Bleak House

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Bleak House- Charles Dickens

I had to read this book for my course, otherwise- I freely yet shamefully admit- I probably wouldn’t have done. I read some Dickens in year ten (before my literary tastebuds had fully developed, granted- do they ever stop developing?!) and I wasn’t very keen, so when I found out that one of Dickens’ longest novels was required reading, I was far from thrilled.

Bleak House is a book with a lot of faults. Many of the characters are flat- especially the protagonist, Esther Summerson. The blurb of my copy calls her “psychologically interesting” but I disagree. She’s a complete Mary-Sue and far too much of a goody-two-shoes for to be likeable, plus she exhibits an annoying amount of false modesty; for example, she claims that she doesn’t find herself beautiful, but goes on to describe at length how many others find her so. Yet saying that, towards the end of the novel an unexpected depth to Sir Leicester Dedlock, who at first seems to be nothing more than a pompous old fool. His declaration that he is on “unaltered terms” with Lady Dedlock in spite of some shocking revelations about her reveals him to be a man unparalleled in nobility, forgiveness and unconditional love. His speech is one of the most moving moments of the book and even brought a tear to my eye, whereas I was previously indifferent to the Dedlocks.

The novel is also very unusual, plot wise. It’s experimental, and there’s a lot going on that you’re not told about until later. There are many plot threads and so many characters that it’s hard to keep track of who’s who, or it would be if they weren’t all so unusual. Bleak House is a satire on the English Chancery, a social commentary and a prototype of the detective novel. There’s also a very unusual relationship at the centre of it, between Esther and Mr Jarndyce, who becomes a father figure, then a romantic interest and then a father figure once more. It’s most bizarre and a little bit Freudian, and Esther’s romantic feelings towards Jarndyce aren’t much discussed- we know she regards him very highly as a father figure and seems to have to real objection to marrying him, even though we know there’s someone else she’d prefer (we’re just not told who). Perhaps it’s due to her perfect and uncomplaining nature or perhaps she’s confused herself, but either way a bit more exploration would have been nice, Mr Dickens.

I’m glad I’ve read Bleak House, but I’m not sure I’d read it again. I found that the last two hundred pages were very interesting as the story really developed- a reward for wading through the previous five hundred- and the ending was satisfactory, but I could never really bring myself to particularly care for any of the characters. Then again, Dickens isn’t famed for his round, psychologically complex characters so maybe that’s to be expected. I’d recommend this novel if you’re interested in narratology or the evolution of the novel, or a Dickens fan, but if you don’t fall into any of those categories then I wouldn’t expect you to find it particularly enjoyable.

Have YOU read Bleak House? What were your thoughts? I’d love to know, so please leave me a comment!

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The Picture of Dorian Gray

This book may not be your standard holiday read, but I’m a lover of 19th century fiction, in particular the Gothic. Although Oscar Wilde’s only novel needs no introduction, for those of you who don’t know it, it’s the tale of a young man who wishes that his portrait will age instead of himself. The portrait bears the signs of Gray’s sins as he becomes increasingly corrupted- visiting opium dens, deflowering young women and eventually committing a murder- whilst Gray himself does not age.

This novel is beautifully written, in a highly descriptive and sophisticated style that plunges you into the opulent world of upper class Victorian life. Wilde’s rich descriptions had me hooked from the very first page and caused me to fall in love almost immediately with this book. What I dislike, however, is some of Lord Henry’s babbling. I appreciate his hedonistic character and find him charming, but I eventually grew sick of his constant epigrams- even Dorian himself notes “you would sacrifice anybody, Harry, for the sake of an epigram”.

The plot is also wonderful; although today we are accustomed to this idea of a young man trading places with his portrait, this was a new idea at the time of the novel’s writing. I loved the idea that all of Gray’s corruptions were displayed on a canvas but what I found even more brilliant was Wilde’s acknowledgement that Gray’s attempts at redemption were really just acts of vanity, because he could no longer bear his hideous portrait. I feel that this is present in all of us in some form; when we do a good deed, how often are we thinking of the good we are bringing to another person and how often are we seeking to confirm ourselves as “good”? Back in the 19th century people often tried to lead a pure life to avoid going to hell, rather than for the sake of morality and I think Wilde picks up on this as his protagonist makes petty attempts at atonement. I say “petty”, however, because Gray still refuses to own up for his crime. He does not even feel a great deal of remorse for murdering his friend, later dismissing it as “small”. His sympathies lie with himself and he becomes a twisted version of the great Romantic hero; like Victor Frankenstein, he has boundless sorrow for himself but thinks little of the hurt he has caused others.

I rejoiced in the sheer darkness of this novel; I liked how that rather than striving to be virtuous, the character of Gray did exactly the opposite and corrupted himself. I also enjoyed reading about the hedonistic, reckless lives of the upper classes; it was almost like a 19th century escapist novel! However, there is one point at which the plot hits a snag. The chapter in which Wilde describes Gray’s pursuits over nine years, whilst beautifully written, as always, took me longer to read than the rest of the book put together! It picked right up again straight after but for some reason, perhaps the sheer lack of action and volume of description, I found this chapter was a real struggle.

To conclude, The Picture of Dorian Gray is a perfect read for anyone who loves 19th century fiction! If ‘chick lit’ is more your thing then I wouldn’t recommend this novel, but I enjoyed it hugely- in fact, I’d say it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. Wilde is a genius and a natural born writer if ever I stumbled across one.

Have YOU read The Picture of Dorian Gray? What did you think? I’d love to know, so please leave a comment!

“Ah! this morning! You have lived since then.” – Lord Henry

Jane Eyre

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Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

I picked up Charlotte Brontë’s ‘Jane Eyre’ at a garden centre a couple of weeks ago in a sale. I’d heard it was good from several people and I must say that I completely agree! I immediately loved the character of rebellious, impulsive Jane and was intrigued by the nature vs. nurture element to the book- at first she finds it hard to control her emotions and verbally lashes out at her cruel aunt but the strict and controlling environment of Lowood boarding school makes her quiet, restricted and virtuous. However I wasn’t so keen on her love interest, Mr. Rochester. I know he’s considered as one of the greatest literary romantic heroes of all time but I found him bossy, egotistical and slightly creepy- but perhaps that’s due to Jane’s description of his “ugly” face, massive torso and large head. He later won me over though with his heroism during the fire and I thought the ending was terribly romantic, with Jane devoting herself to care for her blind love.

The tale is also recounted in a richly descriptive pose, using beautiful language and charming dialogue. I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of the enriching surroundings, which is a common feature in Romantic literature. It wasn’t as “wordy” as one might expect and was relatively easy to read. It also moves fairly quickly and although it’s a long book, it doesn’t feel that way. I did get irritated with Jane’s decision to leave Mr. Rochester because he couldn’t marry her; but then that was a reflection upon society at the time. But more on that next time, when I’ll be doing an exploration of the text rather than a review…

What did YOU think of Jane Eyre? I’d love to know, so please leave a comment!