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Victorian Victory Essay, Research Paper

Victorian victoryBleak House Charles Dickens first published by Bradbury and Evans in monthly parts, March 1852-September 1853 Schools may not do particularly well at putting teenagers off sex and drugs, but they often do a good job with literature. As a teenager, I read all kinds of things with impartial enthusiasm, just as long as they had never got near a syllabus, but by the time I had got through sixth form, one thing I was certain of was that the 19th-century English novel had nothing to say to anyone with a brain. Above all, Dickens, who stood for just about everything I couldn’t stand in those lumbering great fictions. Dickens! It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, God bless us one and all. A fog of sentiment and melodrama; fog in the streets, obscuring the cheery cockneys with their irritating “wocal” mannerisms, fog in the parlours. Fog over creeping, villainous Jews, and Dickensian Christmas fayre! I would probably have remained convinced that 400-page novels were somebody else’s problem had it not been for a book about sex; Stephen Marcus’s The Other Victorians (1966), a serious study of Victorian sexuality and pornographic writing. To my great surprise, I found Marcus championing Dickens in strangely moving terms. One of the curiosities of Victorian writing is an immense private diary known as My Secret Life, by a man known as “Walter”, which describes endless encounters with working-class women and girls. Walter was on various occasions interested enough to ask women about their lives, and wrote down what they told him; and as Marcus emphasised, his casual accounts of working-class life support Dickens’s representation of contemporary London as authentic, again and again – “what often seem to be Dickensian impossibilities of behaviour were the very stuff of daily existence in London”. He described Dickens with passion, as “the conscience and consciousness of his age”, and more generally championed the Victorian novel as a device for declaring the common humanity of the working classes with their so-called betters. As soon as possible after finishing The Other Victorians, I got hold of a copy of Bleak House, and realised that it was a masterpiece of storytelling. It is now one of the books I most value. I have to admit that it is lumbered with one of the 19th century’s most annoying heroines, Esther Summerson – Dickens rashly attempting a first-person female viewpoint. Esther is an unwanted child, treated with cold cruelty by her protectors, yet somehow she turns out entirely free of anger or resentment. Dickens did not make that mistake about boys: David Copperfield, which is also first-person and partly autobiographical, boils with rage, which is patently transferred from Dickens’s own traumatic childhood experiences, yet he seems to imagine that a girl-child thus abused could still come out clement, loving and sweet. But I have learned to forgive Dickens’s Esther Summerson (just), for the sake of the project generally. Bleak House is one of Dickens’s most savage attacks on the society he lived in (much of it still depressingly relevant); the complacent destructiveness of English law, represented by the insoluble case of Jarndyce v Jarndyce, cold Christianity which has become itself another means of oppression, and the vacuous expensiveness of the fashionable world all come under his lash, while the crowding, desperate masses of the poor press ominously in on the action of the novel. It contains some of his best descriptions of place and atmosphere, and exhibits his passionate perception of human interconnectedness, offering an extraordinary social panorama in which the tangled, scurrying complexity of middle- and working-class life is set against the abjection of the poor on one side, and the inert boredom of the rich on the other. Yet beyond all that, one of the greatest pleasures of Bleak House for me is that it forms the grand pattern for classic English detective fiction. There is a transparent, exuberant delight in plotting in this book, which was in time to launch a thousand whodunnits relying on plot alone. The murder takes place in high society, and we are encouraged to believe in the guilt of one particular character, whose means, motive and opportunity are duly established. At the last moment, a second character is produced, and it at once becomes clear that means, motive and opportunity are just as present, and the second solution is in fact the right one. At the same time, Bleak House contains a terminal critique of this unborn genre, since Dickens both illustrates the consequences of detection in extraordinary depth, and problematises it as a destructive process, even a sadistic one, an exercise in the use, or abuse, of power, and his detective is a profoundly sinister figure. A book of infinite riches: forget whatever you understand by “Dickensian”, and go and read it.

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