents. I had to wonder if young people, the kind who communicate with their thumbs and can only print if a pen is thrust into their hands, can really understand how critical it was to be able to do “joined up writing”. In a time before photocopiers, the ability to write clearly and steadily with a quill and inkwell was a marketable skill and a mark of education.
Returning to the 21st century, here’s a link to the Bleak House Tumblr.
Below is a video interview with Charles Dance talking about his character of Tulkinghorn and about the craft of acting. Dance’s take on Tulkinghorn is that he is a repressed homosexual. Reading the book, it’s difficult to say. Dickens does repeat the phrase “repressed” and “self-repressive” in describing Tulkinghorn and something is certainly twisted in the man given the savage enjoyment he takes in lording it over the other characters in his power. Dance and Anderson’s scenes together are electric and there is something disturbingly sexual about their encounters. If Dickens had been a different kind of writer, we probably would have been witnessing the Victorian version of “Fifty Shades of Grey”.
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