Well, hello, and welcome to Bleak House 2012-13! I'm your host for this long ride. Now, right up front, I must apologize, for I am nowhere near as erudite and insightful as could be wished for a host, and as, I'm sure, many of you really are. And if you should tell me I am erudite and insightful, I think we both know that really, you are talking about yourself. But not in a conceited way, but in an erudition-ful and insightful way that doesn't even recognize your own brilliance, and your kindness in overlooking my simpleton ways while pretending that they are so much more fulfilling than they are--
Whoops, sorry, just channeling a little Esther Summerson there.
So. Here's the thing. I acquired the pretty Penguin copy shown above because it's, well, pretty. And then I acquired the Edward Gorey-illustrated version because, c'mon, it's Edward Gorey!! Then I worried that I needed some kind of critical edition--in order to perhaps have a whiff of a prayer of being erudite and insightful--and so acquired the Oxford University Press edition.
This weekend I gathered up all these Bleak treasures, settled into a cozy chair in my family room, sighed with contentment, looked up at the bookshelf by the TV, and lo and behold, what did I spy but the Norton critical edition?
It seems I am rather too well set for this read-along.
The bonus of finding the Norton critical edition that I apparently acquired and then promptly forgot about is that it has a very nice introduction with no spoilers, unlike the OUP, which warns you right up front that you shouldn't read the intro until you've read the book.
I want to quote something from the intro that helps set some context for this book, which Dickens thought to be his second-best book (David Copperfield was his first choice). In fact, Copperfield is the book he wrote before this one, and there was over a year between the completion of Copperfield and the starting of Bleak House. During that time,
"[M]ost of his energies during this interval were expended in areas other than literary. In particular he was keenly involved in directing a touring troup of amateur actors in a play by his friend, Bulwer-Lytton [yes, that Bulwer-Lytton, who, by the way, had some influence on the published ending of Great Expectations]...of greater significance in the shaping of Bleak House, was the assistance he provided for...slum clearance and the building of model housing. This activity...reinforced his awareness that behind the impressively solid front of mid-Victorian prosperity, the urban poor were living in a deplorable state of wretchedness and ignorance.
"Pollution was another related problem that engaged Dickens' energies at this time, an issue which since the ravages of cholera in 1848-49 [the book was begun in 1851] had become of pressing importance."
His concern is evident right in the very first paragraph of the book:
"Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow-flakes--gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun."
Wow. Dickens just pulled me back 170 years and plopped me into a very vivid and very miserable scene. it made my mostly dormant asthma start to creak, just reading it.
Then that second paragraph about fog, which we also know is pollution, but it really sets a tone for this book--of pollution, of lack of clarity, and utterly sinister in tone.
In other words, I don't know about you guys, but I was sucked in hard by this opening.
The discussion of Lady Dedlock--oh, how I love Dickensian names--and fashion is reminiscent of similar discussions in Our Mutual Friend. And her ever-so-upstanding husband, Sir Leicester.
But how quickly we are able to forget about them when we arrive at chapter 3 and the introduction--in first person, no less--of the aforementioned Esther Summerson. Good lord, Dickens has really outdone himself with the pathetic orphan here. What a ghastly godmother! "It would have been far better, little Esther, that you had had no birthday; that you had never been born!"
No wonder her eventual arrival at the Jellyby home doesn't seem quite so bad, in spite of the chaos and lack of any kind of cleanliness or order and the obsession with Africa and coffee cultivation. At least Esther seems welcome and wanted there.
What did you guys think? Favorite quotes? Here's my favorite Gorey illustration from this section, with Mrs. Jellyby educating her new lodgers with tales of her work for Africa while her humiliated, ink-stained daughter looks on:
Next week, chapters 5-7. Enjoy!