London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln's Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another's umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits 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.
Summary: Bleak House is definitely an ensemble-cast story; there are many characters and Dickens gives us time with most of them. There are also three distinct, although regularly interrelating, stories.
The first, and despite its superficially dry legal aspect, in many ways the most memorable, is the devastation caused by the case before Chancery, Jarndyce and Jarndyce, a case that has been going on for decades; is concerned with a confusion about wills, in which there are conflicting wills to a very large estate and it is not certain which will takes precedence. The heirs are the same in both wills, but the proportions are different; according to one will, the greater share of the estate goes to John Jarndyce, currently residing in Bleak House, with a lesser amount going to his cousins (who are also distant cousins to each other), Richard Carstone and Ada Clare. Richard and Ada will eventually marry, but Richard will become obsessed with the possibility of eventually becoming rich if only Jarndyce and Jarndyce will be resolved. The older John Jarndyce repeatedly warns him against this hope, but the tendrils of the case, which is perpetually bound up in procedural and legal technicalities, will begin choking out everything else. The Jarndyce and Jarndyce storyline is, interestingly enough, a kind of Gothic storyline. Jarndyce and Jarndyce serves as a non-supernatural counterpart of a a family curse -- John Jarndyce explicitly calls it that, in fact -- as it systematically destroys members of the family. The foggy miasma of it pervades everything. John Jarndyce only survives it because he became convinced that it will never end and will never pay out, and therefore is immune to any temptation that hope in it might otherwise induce. The story repeatedly depicts the case as having something evil and maddening about it, and (notoriously) Dickens at one point has someone loosely associated with the case (named, in Dickensian fashion, 'Krook') spontaneously combust in a stench of sulfur and the narrator explicitly states that his death is symbolic of the ultimate fate of unjust courts and judges. Prophesying damnation on Chancery might be thought a bit melodramatic, but it fits with the quasi-Gothic character of this storyline.
The second major storyline is a mystery story -- indeed, one that would hold up reasonably well as a bit of detective fiction. Sir Leicester Dedley, Baronet, and his wife, Lady Dedley, are loosely connected to Jarndyce and Jarndyce by the fact that Lady Dedley is a beneficiary in at least one of the wills, but of course can't actually inherit anything from it until everything is settled. unlike John, Richard, and Ada, it's not a matter of immediate interest to either or importance to either of them. However, Sir Leicester's lawyer, Mr. Tulkinghorn, has to keep them apprised of the course of the case. In reading them a new set of affidavits, Lady Dedley is suddenly overcome with emotion and almost faints; she covers for it, but Mr. Tulkinghorn notices it, and, being quite astute, guesses that she recognized the handwriting. Sensing a secret somewhere, Mr. Tulkinghorn hires Inspector Bucket to look into the mystery. This will start of a slow chain reaction of events that will lead to Mr. Tulkinghorn's death, with Lady Dedley as one of the chief suspects. Inspector Bucket will have to solve the question of who murdered Mr. Tulkinghorn and resolve the overall problem created by Lady Dedley's secret -- as well as a messy human situation can be resolved.
The third major storyline, and the one that most ties the other two together, is the personal narrative of Esther Summerson, who does not know her mother. She becomes a ward of John Jarndyce, and comes to live with him at Bleak House. There she meets Richard and Ada, and quite a few others, in a truly Dickensian cavalcade of memorable minor characters. Always willing to help others, she accidentally contracts a serious disease -- we are never quite told what it is, but it seems to be something like smallpox -- and is disfigured by it. However, she is in some ways very irrepressible person -- easily the most likable character in the story -- and she will find love through a doctor she meets through her acquaintance with Richard.
A major theme of the story is the Means that Devours the End. We see this very obviously with Chancery and the legal profession, which exist to serve justice but is in fact are just making work for laws and endless deferring justice as if the point were not to resolve testamentary questions but to have Chancery cases. We see it in Richard's deterioration, in which resolving the case, which is supposed to be a means to the end of improving his and Ada's life together, becomes an all-consuming obsession that pushes everything else out. We see this very memorably in a character Esther meets, Mrs. Jellyby, a devoted philanthropist who spends all her time ignoring the needs of the people around her in order to help the people of a distant tribe -- or, rather, 'help', because her work in this regard seems to involve almost nothing but an endless pile of correspondence. This 'telescopic philanthropy' is purportedly for love of mankind, but always only through a telescope and in fact merely symbolically. We see it in another character Esther meets, Mr. Turveytop, who is famous for his Deportment, which he treats as if it were an end in itself, to the detriment of his family. When the means begins to devour the end, everything becomes foggy and confused, everything becomes muddy and stuck, and eventually the means begins devouring the means, as well, so that everything one does violates the very point of doing it in the first place and makes the doing itself pointless as well.
I found keeping track of the characters a considerable chore; I probably should have picked a time to read it when I had a somewhat more stable schedule. Nonetheless, once the basic components were in place, the story had an endless amount of interest to it -- there was comedy, there was drama, there was melodrama, there was romance, there was satire, and much more. And, of course, it is always difficult to beat Dickens's characterizations, which walk right up to the line of allegory without quite stepping over it.
She bows her eyes rather than her head, the movement is so slight and curious, and he withdraws. Clear of the room he looks at his watch but is inclined to doubt it by a minute or thereabouts. There is a splendid clock upon the staircase, famous, as splendid clocks not often are, for its accuracy. "And what do YOU say," Mr. Tulkinghorn inquires, referring to it. "What do you say?"
If it said now, "Don't go home!" What a famous clock, hereafter, if it said to-night of all the nights that it has counted off, to this old man of all the young and old men who have ever stood before it, "Don't go home!" With its sharp clear bell it strikes three quarters after seven and ticks on again. "Why, you are worse than I thought you," says Mr. Tulkinghorn, muttering reproof to his watch. "Two minutes wrong? At this rate you won't last my time." What a watch to return good for evil if it ticked in answer, "Don't go home!"
He passes out into the streets and walks on, with his hands behind him, under the shadow of the lofty houses, many of whose mysteries, difficulties, mortgages, delicate affairs of all kinds, are treasured up within his old black satin waistcoat. He is in the confidence of the very bricks and mortar. The high chimney-stacks telegraph family secrets to him. Yet there is not a voice in a mile of them to whisper, "Don't go home!"
Recommendation: Highly Recommended.