Bleak House, a novel by Charles Dickens, the renowned British writer, which was published in 1852. This is probably Dickens' most complex novel, dealing with a large cast of characters spanning the social strata of Victorian Britain. The plot revolves around the case of Jarndyce vs Jarndyce, a family dispute over a will which has been passing through the courts for generations, and in which many of the characters in the novel are embroiled. Two orphans are made wards of court - Richard Carstone and Ada Clare - and are sent to live at Bleak House with their guardian, another party to the case John Jarndyce. Accompanying them to Bleak House is Esther Summerson, another child whose parentage is a mystery. Meanwhile the unfathomable lawyer Mr Tulkinghorn is intent upon unravelling the secret past of Lady Dedlock, wife of the well-connected and highly bred Sir Leicester Dedlock.

Half of the novel is narrated in a fairly conventional third person perspective, while the other half is a first person narrative by Esther, and as you would expect the twin narratives are not entirely consistent. Bleak House is a sustained attack on the inequities in Victorian society and is Dickens most ambitious and complex tale. It shows that everyone can be linked together as part of society illustrated by the connections between the grandest family (as represented by the Dedlocks) and the poorest street urchin (Jo the street sweeper) that eventually leads to the devastation of the Dedlocks lineage. This is also represented in the novel by various symbols, such as disease. Esther catches smallpox, after helping Jo, which he in turn caught from the graveyard containing Lady Dedlock's deceased lover, after paying his respects to his friend. Another is the Jarndyce case, which connects nearly all of the characters in the novel at some point. Richard and Ada fall in love and prepare to marry, but the looming presence of the Jarndyce case prevents Richard from living his own live and instead he gets caught up in the fog and confusion and becomes easy prey for the parasitic lawyers of Chancery. Other suitors are even driven mad or to their deaths by the Jarndyce case.

Bleak House contains some of Dickens most powerful writing and memorable characters, and even has time to explore the phenomenon of spontaneous human combustion, and contains equal mixes of satire and pathos. If there is a fault it is that the characters representing virtue (John Jarndyce, Allan Woodcourt, Esther herself) are really too perfect, but that aside it is one of Dickens best. Inspector Bucket who comes to the fore of the book near the end is also notable for being, (like Porfiry Petrovich in Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment) one of the first examples of the police detective that is such a popular figure in modern fiction.

If you have read and enjoyed any of Dickens other works, I would recommend Bleak House. However it is not the gentlest introduction to his work, David Copperfield or Great Expectations are probably easier to get into.

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