My Heart Beats Fast for Bleak House

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Bleak House, Charles Dickens, 1853

I am so excited about Bleak House, my heart is racing as I type. This book has EVERYTHING.

Within the pages of Bleak House you will find:

  • an orphan of mysterious parentage
  • spontaneous combustion!
  • an elegant and fashionable ice queen with a deadly secret
  • forbidden romance
  • young love struggling to survive in a harsh, perplexing world
  • a touchingly sweet marriage between a flawed couple who understand and forgive each other’s mistakes
  • Charles Dickens’ only female narrator
  • biting criticism of Britain’s justice system
  • a kind, giving female protagonist who takes care of others, but still stands up for herself! (Esther Summerson is the best person ever.)
  • a badass detective
  • so many other elements that I won’t list here, because this book is extraordinarily complex and you should just read it and find out for yourself.

Bleak House is Dickens at his absolute best.  It’s long and there are a lot of characters, which can be challenging for readers, but challenges are good for you and this book is worth it.

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Dickens alternates between a cold and distant third person narrator and Esther’s first person narration. The third person sections are eerie, mysterious and compelling. The first person bits are warm, lovable and endearing.

When I was younger, I often wondered why authors choose to write about the dark, painful aspects of life and human behavior. Outside of children’s literature, it is hard to find a book that celebrates joy and kindness. Bleak House does this! Bam! Found one! Charles Dickens pulled it off. Esther Summerson and her guardian John Jarndyce are so caring and kind, your heart will swell up with appreciation for their goodness. All my reading has taught me to expect trouble whenever possible. If there’s a chance for cruelty, pain or disaster, most authors will take it. Because drama. Dickens is such a capable author, he manages to create a tense, exciting book in which characters faced with tough choices choose compassion, forgiveness, understanding. Isn’t that wonderful? Isn’t that in a way more honest than most novels? Yes, there are people in the world who take advantage of others, but in my daily life I think I encounter more people who try their best to be sweet. I hope you do too. And if you don’t, you can escape into the sweet, sweet refuge of Bleak House.

This book is not as beloved in America as it is over the pond. According to a BBC pole, Brits rank it as the 23rd best book ever. The only Charles Dickens novel ahead of it is Great Expectations. I understand why the book is more appealing to Brits than Americans. The primary antagonist in the novel is the Court of Chancery, a division of the English court system that had jurisdiction over a lot of stuff that I don’t understand as I am not a lawyer. As well as I can gather from Bleak House and wikipedia, they ruled on cases involving inheritance. I think it’s a lot more specific than that, but the case in the book involves inheritance. Anyway Dickens’ criticism is that the lawmen conspired make money by deliberating endlessly and never passing a verdict. As he portrays it, estates are consumed in lawyer’s fees before a verdict is reached. Super corrupt and unjust. The problem is that endless judicial deliberation does not make for a fascinating read. But, it’s worth it! I promise you! Read Bleak House!

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Please enjoy these quotes:

There were two classes of charitable people: one, the people who did a little and made a great deal of noise; the other, the people who did a great deal and made no noise at all.

The one great principle of the English law is, to make business for itself.

You might like Bleak House if you enjoy:

  • social criticism, particularly of the justice system
  • complex novels with mystery
  • those rare books that celebrate the kindness and compassion that humans are capable of

You might not like Bleak House if:

  • you just can’t with long Victorian novels

Final Thoughts:

Listen, this book is a bit of a slog, I will admit that, but the rewards are so rich. It’s like a long hike to the top of a tall peak. Some parts are beautiful. Some parts are boring. But, when get to the top and see the stunning panorama around you, you feel ecstatic, clear-headed, invigorated; you are reminded that life can be supremely and surprisingly beautiful. Your feet hurt, but you get to keep that memory and that point of view with you.

I am not joking, even a little, when I say that in times of trouble I think about Bleak House to help me fall asleep. When nothing is right in your world, you can remember Esther Summerson and rest easy.

Bleak House is a masterpiece.

Also, Lady Dedlock is a fascinating character. If you are sure you’ll never read the book, watch at least part of the BBC miniseries. Gillian Anderson plays her and she’s more perfect than ever. She’ll suck your heart out with her cold blue eyes.

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