Published by: Bradbury & Evans
Published on: Serialized between 1852-53
Page Count: 628
My Reading Format: Audiobook purchased via Audible credit
Audiobook Published by: Blackstone Audio
Narrator: Simon Vance
Audiobook Length: 33 hours
Available Formats: Hardcover, Paperback, eBook, and Audiobook
In the midst of a never ending lawsuit, Esther Sommerson, Richard Carstone, and Ada Clare come under the guardianship of John Jarndyce. John Jarndyce is a party in the ceaseless lawsuit known as Jarndyce and Jarndyce, but he considers it the “family curse,” not a worthwhile endeavor. Both Richard and Ada are wards of the Chancery as a result and John wanted them to live lives not beholden to the courts. Esther is not a ward of the Chancery. She was raised by an ice cold aunt who provided for her needs while keeping the burden of it ever before Esther’s eyes. She was told at an early age that her dead mother was her shame and that she was born out of wedlock. When her aunt died, she was brought to Bleak House with Ada to be her companion and friend. John Jarndyce had only the deepest regard for Esther and was a blessing to all three young people. As the years went by, however, the family curse takes hold of Richard and Esther learns the truth about her past while making a life for herself in the present.
Esther is the main character and I couldn’t have loved her more. The treatment she received at the hands of her aunt did not make her bitter. She was able to keep her charitable disposition and proved herself most worthy of her good fortune. She was an honest and forthright friend who did all that she could for her guardian, Ada, Richard, and her greater community. She wasn’t sugary sweet, either. She would take a friend to task if needed and she wasn’t a flatterer. During my research I learned that Esther is Dickens’ only female narrator and he wrote her beautifully. Perhaps she is the only one because he opted not to tempt fate after creating her.
As it is a large novel, it is populated with so many characters, each one having his or her unique quirks and characteristics. I think this is what I love most about reading a Dickens’ novel. How I loved how Lawrence Boythorn entered into Bleak House bombastically skewering the man who gave him directions. For Boythorne, no one makes a mistake without it being the most colossal disaster known to man. Likewise, he heaped praise in just the same manner. Then there was Mrs. Jellyby, a much less sympathetic character whose household is nearly falling apart because she devotes all of her time and energy into aiding a tribe in Africa. Her very name brings chaos to mind. Even the downright awful characters are interesting and entertaining. I will never in my life forget the money lender Mr. Smallweed. What he did to Mr. George was unforgivable, yet living with his family and his ultimate comeuppance was a perfect punishment. Mr. Tulkinghorn was a simply retched man. I feel sorry for lawyers for their association with him.
Bleak House was published over time in serial and this flow is still perceptible when read as a whole. My favorite sections were those that were narrated by Esther or otherwise moved the story along or shed light on the characters and their motivations. There were many section of the book, all of which were narrated by the unidentified third person narrator, that boldly made a mockery of the English Chancery system. While what interested me the most about this novel was must certainly influenced by Jarndyce and Jarndyce, the satire got a little tiresome, especially in the middle of the book. Dickens often used alliterative names to describe and make light of the people and roles associated with the Chancery. For a while this brought a smile to my face, but I longed to fast forward ahead to the actual story. I have no doubt that those sections were entertaining to Dickens’ contemporaries and to those who have studied the Chancery system. They didn’t spoil the book by any means, but they made Bleak House feel heavy and long.
Simon Vance was the perfect companion for this book. His accents and timing are pitch perfect. He had me laughing out loud with his Mr. Boythorne and his Mr. Guppy. I would love to see him act out those roles on stage. His pleasant voice certainly made the slower sections easier to bear. As much as I loved A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations in high school, I wish I had known what audiobooks can do then. Listening to this narration reminded me of how freeing it was to experience my Freshman Comp teacher act out scenes of Romeo and Juliet in the classroom. It gave me fuller access to a time and place that is foreign to my own experience and taught me how to read Shakespeare. Without a doubt I would have missed a great deal of humor had I read this in print. Reading all of Dickens’ novels is on my bucket list and I plan to take full advantage the audiobooks narrated by Simon Vance along the way.
I can think of none other than Dickens for lively, full-bodied characters and a strong sense of place. Bleak House, despite the sections taking direct aim at the Chancery, was a delight. Where else can you turn for characters like Esther Sommerson and Peepy Jellyby or be transported to places like Tom All Alones? I am glad that Jenny from Jenny Loves to Read sponsored #BleakAlong. While I perfectly understand why readers might be intimidated and/or raise the reader’s white flag along the way, I found that my persistence was well worth the effort. I so loved Esther and I enjoyed how all of the story lines weaved together in Bleak House.