Bleak House, an obscuring and shadow filled world
Six ways of using ideas in a novel
Bleak House, the great English novel
The Dickens Chronological Reading Club has reached Bleak House, the great English novel. I will never forget the first time I read the opening page of this book. The skulking atmosphere; the brisk, contorted prose; the perpetual sense of someone lurking. People often talk about the second paragraph, with all the fog. I was gripped from the first. A megalosaurus on Holborn Hill. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. This is London, but not as we know it. We are in a semi-real world, a place where it seems as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth. Dickens writes on the edge of fantasy.
When Bleak House appeared, critics disliked it. So dark, suddenly. So gloomy. Where was the Dickens of old? The rolling, rollicking Hogarthian Dickens? But this new dark mode became Dickens’ most enduring legacy—he is the novelist of London’s fog, grime, squalor, and despair. Bleak House, of course, is about more than fog. It sometimes feels like it is trying to be about everything. Smallpox, the courts, aristocracy, murder, economics, altruism, secrecy, blackmail, homelessness, marriage, patriarchy, class, money, power. There are decaying law courts, weird and mysterious houses, cluttered shops, haunted mansions, an old lady who keeps birds, and a crooked shopkeeper who spontaneously combusts. People are constantly investigating and being investigated. And the names! Skimpole, Krook, Bucket, Tulkinghorn.
Still, the usual criticisms do apply, such as that Dickens was sexist—partly a reaction against Jane Eyre. More damningly for literary scholars, he was not a novelist of ideas, not like George Eliot. Bleak House is a part of a supposedly anti-utilitarian, anti-economic outlook, which would peak in his next novel, Hard Times. When he’s not seen as unphilosophical or inconsistent or shallow, Dickens is put in Carlyle’s tribe, believing economics was “the dismal science,” opposed to laissez faire industrialisation and selfishness.
I think that is wrong. Not only was Dickens more of a novelist of ideas than he seems, he was more of a utilitarian, too. Today I’m going to show you that Bleak House is more utilitarian than it seems and use Raymond Williams’ 1970 essay ‘Dickens and Social Ideas’ to outline six ways of using ideas in fiction—and that will show us how Dickens uses idea.
Why this matters
As I wrote in my essay on the role of the humanities in progress, imagination breaks the path that reason follows and Plato’s separation of analytic and narrative thinking is too strict. We are everywhere surrounded by ideas in the fiction we consume.
The social criticism of Charles Dickens was worth as much as all the nineteenth century’s poverty data. Statistics alone cannot make you feel the truth of what it is like to be in jail, school, or an orphanage. Think too about the role of Harriet Beecher Stowe in the debate about slavery and the way it affected the whole of society. More prosaically, it’s absurd the extent to which The West Wing preoccupied (preoccupies?) the imaginations of a whole generation of political types. That is not a good thing, but it is undeniably real.
Art is the closest thing to life. I don’t like this silly little instance of what amounts to quite a big truth, but many people will think more about politics and power when they watch Succession than at any other time. We all know that ideas in fiction matter when we say that children’s books and television should have girls as well as boys in prominent roles. But beyond that, the important role that ideas play in our fiction seems to fade away. Explicating the different ways ideas work in fiction, specifically Dickens, will hopefully demonstrate the way that fiction of all sorts is part of the ongoing battle of ideas in society, for better for worse.