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Bleak House

Charles Dickens

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Plot Overview

Charles Dickens was born on February 7, 1812, in Hampshire, England, and spent the first ten years of his life in Kent. When Dickens was ten, the family moved to London. His father, a naval pay clerk, was a spendthrift and eventually lost all the family’s money, sending him, his wife, and their eight children to debtors’ prison. When Dickens was twelve, his mother forced him to live apart from the family by himself for three months, at which time he worked at a blacking factory (blacking is a kind of soot used to create black pigment for such products as matches and boots) to help support the family. Along with the other children at the factory, Dickens pasted labels on bottles, an experience he hated and one that affected him deeply throughout his life. His experiences at the factory, as well as his family’s experiences with poverty and debt, spurred a passionate interest in social issues and reform.

When his father was released from prison, Dickens returned to school. He eventually became a law clerk but abandoned law to become a journalist. This proved to be the start of a lifetime of writing—he published his first story in 1833 and his first novel, The Pickwick Papers, in 1836, when he was just twenty-five years old. The novel was very highly regarded and launched Dickens’s celebrity as a writer. In 1836, Dickens also married Catherine Hogarth, and the couple had ten children between 1837 and 1852. Although Dickens never divorced Catherine—an act unheard of in his day—the two separated in 1858 after much marital strife. Shortly after their separation (and likely before it), Dickens began an affair with an actress named Ellen Ternan, who would be his mistress until he died.

Dickens was a prolific writer and published novels roughly every two years. After The Pickwick Papers, he published Oliver Twist (1837) and Nicholas Nickleby (1838). Dickens usually published his novels in serial form in magazines, several chapters at a time, and the serialized pieces were then published together as a novel. Bleak House, Dickens’s ninth novel, was published in twenty installments between March 1852 and September 1853. In 1850, Dickens founded the journal Household Words and became its editor, intent on using the journal to promote social reform. Along with political articles, he published fiction to give the journal wider appeal, including his own novel Hard Times (1854). In 1859, he quit Household Words and began editing All the Year Round. Like Household Words, All the Year Round addressed social issues and featured both fiction and nonfiction. Dickens serialized several of his novels in All the Year Round, including A Tale of Two Cities (1859) and Great Expectations (1860–1861).

A great storyteller, Dickens was noted for his seemingly endless capacity for creating memorable characters and his sincere concern for social injustices. All of Dickens’s novels address the struggles of the poor in nineteenth-century England. In Bleak House he makes explicit his frustration with the English legal system, which, instead of serving the people, seemed to serve only itself with its impenetrable bureaucracy. The central lawsuit of Bleak House, Jarndyce and Jarndyce, has been held “in Chancery” for years—that is, it has been tied up in the Court of Chancery. A real Chancery case that lasted for fifty-three years was Dickens’s inspiration for the Jarndyce and Jarndyce lawsuit. Dickens modeled the Chancery of the novel on the actual Court of Chancery, notorious for its unreasonably stringent controls on the lawsuits that came before it, which made little progress and cost a small fortune. Dickens satirizes the Chancery in Bleak House, portraying a useless court that has driven people to suicide and ruined lives as it has slogged on pointlessly and ineffectively.

Besides being a satire, Bleak House is also a detective story, one of the first examples of the genre. When Tulkinghorn is murdered, Dickens has already set up a complex group of clues, motives, and suspects that Bucket—as well as readers—must sort through and figure out. Bleak House proved to be an early forerunner to and an influence for the detective and mystery novels that came after it, including The Woman in White (1859), one of the most famous early detective novels written by Wilkie Collins, a longtime friend of Dickens.

Dickens’s work has always remained popular with critics and readers alike, and he is considered one of the greatest English novelists of all time. Dickens died in 1870, when he was fifty-eight. He is buried in the Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey, in London.

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