Review: Bleak House

Charles Dickens (1853)
861 pages

Of the books I read in 2005, no book surprised me more than Bleak House. The first time I read it was (ahem) years ago in college, for a course on Victorian social history and literature and it was one of the high points of my college career. I loved the course and I loved Bleak House. Since then, Bleak House has topped my list of favorite books, and I always looked forward to reading it again.

So, it was interesting for me to read this book a second time and find that I didn’t enjoy it as much as I remembered. Now, in my opinion, reading Dickens is always worth while, so I didn’t feel like I’d wasted time revisiting Bleak House, but it definitely didn’t captivate me this second go around. I felt I was missing something, since I couldn’t recall the political and social context of the book, information learned in class which I believe added much to my initial reading.

Bleak House is a hefty read, only half of its eight-hundred-plus pages directly concern the plot about three young people, orphans who find themselves associated with the infamous court case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, a legal battle that has been waging in the courts for generations. A descendent of the case, John Jarndyce, is guardian to Richard and Ada, two wards of the case, distant cousins who fall in love only to have their future happiness rest on the unlikely resolution of the insatiable legal matter.

The story’s heroine, Esther Summerson, is Jarndyce’s third ward, an orphan who never knew her mother. It’s her coming of age and self-discovery that is the heart of Bleak House. And finally, there is Lady Deadlock (Dickens characters, by far, have the best names), who is also party to the case and somewhat apart from it all. Her past returns, leading to tragedy. [***1/2 out of 5]

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