George Gissing: The Immortal Dickens, Bleak House

I was whilst engaged upon Bleak House that Dickens, for the first time in his career, complained of feeling overwrought. He began the writing of this book in November, 1851, just a year after the close of David Copperfield, and was busy at it until August 1853; the first of the usual twenty monthly parts appeared in March, 1852, with illustrations by Hablôt K. Browne. Doubtless the story cost him a great deal of trouble, for he had set himself a task alien to his genius -- that of constructing a neatly elaborate "plot," a rounded mystery with manifold complications, to serve as the vehicle for his attack upon a monstrous abuse. His letters of the time show that he was not working with the old gusto; he felt his other literary tasks, going on concurrently, very burdensome, to say nothing of the strain imposed by amateur acting and ceaseless social engagements. Of course the method of monthly publication, with author but a little in advance of printer, was, notwithstanding Dickens's deliberate defence, as bad a one as novelist has ever contrived, and we, who owe to it so many of Dickens's blemishes, cannot condemn it too severely. Imagine him to have written how, when, and where he pleased, making his books short or long with regard only to their subject, and choosing his own time for putting forth the complete story, how different would be the possession bequeathed to us!

In the serial issue David Copperfield had not had a great sale; Bleak House began at once with a larger, and presently rose to a circulation of nearly twice that attained by the earlier and better book. The wise man does not try very hard to explain such statistics, but it seems intelligible that the opening chapters of Bleak House should have excited that sort of curiosity which in the public at large means interest; there is a lawsuit involving a great fortune, and there is a mystery affecting aristocratic lives. Herein lay novelty; for the two preceding books, Dombey and Copperfield, had opened with childhood, and followed a regular biographic tenor. Dickens's first idea with regard to their successor was to call it Tom-all-Alone's, and to make Jo the centre of interest; obviously a project of no great promise and soon abandoned. I have somewhere read a suggestion, that in the changed character of his later works, where "plot" takes the place of biographic narrative, we are to note the influence of Dickens's friend, Wilkie Collins; but in the year 1851 Wilkie Collins had published only his first, and uncharacteristic, work of fiction, Antonina, and it is more likely that, if influence there were of one novelist upon the other, Bleak House had its part in the shaping of Collins's successful work; Inspector Bucket, at all events, certainly gave a new type to the novelists of crime.

Dickens thought he was making an advance in art. He had been occasionally reproached for the old-fashioned, happy-go-lucky progress of his stories, and now set himself resolutely to amend the fault. The result was a fiction which his biographer considers very nearly perfect. "Look back from the last to the first page of the present novel, and not even in the highest examples of this kind of elaborate care will it be found that event leads more closely to event or that the separate incidents have been planned with a more studied consideration of the bearing they are severally to have on the general result. Nothing is introduced at random, everything tends to the catastrophe, the various lines of the plot converge and fit to its centre, and to this larger interest all the rest is irresistibly drawn" (Forster, Bk. VIII, Chap. I). Now, if we omit the objectionable word "plot," this is a description of faultless art in the constructing of a story; it will apply, in its degree, to every fine drama, scenic or narrative. But in the case before us its application is imperfect, owing to Dickens's failure to distinguish between art and artifice. In the fable of Bleak House there is much ingenuity, but an almost total disregard of probability the fitting of incidents suggests a mechanical puzzle rather than the complications of human life; arbitrary coincidence takes the place of well-contrived motive, and at times the motive suggested is glaringly inadequate. Briefly, the plot is not a good plot; infinite labour was wasted in a mistaken direction and here, as in so many of Dickens's novels, we have to enjoy the book in spite of its framework.

To make matters worse, the scheme is not homogeneous; intermingled with this weft of elaborate pattern are patches of a totally different order of work, the chapters of autobiography supposed to be written by Esther Summerson. In Copperfield, the first-person narrative was a great success, for it was indeed Dickens himself who spoke throughout, with all his qualities of humour and observation, vigour and pathos, allowed free play; one understands that the memory of his delight in achieving that masterpiece tempted him to a repetition of the same method. The result was most unfortunate. Of Esther Summerson as a woman we are liable to form no conception whatever, and we utterly refuse to believe that any hand save one penned the chapters bearing her signature. An attempt is made to write ''in character,'' but it is speedily abandoned, and I imagine it would be an easy thing, by the changing of a very few words on each page, to incorporate these Esther portions with the rest of the narrative. The object, presumably, of writing a book in this way is to obtain the effect of varied points of view regarding characters and events; but it is of necessity a mistake in art. With a skill much greater than that of Dickens, the device is employed in Daudet's "Le Nabab," where one still feels that the harmonious construction of the novel is unwarrantably disturbed.


So much for technicalities. To come to the root of the matter, Bleak House is a brilliant, admirable, and most righteous satire upon the monstrous iniquity of "old Father Antic the Law," with incidental mockery of allied abuses which, now as then, hold too large a place in the life of the English people.

Needless nowadays to revive the controversies which the book excited; we know that the Court of Chancery disgraced a country pretending to civilization; we know that, not long after the publication of Bleak House, it submitted to certain reforms yet it is interesting to remember that legal luminaries scoffed at Dickens's indignation and declared his picture utterly unlike the truth. One of these critics (Lord Denman) published a long and severe arraignment of the author, disputing not only his facts, but his theories of human nature. This novel, asserted Lord Denman, contained all Dickens's old faults and a good many new ones. Especially bitter was his lordship on the subject of Mrs. Jellyby, whom he held to be a gross libel on the philanthropic cause of slave emancipation. Many readers, naturally, found subject of offence in Mr. Chadband. Indeed, Bleak House seems to have aroused emotions in England very much as Martin Chuzzlewit did in America, the important point being that in neither case did Dickens's satire ultimately injure him with his public; in the end, the laugh was on his side, and with a laugh he triumphed. Not a little remarkable, when one comes to think of it, this immunity of the great writer. Humour, and humour alone, could have ensured it to him. It is all very well to talk of right prevailing, of the popular instinct for justice, and so on; these phrases mean very little. Dickens held his own because he amused. The noblest orator ever born, raising his voice in divine wrath against Chancery and all its vileness would not have touched the "great heart of the People" as did these pages which make gloriously ridiculous the whole legal world from His Lordship in his High Court down to Mr. Guppy on his high stool.

The satire is of very wide application; it involves that whole system of pompous precedent which in Dickens's day was responsible for so much cruelty and hypocrisy, for such waste of life in filth and gloom and wretchedness. With the glaring injustice of the Law, rotting society down to such places as Tom-all-Alone's, is associated the subtler evils of an aristocracy sunk to harmful impotence. With absurd precedent goes foolish pride, and self-righteousness, and every form of idle egoism; hence we have a group of admirable studies in selfish conceit -- Harold Skimpole, Mr. Turveydrop, Mr. Chadband, Mrs. Jellyby. Impossible to vary the central theme more adroitly, more brilliantly. In Bleak House London is seen as a mere dependance of the Court of Chancery, a great gloomy city, webbed and meshed, as it were, by the spinnings of a huge poisonous spider sitting in the region of Chancery Lane; its inhabitants are the blighted, stunted and prematurely old offspring of a town which knows not fresh air. Perfect, all this, for the purpose of the satirist. In this sense, at all events, Bleak House is an excellently constructed book.

There is no leading character. In Richard Carstone, about whom the story may be said to circle, Dickens tried to carry out a purpose he had once entertained with regard to Walter Gay in Dombey and Son. That of showing a good lad at the mercy of temptations and circumstances which little by little wreck his life; but Richard has very little life to lose, and we form only a shadowy conception of his amiably futile personality. Still less convincing is his betrothed, Ada, whose very name one finds it difficult to remember. Nothing harder, to be sure, than to make a living picture of one whose part in the story is passive, and in Bleak House passivity is the characteristic of all the foremost figures; their business is to submit to the irresistible. Yet two of these personages seem to me successful studies of a kind in which Dickens was not often successful; I cannot but think that both Sir Leicester Dedlock and John Jarndyce is, each in his way, an excellent piece of work, making exactly the impression at which the author aimed. Compare Jarndyce with Mr. Pickwick and with the brothers Cheeryble. It is to their world that he belongs, the world of eccentric benevolence; he is the kind of man Dickens delighted to portray; but Mr. Jarndyce is far more recognizably a fellow-mortal than his gay predecessors; in truth, he may claim the style of gentleman, and perhaps may stand for the most soberly agreeable portrait of a gentleman to be found in all Dickens's novels. Sir Leicester, though he shows in the full light of satiric intention, being a figurehead on the crazy old ship of aristocratic privilege, is a human being akin to John Jarndyce; he speaks with undue solemnity, but behaves at all times as noblesse oblige, and, when sinking beneath his unmerited calamities, makes no little claim upon our sympathetic admiration. We have travelled far since the days of Sir Mulberry Hawk; the artist, meanwhile, had made friends in the privileged class of his countrymen, and had learnt what the circumstances of his early life did not allow him to perceive, that virtue and good manners are not confined to the middle and lower orders. He would not go so far as to make Sir Leicester intelligent; in spite of personal experience, Dickens never reconciled himself to the thought of "birth" in association with brains. His instinctive feeling comes out very strongly in that conversation between the Baronet and the Ironmaster which points to Dickens's remedy -- the Radical remedy -- for all the evils he is depicting.

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