All partings foreshadow the great final one • Bleak House, Charles Dickens
Romanticism and The Rise of the Novel • 1800–1855
1836—37 Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers is published in 20 monthly instalments. It establishes the popularity and financial viability of serializing narrative fiction.
1844—45 The Count of Monte Cristo, a thrilling adventure of a man’s false imprisonment and his subsequent revenge, by Alexandre Dumas, is published in instalments.
1856 Gustave Flaubert’s debut novel Madame Bovary appears in serial form in the literary magazine Revue de Paris.
1868 Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone proves so popular that it is extended from 26 to 32 serialized episodes.
Readers on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean could barely contain themselves as they awaited the final instalment of Charles Dickens’ serialized The Old Curiosity Shop — so much so, that when the ship carrying it finally docked in New York, USA, in 1841, excited readers waiting at the port rushed forwards across the wharf, desperate to find out whether Little Nell, the novel’s protagonist, had died.
Such enthusiasm showed just how popular the work of Charles Dickens had become. But it also highlighted the popularity of serialization — a process by which a novel was published in episodes before being offered in book form. Improved printing technology, cheaper paper, the growth of the railways, and a rise in literacy all contributed to the emergence of serial fiction. Price, too, played a part: readers were more willing or able to pay per episode than to buy an expensive book outright. In this way serial fiction enabled the growth of a mass reading public.
"The one great principle of the English law is, to make business for itself."
When Charles Dickens embarked on his novel-writing career, he had intended to produce a three-volume novel, in the conventional tradition of the time. However, his publishers suggested that he write a series of articles to accompany some sporting prints. According to Dickens, “My friends told me it was a low, cheap form of publication, by which I would ruin all my hopes”, but he accepted and began work on the first episode of The Pickwick Papers. It was a huge success, and from then on Dickens published all of his novels in serial form.
Despite the stress involved in meeting a weekly or monthly deadline, the serial format perfectly suited Dickens’ energetic and dramatic storytelling style. It also helped to create an intimacy between him and his readers — he sometimes even altered the plot of later instalments in response to his readers’ reactions.
Bleak House was published in monthly instalments between March 1852 and September 1853. It was Dickens’ ninth novel and is thought by many to be one of his most mature. English writer and critic G K Chesterton considered it to be his best novel, a view shared by many readers, then and now.
An immense and complex novel, Bleak House is set mainly in London but also in Lincolnshire in the east of England. Its main theme is the iniquities of the English legal system at that time, which through delays, obfuscation, and lack of humanity, destroyed the lives of innocent individuals. Central to the story, and woven through it, is the fictional case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, a legal dispute over an inheritance that has already lasted several decades by the time the novel begins, and which has become “… so complicated that no man alive knows what it is”.
Each instalment of Bleak House was accompanied by two illustrations by Hablot Knight Browne, enhancing the mood of the text — this illustration shows the stately home Chesney Wold.
However, Bleak House is not just an attack on the English legal system: it is also a murder mystery, a whodunnit, and a searing exploration of the poverty, disease, and neglect that were part of 19th-century England. The novel includes plots and subplots that touch on themes of secrets, guilt, greed, self-interest, love, and kindness. Like all of Dickens’ novels, it includes a huge and memorable cast of characters, who interlink with each other in ways that are both obvious and extremely subtle (introducing surprise into the serial form), most of them drawn into each other’s lives through the complex web of Jarndyce and Jarndyce. Such features grew out of the serial nature of the work, its episodic creation allowing for many subplots involving numerous characters.
Dickens starts to lay the basis for his story in the very first episode, introducing the reader to places, events, and several of the main characters. He also provides clues to mysteries that will eventually unfold.
The book’s memorable opening describes London in November, fog on the river seeping into the bones of the characters, symbolizing the confusion and corruption that emanate from the fog’s densest point — the High Court of Chancery. Moving outwards to Lincolnshire, it reappears as mist around Chesney Wold, the estate of the aristocratic Lord and Lady Dedlock.
We are introduced to three main characters: Esther Summerson, Ada Clare, and Richard Carstone. All are orphans, their lives already affected by the long-running Jarndyce and Jarndyce case. They go to live in the eponymous Bleak House with their guardian, John Jarndyce, a kindly man and benefactor who has resolutely distanced himself from the infamous lawsuit and warns his young wards to do the same. But each is touched by the case, and Carstone becomes dangerously sucked into it.
Brought up as a child by a harsh aunt, and with a shameful mystery surrounding her birth, Esther plays a central role in the novel. She is a modest, shy, self-effacing young woman, who says of herself, “I know I am not very clever”.
Esther is also one of the two narrators that Dickens uses. Her first-person narrative weaves in and out of the story, describing people and events from a personal and retrospective view. She provides insight into and criticism of the other characters. The other narrator is an anonymous third-person voice that describes events in the present tense, creating dramatic tension and highlighting social injustice — the voice of conscience.
Pea-soupers, heavy fogs containing soot and other pollutants, were a feature of 19th-century London. In Bleak House, fog serves as a symbol of confusion and oppression.
"Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river…"
Each member of Bleak House’s large cast is carefully named and presented to make social points; characters are often larger than life, but are never oversimplified. The complexity of Dickens’ characters made them compelling to readers, who followed their fortunes in instalments in much the same way that today’s television viewers tune in to weekly soap operas.
Lord and Lady Dedlock epitomize the deadness, sterility, and aloofness of the aristocracy, although the haughty coldness of Lady Dedlock hides a dark secret. Miss Flite, who befriends the young wards, is a half-crazed old woman, driven mad by the Jarndyce and Jarndyce case. Carrying a bag of documents, she haunts Chancery, expecting a day of judgement when she will release the birds she keeps in cages, whose names chillingly include Ashes, Waste, Ruin, and Despair. Krook, a scrap merchant fond of rum and obsessed by the court case, plays a critical role until one day, in a startling end to the tenth instalment, he spontaneously combusts. And Tulkinghorn, Dedlock’s lawyer, haunts the pages, stalking the mystery that links the Dedlocks and Esther Summerson.
Neglect vs kindness
Selfishness, greed, hypocrisy, and neglect are common themes of the book: Mrs Jellyby neglects her own children for her philanthropic interests; self-centred “model of Deportment” Mr Turveydrop shows little interest in his hard-working, impoverished son; the grotesque Smallwood family are obsessed by “compound interest”; and all of society neglects Jo, a poor young crossing sweeper, who is constantly told to “move on”. Hypocrisy is caricatured in the persons of Chadband, a greasy Evangelical churchman, and Harold Skimpole, who presents himself as untouched by the monetary realities around him, yet cadges money from all his friends. By contrast, kindness is shown to all by Esther, Ada, and their benefactor John Jarndyce.
Bleak House is also arguably one of the earliest detective novels in English literature. The detective is Mr Bucket, a genial, terrier-like man, who, after a ghastly murder, tracks down the culprit. Dickens creates false clues in this subplot; these appeared tantalizingly as cliffhangers at the end of two instalments, keeping readers in suspense and eager to read more.
Some early reviews were critical of Bleak House, feeling that it was too gloomy and lacking in humour. Dickens’ friend and biographer John Forster described it as “too real”, but readers clearly disagreed: sales were between 34,000 and 43,000 copies a month. Following the success of Dickens, other writers also gained readers via serialization. Wilkie Collins’ detective novel The Moonstone first appeared in instalments, and episodes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes tales were published in The Strand Magazine. Outside Britain, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina was published serially, as was Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Radio and television eventually took over from magazine serials, but in 1984 US writer Tom Wolfe returned to serialization with The Bonfire of the Vanities, which was first published in Rolling Stone magazine.
Dickens treats the locations in Bleak House almost as characters in their own right. Vividly portrayed, they serve as a shorthand for class and provide a credible backdrop for people of very different social status to meet and interact.
Born in Portsmouth, England, on 7 February 1812, Charles Dickens was the second of eight children. When he was 12, his father was imprisoned for debt. Charles left school and worked in a shoeblacking factory, a grim experience that he would describe in David Copperfield. Later he worked as a legal clerk and started writing as a journalist.
In 1836 Dickens married Catherine Hogarth and began work on The Pickwick Papers, establishing his reputation as a novelist. Over the next 30 years, he published 12 major novels; he also edited periodicals and wrote numerous articles, short stories, and plays. He separated from Catherine in 1858, having fathered 10 children. Dickens died in 1870 and was buried in Poets’ Corner, Westminster Abbey.
Other key works
1836—37 The Pickwick Papers
1837—39 Oliver Twist
1843 A Christmas Carol
1849—50 David Copperfield
1855—57 Little Dorrit
1859 A Tale of Two Cities
1860—61 Great Expectations
1864—65 Our Mutual Friend
See also: Oliver Twist • The Count of Monte Cristo • Vanity Fair • David Copperfield • Madame Bovary • The Moonstone