I read Charles Dickens’ Bleak House as part of a novel-reading group hosted by my friend Linda White. We read it after reading the six novels in Anthony Trollope’s Barsetshire series and the six in his Palliser series.
Trollope was a good storyteller. I got a lot of pleasure out of reading his novels. But reading Dickens after reading Trollope gives me an added appreciation of the greatness of Dickens.
Both Dickens and Trollope created memorable and believable characters, whom we talked about as if they were real people.
Trollope’s characters were like people I know, if the people I knew had grown up in Victorian England. The women in the reading group said Trollope was remarkable for knowing how women talked among themselves when there were no men around.
A few of the Trollope characters were completely villainous, but were mixtures of good and bad, and Trollope regarded them with amused tolerance.
Dickens’ characters were much more extreme—the good ones were much better, the bad ones were much worse, the eccentric ones were much more strange, but they all were memorable and believable.
Both Trollope and Dickens were keen social observers. Trollope was a keen observer of the middle and upper classes. In fact, one of his protagonists was a Prime Minister. But he treated the lower class as comic characters.
Dickens did not reach so high in his observations, but described the lives of the poor as sympathetically as the lives of the middle class.
He depicted characters on every level of society, from aristocrats to paupers in the slums, some caring and responsible, some hypocritical and self-deceiving and some cunning, manipulative and cruel.
He thought that no matter who you were, your moral choices made a difference, and he accordingly was much more judgmental than Trollope.
Trollope was a great explainer. He understood the workings of the law, Parliamentary politics, administration, fox-hunting (which he loved), Church of England insider politics and much else.
Dickens was a great descriptive writer. His best passages in Bleak House create a movie in my mind that I can replay. I imagine I can see, hear or even smell the scenes he describes.
Trollope’s world was a pleasant PBS Masterpiece Theater kind of world that one would like to imagine oneself living in. He is an amusing writer. Barsetshire Towers is the funniest novel I ever read.
Dickens depicted a world full of savage social injustice that I would never want to inhabit, but is hard to forget.
One of the characters in Bleak House is a 13-year-old girl who is left an orphan by the sudden death of her family, and has to be the breadwinner for herself and her younger brother and sister. She gets a full-time job as lady’s maid, and this is considered a lucky break for her.
It is easy to forget, living in a 21st century welfare state, that people could and did literally starve to death in London, New York City, Paris and other 19th century cities.
The main injustice that Dickens attacks in Bleak House is the administration of Britain’s Court of Chancery. The main plot is about a decades-long lawsuit over an inheritance, and how people are drawn into the lawsuit. Some are drawn in against their will by being named defendants and others by false hopes of enjoying a windfall, but all to their detriment
The climax is that one of the characters discovers a document that will settle the suit, but too late—all the assets in the inheritance have been liquidated to pay court costs.
Dickens leaves the reader with a strong feeling of indignation, although with little understanding of the mechanics of the Court of Chancery. Had Trollope written about Chancery, the reader would probably be less indignant, but have a clearer idea of how the court worked and what the lawsuit was about.
Some other important plot elements in Bleak House are interlocking mysteries involving the past lives of the young housekeeper Esther Summerson, the rich and beautiful Lady Dedlock and a nameless dead drug addict, all leading up to murder of the lawyer Tulkinghorn.
Dickens was like a modern mystery writer in that at each state of the story, he provided the reader with enough clues to figure out what was going on. Then, a few chapters later, which would have been a couple of magazine installments later, he spelled things out for readers who didn’t catch on.
Bleak House is a masterpiece of plotting. All the seemingly unrelated plot elements come together in the end as neatly as a solved Rubik’s Cube.
Part of Bleak House is narrated by Esther Summerson, who is that rare character in literature, a good person presented convincingly.
From the beginning, she has all the specifically Christian virtues. She is compassionate, patient, humble, forgiving, grateful, dutiful, self-sacrificing and steadfast (but not adventurous, enterprising, creative, ambitious or witty, qualities that are not specifically Christian). The only way she changes in the course of the novel is to become more shrewd and less naive.
But organized religion plays little part in her life, nor in the lives of the other good characters in Bleak House. The explicitly religious characters are a couple of Evangelical housewives who are dedicated to ridiculous social reforms, but can’t be bothered to after their own children.
Trollope is the same. In his novels, organized religion is part of life, but not different from or set apart from other parts of life.