While many have described Bleak House as Dickens’ most sophisticated work, indeed his best work, it is not usually listed as the best known of Dickens’ body of writing. This may be in part due to the size of the text- at over 900 pages, it is an intimidating and often unwieldy read. The multitude of characters is equally staggering- perhaps a hundred dash in and out, leaving their dusty or glittering mark. What makes this work so compelling in spite of this is the glorious interweaving of character and story, of the history and tragedy of one character becoming the salvation or enveloping of another. This combined with a sharp and heavy social critique of the court of law in Victorian England, the rise of philanthropy as a narcissistic passion, the horrors of public health and sanitation and the comic examination of deportment and gentlemanly airs, and you may start to understand the breadth of the text.
Critics have argued that Dickens is responsible for the form and popularity of the modern novel. Certainly his enormous body of writing is a testimony to the energy and innovation that drove him. Jane Smiley in her book on Dickens as writer and man has this to say about his artistic vision:
Dickens- in the middle of his thirtieth year is an original without a progenitor. Most other great innovators owe something to someone -Dickens, however, spoke in a new voice, in a new form, to a new audience, of a new world about several old ideas reconsidered for the new system of capitalism- that care and respect are owed to the weakest and meekest in society, rather than to the strongest; that the ways in which class and money divide humans from one another are artificial and dangerous; that pleasure and physical comfort are positive goods; that the spiritual lives of the powerful have social and economic ramifications. We might today call this an ecological perspective, an intuitive understanding of the social world as a web rather than a hierarchy- the quintessential modern mode of seeing the world. Dickens grasped this idea from the earliest stages of his career and demonstrated his increasingly sophisticated grasp of it in all his plots, characterizations, themes and style of every novel that he wrote. This is the root source of his greatness. That he did so in England at the very moment when England was establishing herself as a worldwide force is the root source of his importance. That he combined his artistic vision with social action in an outpouring of energy and hard work is the root source of his uniqueness. (Jane Smiley, Charles Dickens, 2002, London, Orion Books)
The Bleak House Salon will require a reading of approximately 140 pages per week (depending on the edition). To enable us to look closely at the text as we move through it, participants will blindly choose a main character that they will follow throughout the text, presenting brief notes on the character’s actions and development at each session. While the reading assignments are large, the prose is quite accessible and the story gallops along like an early soap opera- once you have dived in, it is hard to put down.