I was hoping to have this review ready to post at the end of Amanda’s readalong, but as usual things didn’t go according to plan and I’m almost a week late!
I had tried to read Bleak House once or twice in the past but gave up after a few chapters, so I hoped that taking part in the readalong would give me the motivation to actually finish the book. And it did. However, I was reminded of the reasons why I had given up on the book on my previous attempts. Dickens’ writing can be very long-winded, descriptive and detailed, even in comparison to other Victorian authors, and there were many parts of the book where I really had to force myself to concentrate – particularly during the first two chapters.
The plot is so complex I’m not even going to try to write a summary, other than to say that the story revolves around a court case called Jarndyce and Jarndyce with which many of the characters are in some way involved. The action moves back and forth between the foggy streets of London and a quiet country estate in Lincolnshire. Half of the story is told by an unnamed narrator in the third person present tense, and the other half is narrated by Esther Summerson. There are some characters who appear in only one of the narratives and some who feature in both, so that the two cross and intersect from time to time.
If you’re thinking of reading Bleak House you should be aware that a huge number of characters are introduced throughout the first half of the book. As I mentioned in one of my readalong update posts, it felt as if storylines were being started then abandoned for hundreds of pages at a time. It takes a long time for the separate storylines to start coming together so you’ll need to have patience, but when they do the book becomes much more enjoyable.
Although many of the characters lacked depth, they were all different and memorable enough that I never had a problem remembering who was who. There were some that I liked (Mr Jarndyce, Inspector Bucket and George), and some that I hated (Skimpole, Smallweed and Tulkinghorn). As for Esther, she appeared to be Dickens’ portrayal of what an ideal woman should be like (i.e. perfect in every way, loved by everyone, happy to be nicknamed ‘little housewife’ and ‘Dame Durden’). But although Esther irritated me, I would probably have enjoyed the book more if it had all been told from her perspective. I found I could get more absorbed in the story while she was narrating and her chapters were much easier to follow than the others.
Bleak House has everything I would normally love in a book: an intricate plot, secrets and revelations, humour, a mystery, unusual characters. Unfortunately there was something about the book that didn’t quite work for me; I’m not sure whether it was the writing style or the narrative structure or a combination of both. But although I didn’t love it, I didn’t dislike it either and as this was only the second Dickens book I’ve read (the other being A Christmas Carol), I’ll definitely be giving him another chance.