This is my first time reading Charles Dickens’ Bleak House. As it is featured in Gary Colledge’s God and Charles Dickens and Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon, I thought I should come at last to this very long book.
If you have ever been thrown by the sheer weight of the book, try to move past this intimidating feature. It is a beautifully written book, filled with some of the most hilarious and heartbreaking characters I have ever met.
The stunning pose that Milton’s Satan strikes upon the page has made some wonder whether it is simply impossible to write a morally good character with as much colour and complexity as a bad one. Dickens has done it with his protagonists–and done so without bending the “bad” characters into moral gargoyles. Actually, the evil characters are mournful, self-ingrained figures, sorrysome to behold. Dickens’ supporting cast are like the characters in C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce. We see them face their own cruelty, sadness, ill luck, and self-delusion one after the other. The self-revelation is sometimes fatal, but not often enough.
Dickens does not use sophisticated language, yet his biting irony and iron-edged description, set in the context of dusky gloom and dim sitting rooms and low burning fireplaces, results in very beautiful writing. Of the most moving scenes, the various visits into the slums are the most effective for me.
I don’t have the courage to replay for you some of the most pathetic shocking of these scenes, so I will play one of Tough Jo. he might be the beginning of a cultural change in the imagination of the downtrodden. This pour street urchin spends his life among
“the extraordinary specimens of human fungus that spring up spontaneously in the western streets of London.”
Here’s how we meet Jo, early in the story, as he is a witness in a court case and it needs to be determined whether he can give sufficient testimony:
Here he is, very muddy, very hoarse, very ragged. Now, boy! But stop a minute. Caution. This boy must be put through a few preliminary paces.
Name, Jo. Nothing else that he knows on. Don’t know that everybody has two names. Never heerd of sich a think. Don’t know that Jo is short for a longer name. Thinks it long enough for HIM. HE don’t find no fault with it. Spell it? No. HE can’t spell it. No father, no mother, no friends. Never been to school. What’s home? Knows a broom’s a broom, and knows it’s wicked to tell a lie. Don’t recollect who told him about the broom or about the lie, but knows both. Can’t exactly say what’ll be done to him arter he’s dead if he tells a lie to the gentlemen here, but believes it’ll be something wery bad to punish him, and serve him right—and so he’ll tell the truth
Needless to say, the gentlemen of the chancery court don’t find him an eligible witness.
Jo can’t tell us his full name or family or anythink about anythink, but his story haunts me. I’ll play a bit of it for you now, picking up where a preacher, Rev. Chadband, has tricked Jo into coming to hear a sermon. Midway through–and I’ll spare you playing the entire thing–Jo falls asleep standing. Despite his prime audience’s disinterest, Chadband takes advantage of the moment to preach to the room. He finds one convert, Mrs. Snagsby, whose jealousy haunts her morally limp hen-pecked husband, and whose servant (Guster) is prone to fits (seizures?).
Watch Jo’s interaction with Guster, but also note that the narrator takes a moment to make a rare religious judgment upon the scene. The warning about improving the gospel–about preachers standing in its light (and blocking what others can see)–is no less relevant today, I think.
“Or, my juvenile friends,” says Chadband, descending to the level of their comprehension with a very obtrusive demonstration in his greasily meek smile of coming a long way downstairs for the purpose, “if the master of this house was to go forth into the city and there see an eel, and was to come back, and was to call unto him the mistress of this house, and was to say, ‘Sarah, rejoice with me, for I have seen an elephant!’ would THAT be Terewth?”
Mrs. Snagsby in tears.
“Or put it, my juvenile friends, that he saw an elephant, and returning said ‘Lo, the city is barren, I have seen but an eel,’ would THAT be Terewth?”
Mrs. Snagsby sobbing loudly.
“Or put it, my juvenile friends,” said Chadband, stimulated by the sound, “that the unnatural parents of this slumbering heathen—for parents he had, my juvenile friends, beyond a doubt—after casting him forth to the wolves and the vultures, and the wild dogs and the young gazelles, and the serpents, went back to their dwellings and had their pipes, and their pots, and their flutings and their dancings, and their malt liquors, and their butcher’s meat and poultry, would THAT be Terewth?”
Mrs. Snagsby replies by delivering herself a prey to spasms, not an unresisting prey, but a crying and a tearing one, so that Cook’s Court re-echoes with her shrieks. Finally, becoming cataleptic, she has to be carried up the narrow staircase like a grand piano. After unspeakable suffering, productive of the utmost consternation, she is pronounced, by expresses from the bedroom, free from pain, though much exhausted, in which state of affairs Mr. Snagsby, trampled and crushed in the piano-forte removal, and extremely timid and feeble, ventures to come out from behind the door in the drawing-room.
All this time Jo has been standing on the spot where he woke up, ever picking his cap and putting bits of fur in his mouth. He spits them out with a remorseful air, for he feels that it is in his nature to be an unimprovable reprobate and that it’s no good HIS trying to keep awake, for HE won’t never know nothink. Though it may be, Jo, that there is a history so interesting and affecting even to minds as near the brutes as thine, recording deeds done on this earth for common men, that if the Chadbands, removing their own persons from the light, would but show it thee in simple reverence, would but leave it unimproved, would but regard it as being eloquent enough without their modest aid—it might hold thee awake, and thou might learn from it yet!
Jo never heard of any such book. Its compilers and the Reverend Chadband are all one to him, except that he knows the Reverend Chadband and would rather run away from him for an hour than hear him talk for five minutes. “It an’t no good my waiting here no longer,” thinks Jo. “Mr. Snagsby an’t a-going to say nothink to me to-night.” And downstairs he shuffles.
But downstairs is the charitable Guster, holding by the handrail of the kitchen stairs and warding off a fit, as yet doubtfully, the same having been induced by Mrs. Snagsby’s screaming. She has her own supper of bread and cheese to hand to Jo, with whom she ventures to interchange a word or so for the first time.
“Here’s something to eat, poor boy,” says Guster.
“Thank’ee, mum,” says Jo.
“Are you hungry?”
“Jist!” says Jo.
“What’s gone of your father and your mother, eh?”
Jo stops in the middle of a bite and looks petrified. For this orphan charge of the Christian saint whose shrine was at Tooting has patted him on the shoulder, and it is the first time in his life that any decent hand has been so laid upon him.
“I never know’d nothink about ’em,” says Jo.
“No more didn’t I of mine,” cries Guster. She is repressing symptoms favourable to the fit when she seems to take alarm at something and vanishes down the stairs.