In another of her occasional thought-provoking literary articles, Stella Backhouse turns her thoughts to Charles Dickens’ masterpiece Bleak House, with some surprisingly modern results. Do let us know what you think!
[Editor’s note: if you haven’t read Bleak House, it is for my money one of the finest novels in the English language. Give it a go.]
Bleak House is a novel about a fast-changing society and its relationship with the past. If that sounds familiar, perhaps it’s because many of the debates that shaped Britain in the second decade of the twenty-first century have centred on our own relationship with the past: how does it inform our attitudes to the present?; who owns it?; and why does reclaiming it matter so much? Questions like these underpin both the Brexit saga and the Black Lives Matter movement that emerged in 2020. But what’s so striking about Bleak House is that while we in our day continue to agonise about the presence of the past in the here-and-now, Dickens in 1853 had a solution that was startlingly different and very simple: forget the past. Consign it to history. Move on. The present and the future are all that matter now.
If modern readers know anything about Bleak House, they know that it’s the novel in which Dickens’ impatience with the workings, machinery and practice of the law achieved its fullest expression. The Court of Chancery, where the interminable disputed-will case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce has ground on for decades, is reviled as nothing more than a dead-weight of self-serving bureaucracy that that might be ripe for lampooning, were it not for the fact that entire lives are swallowed up by it, and slowly digested into blighted prospects, madness and untimely death. But it’s not the only example. What Dickens is portraying more broadly is a society that has outgrown its institutions. The law, religion, politics and what we would now call welfare provision: in their current state, all of them are unfit for purpose – all of them belong as firmly in the past as the megalosaurus that so arrestingly waddles up Holborn Hill on the opening page. This is a society crying out for renewal.
The past and its institutions are a cage. The characters in Bleak House who do well are the ones who escape it and make their bid for freedom; the characters who do badly are the ones who stay locked within its grip. So while John Jarndyce does well because he has always steered clear of the law suit that bears his name (and also renounces his long-held plan of marrying Esther), Richard Carstone does badly (and eventually dies) because he cannot overcome his obsession with it. And while Lady Dedlock dies because she fears that exposure of her past will dishonour her husband’s family, Esther – her illegitimate daughter – is unashamed of her origins and never lets them hold her back. Her strength of character eventually overcomes her prospective mother-in-law’s insistence on lineage, and paves the way for her marriage to Allan Woodcourt.
But it’s even more than this, because what Dickens is envisioning is nothing less than a new type society – one based not on ancestral right and privilege, but on usefulness and ability to contribute. The contrast here is between the activity of the present and the inactivity of the past. Sir Leicester Dedlock’s very name is suggestive of stasis and standstill. Significantly, he appears to have no children; but he does have a cousin who is so exhausted, after long days of lounging around doing nothing, that he hasn’t even the energy to clearly articulate the English language. This, says Dickens, is the past.
The future belongs to people who are active. People like Esther. People like the detective Mr Bucket, with his finger pointing resolutely forward. People like Allan Woodcourt, a doctor but also the hero of a shipwreck. And even people like the semi-comic young lawyer Mr Guppy. Unlike the distinctly sinister older lawyer Tulkinghorn (who also ends up dead), the presciently yuppie-ish Guppy is motivated not by the desire to preserve at all costs the position of vested interests (and thereby have them in his power), but by a refreshingly independent mixture of professional curiosity, shrewd opportunism and the desire to impress a lady.
Although he doesn’t succeed in his ambition of marrying Esther, I’ve always felt that Guppy’s proactivity and “enquiring mind when it comes to evidence” will see him right in the end. He has shown himself to be active, and in this new world, that’s what counts. Indeed, one of Dickens’ biggest frustrations with the Court of Chancery is that those who become embroiled in it are prevented from leading useful lives. Richard tries and fails to make a go of three different careers before the suit completely absorbs him; rather than going off his head in London, Mr Gridley’s time would be far more productively employed in farming his Shropshire acres.
Dickens also appeals to readers’ own memories to support this new vision. There has been debate about the period when Bleak House is set. Published in parts from 1852 to 1853, the action has been assumed to take place some fifteen or so years earlier, just before the so-called ‘Railway Mania’ of the 1840s. This is because no one in Bleak House travels by train – even though by the early 1850s, the railway network was becoming well-established across Great Britain. Instead, the characters make numerous coach journeys – most of them slow, uncomfortable, very hard on the horses and made yet more unbearable by the appalling state of the roads. ‘Remember this?’ Dickens is asking. ‘Do you really want to go back there?’
And merging with the theme of activity versus inactivity, the same question hovers around the entirely ornamental Mr Turveydrop. Modelling himself on the late Prince Regent, his sole contribution to the life of society is his daily exhibition of himself around town, allowing his fellow citizens to marvel at his deportment. Vain, selfish, unproductive and completely reliant for his financial support on the his son and daughter-in-law exhausting themselves by giving dancing lessons – is he what readers want to go back to?
Dickens’ answer is a resounding ‘no’ – he ends the book with ‘beginning the world’, a new Bleak House and re-birth: Ada and Esther both have young children. The future, he assures us, can and will be better, if only we can put the past behind us and keep moving forwards. To us now, reading Dickens at the other end of the Industrial Revolution, fearfully conscious that the most lasting and intractable legacies bequeathed to us by the processes it set in motion are likely to be global heating, environmental ruin and the jeopardising of the planet itself, this self-regarding burst of Victorian confidence, optimism and belief in the power of progress seems almost as alien as the outdated stage coach journeys endured by Esther might have seemed to railway-addicted readers of 1853. But is there also something deeper at work? Something we in our time would perhaps find more relatable?
The reunion of George Rouncewell with his industrialist brother Robert is strongly reminiscent of the return of the Prodigal Son, as related in the Gospel of Luke. The sins of the past are cancelled and forgotten. All that matters is the joy of the present. It’s a parable that seems uniquely-calculated to soothe the possible preoccupations of the early Victorian mind. After decades of struggle, the abolition of slavery in the British colonies had finally been achieved in 1833, with the Slave Compensation Act signed into law in 1837, just fifteen years before the serialisation of Bleak House began. This was a subject that was still fresh and a guilt – perhaps – that was still raw.
I have often thought that the role of Victorian literature in suppressing memory and silencing debate around Britain’s slaving history is a subject that would bear examination. It was a silence that would last the best part of two hundred years. In popular debate, it began to be unstopped only in this century, when historians like David Olusoga, novelists like Andrea Levy and movements like Black Lives Matter began to turn their attention to it. This is highly speculative, but perhaps what we see in Bleak House, whether consciously on Dickens’ part or not, is one of the places where that silence began. Because Dickens is telling his readers to forget the past. He’s telling them to do it by keeping busy – the same advice that’s often offered to bereaved or traumatised people to this day. He’s telling them to turn the page and make a new beginning. He’s telling them to concentrate, unlike the well-meaning but misguided Mrs Jellyby and her ill-fated African coffee plantation, on problems closer to home, of which, God knows, there were plenty. Dickens was quite right about that.
So while it may be almost a hundred-and-seventy years old, its concern with what to do about the past means that Bleak House strikes a surprisingly modern note. We look at things very differently today, but the terms of our debate are still framed by choices made by the Victorians, choices that Dickens, one of the biggest celebrities of his day, may well have a hand in making. And the choice was to duck the issue. We today have no choice but to confront the past, because the Victorians didn’t want to. Dickens is still with us.