It’s difficult to choose a “favorite” Dickens novel. What I can say is that I’ve read Bleak House three times. It begins with the fog surrounding the Chancery law courts:
“Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among tiers of shipping. . .Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into cabooses of collier brings; fog lying out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships. . .”
and with a lawsuit over a will –Jarndyce and Jarndyce– that has been going on for generations:
“This scarecrow of a suit has, in course of time, become so complicated, that no man alive knows what it means. . . Scores of persons have deliriously found themselves made parties in Jarndyce and Jarndyce, without knowing why or how; whole families have inherited legendary hatreds with the suit. The little plaintiff or defendant who was promised a rocking-horse when Jarndyce and Jarndyce should be settled has grown up, possessed himself of a real horse, and trotted away into the other world.”
The fog and the lawsuit surround the characters and provide a structure for all that takes place:
Esther Summerson is plucked from her aunt’s house to be a companion for Miss Ada Clare at Bleak House. Esther’s mother, ill after the birth, was told her baby died. Esther’s father, James Hawdon– a sea captain allegedly lost at sea—is actually alive. The two were never married and it’s a huge disgrace for Esther to have been born at all as her caregiver continually impresses upon her. The mother, the father, and the now grown Esther are adrift in England, unaware the other others are alive.
Esther’s mother went on to marry an aristocratic old fossil named Sir Leicester Dedlock (don’t you just love the name Dedlock? Gee, I wonder what kind of mind he has) and has been depressed ever since, ensconced in Lincolnshire in a house called Chesney Wold, which sounds as damp and gloomy as it is. Sir Leicester’s affairs are assiduously and jealously looked after by the misanthropic solicitor Tulkinghorn. Under the guise of professional concern for Dedlock family, Tulkinghorn nurses a sadistic fascination with Lady Dedlock. The scenes between them are creepy.
James Hawdon now addicted to opium, supports his habit by law writing, i.e. copying legal papers. Hawdon copies an avadavat that finds its way to Chesney Wold via Tulkinghorn. Lady Dedlock recognizes her lover’s distinctive handwriting and faints. Tulkinghorn is immediately suspicious and sets out to find the law writer with the distinctive handwriting. He finds James Hawdon who now goes by the name of Nemo (Latin for “no one”) in his lodgings above Krook’s rag and bottle shop. There’s a bit of a problem, though, in that Nemo is dead from an overdose of opium. Mr. Krook who has shown Tulkinghorn to his lodger’s room, secretly pockets the rent he feels is owed him as well as a bundle of letters tied with a pink ribbon.
Someone else is curious if not suspicious: “a man by the name of Guppy,” the legal clerk of the law office that looks after Jarndyce vs Jarndyce. Mr. Guppy is curious about Esther Summerson, thinking she might be a suitable mate for him. Because of his infatuation, information about Esther sticks to him like lint. Thus he comes across the information that her correct last name is Hawdon. He sniffs out that there might be some connection between Esther and Lady Dedlock. Stumbling about in the dark with these fluffs of intuition he asks Lady Dedlock if she might be interested in a packet of letters found in the lodgings of the law writer’s room.
Lady Dedlock launches her own surreptitious investigation. Jo, a small homeless boy who was befriended by Nemo and who gives evidence at his inquest, is an unwitting conduit of information between all interested parties and is rewarded for it by dying of smallpox. Lady Dedlock disguises herself as her French maid and seeks out Jo to serve as a guide to her dead lover’s former insalubrious lodgings and to his pauper’s grave.
At this point we are about a tenth of the way through the book; I’ll spoil the plot for you in a minute. I have omitted about 15 secondary characters, all of them worth the reading of the book. To quote from Mary Gaitskill’s introduction to the Modern Library Classic edition, “Dickens is excessive like Nature; like living things his creatures must twist and turn, expand out or tunnel in until they have utterly fulfilled what they are.” Each time I have read Bleak House I’ve gotten attached to a new secondary. This time it was the Smallweed family.
The Smallweeds are a family of small time crooks related to Krook of the rag and bottle shop who famously dies by spontaneous combustion, a bit of gratis trivia that ought to come in handy at some time in your life. When Krook dies, the Smallweeds take over his business and become protective of the bundle of letters tied with the pink ribbon that a lot of people seem willing to pay a lot of money for.
The patriarch of the Smallweed family is a “baleful old malignant” with almost no muscle tone and who continually bleats, “Shake me up!” whenever he has slid “down in his chair since his last adjustment, and is now a bundle of clothes, with a voice in it. . .” Someone is usually available to pull him up and plump him like a pillow so he can more comfortably renew his spews of venom.
Mr. Smallweed is belligerent with everyone. To his wife he “discharges the cushion at her, crushes her against the side of the chair, and falls back into his own, overpowered. His appearance after visiting Mrs. Smallweed with one of these admonitions is particularly impressive and not wholly prepossessing. . . because the exertion generally twists his black cap over one eye and gives him an air of goblin rakishness. . . All this is so common in the Smallweed family circle that it produces no impression. The old gentleman is merely shaken, and has his internal feathers beaten up, the cushion is restored to its usual place beside him; and the old lady. . . is planted on her chair again, ready to be bowled down like a ninepin.”
Now I’ll spoil part of the plot: Late in the game, Lady Dedlock realizes that Esther Summerson is her daughter. They meet once in a heart-rending scene in which Lady Dedlock tells Esther they can never meet again or acknowledge one another. Lady Dedlock is not a particularly admirable character but she is compelling because she is a woman depressed from the constrictions of society without the recourse of reading Betty Friedan. She doesn’t love Sir Leicester but I think she is fond of him. She is not prepared to risk the security of her position with the announcement that she has a love child.
Tulkinghorn picks up the scent. By paying off, brutalizing and threatening quite a number of people, Tulkinghorn puts together the story of Lady Dedlock’s life, and her connection to Nemo and Esther Summerson. He threatens Lady Dedlock –and takes quite a sadistic pleasure in it—with the information. Should it ever come out that Esther Summerson is Lady Dedlock’s child it would ruin the great Dedlock family of Chesney Wold. This is his stated position but clearly Tulkinghorn is also interested in imposing his power on other people for no other reason than because he can.
So it’s not surprising that one day his clerk finds him shot to death in his lodgings. At this point the story becomes a murder mystery. Enter Inspector Bucket of The Detective who is the first detective in English fiction. He’s a decent man, full of good-will, who just happens to take note of absolutely everything.
He solves the murder. I won’t spoil that part of the plot. Nor will I say what happens to Lady Dedlock and Esther. If you don’t want to read the book I highly recommend the PBS production with Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock , Charles Dance as Tulkinghorn and Alun Armstrong as Inspector Bucket of The Detective.