Today we have the Priorhouse A to Z takeaways for the Bleak House book by Charles Dickens
My grade for the book is an “A”- even though I didn’t “love” the book (liked it).
For those that do not know, this book was written in 20 monthly installments from March 1852 to September 1853. I think experiencing the book as it was being released in the mid-1800s would have been exciting.
Today we have access to bookstores, libraries, e-books, and streaming. We are saturated with story options. I am not sure I can fully imagine what it would be like to wait for for the next installment release. Even if waiting for a TV series or another book from an author we like – it is nothing like that era. So while reading this book during spring 2022, when some sections felt wordy and long (but not boring), I reminded myself of the installments. I reminded myself that people mulled over this story for 20 months and needed the wordy descriptions and appreciated them.
Birds & Miss Flite
Miss Flite is an important thread that helps seam together the Jarndyce case. She helps foreshadow part of Richard’s doom and his getting sucked into the vortex of the court case
This little excerpt provides tidbits of the way Miss Flite connects to larger story details:
“By this time we were come to Mr. Krook’s, whose private door stood open. There was a bill, pasted on the door-post, announcing a room to let on the second floor. It reminded Caddy to tell me as we proceeded upstairs that there had been a sudden death there and an inquest and that our little friend had been ill of the fright. The door and window of the vacant room being open, we looked in. It was the room with the dark door to which Miss Flite had secretly directed my attention when I was last in the house. A sad and desolate place it was, a gloomy, sorrowful place that gave me a strange sensation of mournfulness and even dread. “You look pale,” said Caddy when we came out, “and cold!” I felt as if the room had chilled me.
We had walked slowly while we were talking, and my guardian and Ada were here before us. We found them in Miss Flite’s garret. They were looking at the birds, while a medical gentleman who was so good as to attend Miss Flite with much solicitude and compassion spoke with her cheerfully by the fire.
“I have finished my professional visit,” he said, coming forward. “Miss Flite is much better and may appear in court (as her mind is set upon it) tomorrow. She has been “greatly missed there, I understand.”
For those that read the book, the connections here will be obvious. Esther narrates this little piece and the doctor she meets will become her partner. The room that gave her a chill was her father’s old room (she would not know that for a long while).
The irony in how Miss Flite is greatly missed at court! Tsk! Missed while this consumed her life! She visited court almost every day (waiting for the Jarndyce and Jarndyce case to settle) and Richard, who first thinks she is crazy, will eventually follow her in this pursuit (and become unstable).
Miss Flight keeps 26 caged birds. The birds are a brilliant story element with many layers. Their names symbolize the toxic smothering and “stifling and caged-in” effect that lawsuits and litigation can have on humans.
Here is a snippet of the scene where the “money-grubbing” Krook says the bird names (“the allegorical bird names signify the consumption of all things by fruitless law cases”):
“It’s one of her strange ways that she’ll never tell the names of these birds if she can help it, though she named ’em all.” This was in a whisper. “Shall I run ’em over, Flite?” he asked aloud, winking at us and pointing at her as she turned away, affecting to sweep the grate.
“If you like,” she answered hurriedly.
The old man, looking up at the cages after another look at us, went through the list.
“Hope, Joy, Youth, Peace, Rest, Life, Dust, Ashes, Waste, Want, Ruin, Despair, Madness, Death, Cunning, Folly, Words, Wigs, Rags, Sheepskin, Plunder, Precedent, Jargon, Gammon, and Spinach. That’s the whole collection,” said the old man, “all cooped up together, by my noble and learned brother.”
“This is a bitter wind!” muttered my guardian.
“When my noble and learned brother gives his judgment, they’re to be let go free,” said Krook, winking at us again. “And then,” he added, whispering and grinning, “if that ever was to happen—which it won’t—the birds that have never been caged would kill ’em.”
Krook’s sinister closing thought – about how the caged birds will be too weak to survive once released, connects to how the legal processes can weaken people and leave them vulnerable. Krook also left out one bird name – that of beauty. There can be so many connections made for this (as in Esther losing some of her facial beauty from scarring) but the triad motif of youth, hope, and beauty is woven throughout the book. The three types of birds also connect: Larks for youth, linnets for hope, and goldfinches for beauty.
Go Here to see an artist’s creation of bird cages inspired by Miss Flite’s birds.
I could write a lot more about Miss Flite and her birds, but that would be beyond the scope of this post. Maybe more Bleak House reflections will unfold later.
Throughout the book, Dickens provided rich details that really let us feel some of the characters.
See below for Trent’s essay links because he covered some characters with Interesting insight.
Here are just a few examples of little details I liked (and bookmarked to share)
“Mr. Chadband is a large yellow man with a fat smile and a general appearance of having a good deal of train oil in his system. Mrs. Chadband is a stern, severe-looking, silent woman. Mr. Chadband moves softly and cumbrously, not unlike a bear who has been taught to walk upright. ”
“You know I don’t intend to be responsible. I never could do it. Responsibility is a thing that has always been above me—or below me,” said Mr. Skimpole. “I don’t even know which; but as I understand the way in which my dear Miss Summerson (always remarkable for her practical good sense and clearness) puts this case, I should imagine it was chiefly a question of money, do you know?”
“Why you see, miss,” returns Mr. Bucket, bringing the finger into persuasive action—and such is his natural gallantry that he had almost said “my dear”—”it ain’t easy to answer those questions at the present moment. Not at the present moment. I’ve kept myself on this case, Sir Leicester Dedlock, Baronet,” whom Mr. Bucket takes into the conversation in right of his importance, “morning, noon, and night. But for a glass or two of sherry, I don’t think I could have had my mind so much upon the stretch as it has been. I COULD answer your questions, miss, but duty forbids it. Sir Leicester Dedlock, Baronet, will very soon be made acquainted with all that has been traced. And I hope that he may find it”—Mr. Bucket again looks grave—”to his satisfaction.”
For those that like a good detective story and murder mystery, Bleak House is the book for you. Detective Bucket is referred to as “the first important detective in English literature” and his sleuth skills come into play throughout the book. I liked this character because he modeled ideal police work. He was personable yet always about the job and still mostly professional. He wasn’t overly rigid while investigating – he wasn’t trying to get someone in trouble (and some police work is notoriously sketchy and the person might be objectified and lost in the process – think of Javert from Les Mis). Instead, Bucket was caring and went slow to make conclusions as he pieced details together.
Esther Summerson, the narrator and protagonist of Bleak House, fell short for me.
One question I had was how Esther could rebound from such verbal abuse and trauma during childhood?
Okay, with some counseling experience in my background, I know that trauma response varies greatly from person to person! Not all trauma leads to stress and damage. For many folks, some trauma can lead to much growth – it depends on many factors.
But Esther’s resiliency doesn’t sit quite right (even if her over-yielding and doormat vibe might indicate disempowerment at her core). Perhaps she was just naturally that timid and reserved – a laid back type? The ol’ nature and nurture considerations.
Esther was told:
“It would have been far better, little Esther, that you had had no birthday, that you had never been born!”
In the book, we don’t really have Esther working through those harsh early years but we do see her low self-esteem begin to build. Dickens starts off by having her say she is not very clever and it almost felt like he wanted us to not feel towered on from this character; in contrast, it was like he wanted us to take a liking to her because she admitted that she was not clever. Perhaps we will grow with her and see parts of her brilliance.
Trent explored Esther in his essays and RR (post coming the 16th) noted that Esther’s character was modeled after a real life woman he knew.
Sometimes folks have delayed healing from bad experiences –/ and so maybe the doctor she married will help her work through this early trauma decades into their marriage?
As noted in a previous post, I did wonder if Dickens had connected the Bleak House Esther with the book of Esther in the Bible (where the Jewish Esther was beautiful and had kindness, which led to having favor with folks and then she was chosen by the King, which then saved her people). However, I did not see a connection there. Our Esther in Bleak House had the beauty – and the favor with folks – but the rest was different.
I guess that scholars have a lot to say about the Esther character – what worked and what didn’t – but she was not my favorite character.
I originally had fashion for the “F” but change it to Fog!
Marsha and Trent noted this powerful opening section in Bleak House and I had to share this snippet with my Bleak House share.
“Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.
Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ‘prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.
Gas looming through the fog in divers places in the streets, much as the sun. Most of the shops lighted two hours before their time—as the gas seems to know, for it has a haggard and unwilling look.
The raw afternoon is rawest, and the dense fog is densest, and the muddy streets are muddiest near that leaden-headed old obstruction, appropriate ornament for the threshold of a leaden-headed old corporation, Temple Bar. And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln’s Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery.”
George was my favorite character in Bleak House. He is a minor character but his story connects to the main plot and subplots. So he is like an artery here.
George is a former soldier who runs a shooting range, while helping the disabled Phil. Mr. Tulkinghorn (Sir Dedlock’s lawyer) demands that George turns over a letter so the handwriting can be compared to the man who died (who was Captain Hawden – George’s friend and former leader).
The way that George said no was respectful. He didn’t lie and say he didn’t have the letter– while he also didn’t cave in, which created problems.
Integrity can bring much setback to a person! I know that first hand and can relate to the setbacks that come from taking a stand and being honest and open rather than playing head games and deceiving.
George then yielded and gave up the letter, which I think showed more honor. There is a time when we need to yield – esp if it is to help those around us (like Phil and the business). So he yielded and gave up the Captain’s letter. Tulkinghorn then went back on his word – but George tried.
I also just liked how Dickens moved this George character around and he ended up supporting Sir Dedlock when this aristocrat was sick and devastated about Lady Dedlock.
Hortense was an interesting minor character.
She was a French lady’s maid and fired by Lady Dedlock. Hortense was angry and displaced.
She tried to frame Lady Dedlock for Tulkinghorn’s murder. RR noted that Hortense was also based on a real life French maid (as many of Dickens characters were developed from people he encountered).
Another reason why Hortense stood out to me related to her displacement. So many people work and have things go well for them. Others, especially if they have to leave their country to find employment, do not have it so easy.
☀️Let’s remember that right now to possibly stir up some gratitude for what we have! 😊
Hortense also had job issues because she couldn’t regulate her emotions, which brought upset and problems, but Dickens used the spunk of this small French woman to take down Tulkinghorn! One of the stuffiest and most powerful lawyers in the book is eliminated by a little ol’ French maid! Talk about contrast (and karna baby – gets ya every time)
Interesting Ghost’s Walk
The Ghost’s Walk in Bleak House refers to the actually terrace attached to the Dedlock house while it is also a reference to a ghost story attached to the Dedlock family. And leave it to Dickens to give us “spooky cool” elements – which some say reminds his readers that life here is but a vapor! We are not alone and the spirit of a man is real.
I was still working on my top takeaways when I was reading Trent’s essays. You might want to check out Trent’s take on John, this major character.
I wanted to briefly mention that Mr. Jarndyce was altruistic and knew the value of giving! The story shows how his giving and investing in others made the world a better place. His open hand with his possessions and his generosity changed lives. And perhaps he is more like the Esther from the Jewish history account: Esther was placed in a high position where she could advocate for her people and Mr. Jarndyce was wealthy and by reaching out to Esther Hawden and the wards, he allowed Richard to have a baby, which continued the Jarndyce line!
Kenge was a Chancery Court lawyer who represented John Jarndyce. Dickens does a fantastic job with showing us the silliness of pretentious and empty rhetoric. Also, the name “Kenge and Carboy’s” stays with the reader long after the book is closed – it is the place where Guppy is a clerk and we hear the name a lot.
Love fulfilled, love denied, love shortchanged, love leading to sacrifice and release, love leading to investigative pursuits (Guppy exploring Esther’s history, Lady D having Jo take her around, etc), platonic (phileos) love with George helping Phil and with Esther and Ada; confused layers of love, like with Mr. Jarndyce and his care for Esther – went from a bit paternal to then marriage minded- eros maybe – and then back to more of the agape love.
Mini Series of Bleak House
I finished reading the book with a little time left before we posted about it. I started reading Great Expectations but stopped because I wanted to stay fresh with the Bleak House story. I decided to rewatch the 1985 and 2005 mini series. I loosely watched them while multitasking – and so I know I missed a bit.
Like most books, the mini series can never fully give you all of the subplots and richness found within the book. In addition, we end up with screen writer bias, producer preferences, actor nuances, and time period changes that impact what we see. For example, in the book, Lady Dedlock and Esther look similar. They look so alike it is sometimes obvious they are related. People can make the connection with the eyes and little ol’ Jo thinks it is Lady D when Esther arrives to help him with his illness. Also, Guppy sees the resemblance when he saw Lady D’s portrait hanging.
However, in both of the shows, 1985 and 2005, the resemblance is not there (especially in the 2005 series – which was award winning and so it was received well) but I think the casting really missed it with selecting A.M. Martin to play Esther along side G. Anderson as Lady D. Also, because beauty is so subjective – the mini series choice of actresses might not come across as even pretty – whereas in the book we can form our perception of what Dickens describes as beautiful.
Both Bleak House mini series were interesting – even if I was multitasking and likely missed many details in both.
The names Dickens used were almost too obvious and revealing. For example, the wealthy aristocrats were the “Dedlocks” – dead locked in.
Then we have Lady Dedlocks name as “Honoria” and the crooked, money-grubbing “Krook.”
Captain Hawden signs his documents as Nemo, meaning nobody.
Detective Bucket catches all the details like a bucket.
The Jarndyce name, which is the name in the decades long court case, is a finicky name to say and it doesn’t roll easy off the tongue – and the case doesn’t roll easy either (and the play on dice/dice).
There are so many more name examples so be prepared for that if you read this book.
Overdose and Addiction
A little while ago I found a site that explored some medical conditions that Dickens included in his stories. How fun to know that scholars actually explore themes like that across his books.
Here are a few from Bleak House:
We have Captain Hawden’s opium overdose, Krook’s spontaneous combustion (and alcoholism), and perhaps Gluttony with Mr. Chadbend.
Check out this little snippet about the preacher named Chadband:
“All the furniture is shaken and dusted, the portraits of Mr. and Mrs. Snagsby are touched up with a wet cloth, the best tea-service is set forth, and there is excellent provision made of dainty new bread, crusty twists, cool fresh butter, thin slices of ham, tongue, and German sausage, and delicate little rows of anchovies nestling in parsley, not to mention new-laid eggs, to be brought up warm in a napkin, and hot buttered toast. For Chadband is rather a consuming vessel—the persecutors say a gorging vessel—and can wield such weapons of the flesh as a knife and fork remarkably well.”
I really like how Trent noted that a major theme of Bleak House was Motherhood. Yes! Not just child bearing and discovering a child didn’t die – but mothers show up all the time: Alan’s mother inspects Esther – Guppy’s mother gets the door for him – and George’s mother is called to help him.
There is this familial life cycle with different generations being represented through both female and male characters.
I thought there was a lot of hope with the ending when Ada had her healthy baby. I once heard a Bible teacher say that when God wanted to change the world, he sent a baby. Moses, David, Jesus, etc. – and so to have Dickens allow Ada to have a healthy child after Rchard’s collapse and death – it gave us HOPE, which was much needed around so much calamity and death; it gave us hints at the future (and the east wind blowing would indeed bring good things).
Of course some books lead to many questions for the reader.
One that I had with Bleak House was how much the weather connected to story elements, themes, etc.
For example, we know the fog could connect to the hazy and crazy court jargon and delays – how litigation can be cloudy and suck the air away.
But how do rainy days, storms, cold weather, heat, fog, etc. layer in??
Even without fully examining how the weather figured in – I enjoyed the descriptions that let the reader feel some of it – like this summer heat:
“It is the hottest long vacation known for many years. All the young clerks are madly in love, and according to their various degrees, pine for bliss with the beloved object, at Margate, Ramsgate, or Gravesend. All the middle-aged clerks think their families too large. All the unowned dogs who stray into the Inns of Court and pant about staircases and other dry places seeking water ”
This might sound obvious, but the realism in Dickens writing lets you feel the characters and human experience with story. Sometimes I would pause because a character reminded me of someone. Or a character’s behaviors would remind me of a mood disorder, personality trait profile, etc.
Mr. Tulkinghorn, the Dedlock family lawyer since before Sir Leicester Dedlock inherited his title, is the family legal advisor. He discovered the truth about Lady Dedlock’s past and the key takeaway with this character is karma. Or you reap what you sow. Or what goes around comes around.
For example, after saying he would forgive George’s debt, he changes his mind and orders them to call it in. Similarly, he goes back on his word with Hortense and does not help her attain employment. However, it is not just that he does these bad things – he is cold and rude to people. This unbridled treatment poor others and complete rudeness costs eventually him his life.
Topics & Themes
~ London, England’s culture (society, courts, and relationships)
~ Litigation & Inheritance – the legal stories and court scenes.
~ Women (or as Trent would say, motherhood, was a major theme).
We start with hearing that Esther was told she was a mistake and the book ends with Ada having her baby near – so our story is bookmarked with this motherhood theme! However, we also have diverse women playing key roles outside of childbearing. We have Ms. Flite and her birds. we have Hortense, and many more ladies bringing us layers to this rich story. We have domestic issues like illegitimate children, uncared for children, guardians, wards, etc. – and our heroine, Esther, discovered her mother and felt her paternal love.
~ Bildungsromans (buildings-row-man), which refers to a novel that has a character that develops for many years throughout the story and we see their moral, psychological, and intellectual changes.
~ Love (see L)
The upward momentum in the book happened with the climax of Lady Dedlock’s realization that her child had lived – and that Esther was her daughter! Also, another upward climax happened when Bucket made the correct arrest for Tulkinghorn’s murder – which meant he released George (yeah) and arrested Hortense.
One of my favorite parts from the mini series: Shake Me Up, Judy
There were many walks in Bleak House. Of course….
Here is an example:
“The roads were very heavy for the horses, but the pathway was generally good, so we alighted and walked up all the hills, and liked it so well that we prolonged our walk on the level ground when we got to the top. At Barnet there were other horses waiting for us, but as they had only just been fed, we had to wait for them too, and got a long fresh walk over a common and an old battlefield before the carriage came up. These delays so protracted the journey that the short day was spent and the long night had closed in before we came to St. Albans, near to which town Bleak House was, we knew.”
And cannot leave out The Ghost’s Walk:
“At last, one afternoon her husband (to whom she had never, on any persuasion, opened her lips since that night), standing at the great south window, saw her drop upon the pavement. He hastened down to raise her, but she repulsed him as he bent over her, and looking at him fixedly and coldly, said, ‘I will die here where I have walked. “And I will walk here, though I am in my grave. I will walk here until the pride of this house is humbled. And when calamity or when disgrace is coming to it, let the Dedlocks listen for my step!'”
Watt looks at Rosa. Rosa in the deepening gloom looks down upon the ground, half frightened and half shy.
“There and then she died. And from those days,” says Mrs. Rouncewell, “the name has come down—the Ghost’s Walk. If the tread is an echo, it is an echo that is only heard after dark, and is often unheard for a long while together.”
Dickens gives us tasty little ending moments like this one with Tulkinghorn.
“A fine night, and a bright large moon, and multitudes of stars. Mr. Tulkinghorn, in repairing to his cellar and in opening and shutting those resounding doors, has to cross a little prison-like yard. He looks up casually, thinking what a fine night, what a bright large moon, what multitudes of stars! A quiet night, too.”
Soon, he will be shot and killed by Hortense.
YouTube Video Summary (not the best summary – but fun)
A special part of the story for me was how Sir Leicester forgave Lady Dedlock.
All is forgiven!
Even if he had reached her in time with such good news and grace- I am not sure a happy ending was possible. Lady D was bored and detached – she was dead and locked in likely years before Esther surfaced! Note to readers – don’t ever assume money can fill your life cup because as humans – we are filled by intrinsic things money cannot buy! It doesn’t mean money is bad and we sure have real needs and live in a world where we have to pay for things. But the lust or pursuit for money and the power it brings can really leave someone wanting! Anyhow – Sir Leicester’a love for his wife went beyond scandal and her past! His true love for her warmed the reader and here is a snippet of that closing scene of grace.
Sir Leicester writes upon the slate. “Full forgiveness. Find—” Mr. Bucket stops his hand.
“Sir Leicester Dedlock, Baronet, I’ll find her. But my search after her must be begun out of hand. Not a minute must be lost.”
With the quickness of thought, he follows Sir Leicester Dedlock’s look towards a little box upon a table.
“Bring it here, Sir Leicester Dedlock, Baronet? Certainly. Open it with one of these here keys? Certainly. The littlest key? TO be sure. Take the notes out? So I will. Count ’em? That’s soon done. Twenty and thirty’s fifty, and twenty’s seventy, and fifty’s one twenty, and forty’s one sixty. Take ’em for expenses? That I’ll do, and render an account of course. Don’t spare money? No I won’t.”
The velocity and certainty of Mr. Bucket’s interpretation on all these heads is little short of miraculous.”
Thanks for joining me with this Bleak House post!
For those that don’t know – Trent and I read Bleak House this spring and invited folks to join us. We have some participants who will be sharing posts and I will add their links when ready.
The Bleak House free ebook is Here
We will raffle the gift card around June 20th, 2022.
Trent’s Master Post is HERE
Trent also shared five essays last week:
Trent’s Day 1 POST
Trent’s Day 2 POST
Trent’s Day 3 Post is here
Trent’s Day 4 post is Here
Trent’s Day 5 Post is here
Retirement Reflections here
More links will be added as they unfold.
Hope you have a nice start to the week!
Did you like the blooms?
Did any of the takeaways resonate with you?