Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Bleakly Reader

For a book blogger, I'm starting to get an inferiority complex.  It's been a month now since I started "Bleak House", and I've still got 300 pages to go (out of 850 or so).  I've been looking at some other book blogs and folks seem to either (a) read a heck of a lot faster than I do or (b) have a lot more time to read than I do.  I do find that "Bleak House" is a slower read than some of the other recent books I've read.  There are sections where I'll read a page and then realize that I have no idea what's going on.  Part of it is the language...there's something about the way Dickens writes that makes it hard for me to follow.  In other Victorian literature that I've read, and I'm thinking in particular of the George Eliot I've read lately, I haven't had this problem.  In addition to the language, there's just so many characters in this book that it can be hard to keep track of them all, especially when the book is spread out over the course of a month (and counting).  If I knew I was going to have this problem I would have made a list as I went along.

It would be hard to summarize the book so far, so I won't even try.  But here are a few random thoughts I have at the moment:

1.  This book is really funny in parts.  Some of the characters are quite amusing.  There's Mr. Turveydrop, a dance instructor of little means, but who impresses everyone by his deportment.  There's the old man Mr. Smallweed, who slumps down into his chair and must be shaken and fluffed up like a pillow by his daughter, especially after he's thrown a pillow at his wife, who's prone to ramble on in a senile manner.  And of course, the names of the characters themselves are great.  In addition to the ones I just mentioned, there's Mr. Guppy, a somewhat slimy legal aid, Mr. Vohles (a definitely slimy lawyer), and Mrs. Jellyby (a woman so involved with charity that she neglects her family, and thus fails to see that charity begins at home).

2.  Dickens definitely has a beef with the law.  The centerpiece of the story is a lawsuit that's gone on for years, and still has no end in sight.  It probably will never end, because the lawyers don't want it to...when it ends they'll stop making money off of it.  There hasn't been one sympathetic portrait of a lawyer or the legal system, at least so far.  It would be interesting to know more about the British legal system at the time, and if it's changed at all.  I think I'll look into that.

3.  The book can be very moving as well.  The main character, Esther Summerson, gets smallpox, and her face is disfigured from it. She says it doesn't bother her, with the typical British stiff upper lip, I suppose, but you can tell it does.  And who wouldn't it bother!?


Amateur Reader said...

1. "Bleak House" was serialized. It's original readers read it over the course of 18 months. So you're on track to beat that.

2. This post about the 60 year lawsuit of Myra Clark Gaines, longest in American history, might help with some of your legal questions: http://columbiaacs.blogspot.com/2006/11/longest-case-in-us-history-myra-clark.html

J.D. said...

Actually, my blog gives the impression that I'm a jet-fast reader, but it isn't the case at all. I actually began my quest a couple of years ago, and I didn't decide to start a blog until I had such a backlog of material that I figured I should do something with it.

My blog currently deals with my readings in ancient Greek literature, but I'm actually reading 16th and 17th century literature. I'm revising mini essays that were written quite a while ago to bring them up to date with my current thoughts -- and enjoying the process quite a bit.

Rohan Maitzen said...

I find the dual narrators really interesting in Bleak House: the omniscient one giving us breadth, a kind of panoromic perspective complete with that Victorian "sage" voice, like a prophet; then Esther, the opposite, giving us depth, like a geologist's soil sample or something, straight down into the personal. And on both levels you have the governing idea of a fog (obscuring, confusing, concealing, misleading--Esther, I think, is foggy herself, in that she is not altogether to be trusted) and the 'conceit' of housekeeping.

I'm teaching BH again this fall, only my second time. It is a pretty intimidating, bulky thing. My students will have three weeks for it, probably. Hmmm. Not long enough, maybe?

Robby Virus said...

Some comments on the comments:

Amateur Reader: I'd forgotten that "Bleak House" was serialized. That makes it all the more amazing to me that the original readers could keep track of all its intricacies.

J.D: Whew! that makes me feel like I'm not such a slacker.

Rohan: The dual narrator device is interesting, and I was actually thinking about a post for that when I saw your comment. So see my latest post. And three weeks seems like more than enough time for students to read "Bleak House". It's not like they're working full-time. I swear, kids today have it easy...why back in my day, we had to read 7 novels a week for school and walk ten miles each way through 20 foot snow drifts just to get to class.