I am re-reading Dickens’ Bleak House, a novel of nearly 1000 pages. Has one life got room for more than one reading of such a huge book? Set aside an hour in the coming week to have ataster session and see for yourself why I think it does.How did I get into it first time around? Someone passed it on.
In 1985 the BBC did a fine eight-episode adaptation of Bleak House, even now worth getting the DVD. To buy it would be to purchase some genius casting. As I write, more than 25 years later I can recall some of facial expressions of Denholm Elliot the hunch of his shoulders, his flinching as the troubled, insanely kind Jarndyce, Also the woman who played Esther Summerson – Suzanne Burden -I can see the careful stillness of her face, holding all emotion back, yet suffering it, nonetheless. These and other great actors (Diana Rigg, Charlie Drake, T.P. McKenna) interpreted the novel for me in that, my first experience of it. When we read to a child this is essentially what we are doing, though usually in a lower key, using the human person to pass on additional information, which adds to the experience of the story. The actor, the reader, ‘reads’ for you, and that reading is not just about decoding but about translating into human experience.
I was prompted to read the novel by this TV series, which is a good outcome for an adaptation, and for anyone reading stories to children or adults. And how many times have I read it since? I wish I was ordered, and had kept a series of notebooks detailing every book I have ever read, as some careful readers do. It would be good to look back with certainty. But as I have not kept such a record, I’ll have to guess, and I’d guess I may have read the novel perhaps three or four times. And not exactly ‘read’ in the usual sense, because these all but the first of these readings will have been reading in order to teach, and that’s a more concentrated form of reading than most of us practice most of the time. It is a way of reading which has underpinned the development of Get Into Reading, of what we at The Reader Organisation called ‘shared reading’.
But first reading? I know I was obsessed with Schubert’s Quintet in C, and for a long time associated the fast, terrible movement with the pain of Lady Dedlock’s being, as it were, on the run. I remember someone talking to me about ‘the problem’ of Esther’s narrative – a problem I had not myself noticed. I recall being uncomfortable with the trick played by Mr Jarndyce on Esther at the end of the book. But mainly, what I can recall is the compelling, pounding speed at which I had to read it. It was obsessive. Later readings were different. At this stage I had not ‘taught’ a novel. Taught is the wrong word which is why I felt the need to wrap it in inverted commas. And yet it was teaching too. When would it be that I began to teach an evening class for what was then the Departmental of Extramural Studies, possibly called ‘Introduction to Victorian Literature’. 1986? 1987? It’s all so cloudy back there, but it is possible that I taught Bleak House as part of a twenty week evening course, if not in 1986, sometime before1990. In the early days of that sort of teaching I’d have allocated three two hour sessions to a novel ( a huge amount of time compared to the 50 mins you’d get in a University tutorial), but by the end of my life in the University it would have been ten sessions. Twenty hours. And it would still have felt rushed. I have never read Bleak House in Get Into Reading – though one of my groups did set sail with Our Mutual Friend ( I left the group before it was finished) and I’d imagine it might take about a year or 18 months.
Is it worth spending that much time on one thing, when the universe is so packed with so many interesting things to read, look at, do?
I’ve just finished Chapter 16, Bell Yard, about page 250. This is the length of a longish contemporary novel, and yet in Bleak House we are only just getting going. It is a wonderfully full, leisurely look at the world, which in this chapter has just brought Dickens and his readers to a point of incredible realism and seriousness.But no use me talking about it – try reading some:
Story so far: a huge ancient court case going in Chancery, Jarndyce v Jarndyce has ruined many people, and killed some of them. The current Jarndyce wishes to bring it all to a stop by creating relationships of love and trust among the plaintiffs. He takes in, to his home, Bleak House, the three young ‘wards of court’ involved in the suit. Meanwhile we have seen chancery, a stately home Chesney Wold, the foul room of a poverty –stricken man addicted to opium, the inside of a lawyers office, a rag and bone shop, a lot of different people known by or known to all the characters. That it so far. In Chapter 16, Jarndyce has taken the young ward to visit the home of a follower (what we might call a private detective/bailiff) who has died. Here, and not for the first time in this novel, we meet ordinary, terrible poverty. I give you a biggish chunk, so you can get the flavour, and maybe develop a taste for it:
I tapped at the door, and a little shrill voice inside said, “We are locked in. Mrs Blinder’s got the key!”
I applied the key on hearing this, and opened the door. In a poor room with a sloping ceiling, and containing very little furniture, was a mite of a boy, some five or six years old, nursing and hushing a heavy child of eighteen months. There was no fire, though the weather was cold; both children were wrapped in some poor shawls and tippets, as a substitute. Their clothing was not so warm, however, but that their noses looked red and pinched, and their small figures shrunken, as the boy walked up and down, nursing and hushing the child with its head on his shoulder.
“Who has locked you up here alone?” we naturally asked.
“Charley,” said the boy, standing still to gaze at us.
“Is Charley your brother?”
“No. She’s my sister, Charlotte. Father called her Charley.”
“Are there any more of you besides Charley?”
“Me,” said the boy, “and Emma,” patting the limp bonnet of the child he was nursing. “And Charley.”
“Where is Charley now?”
“Out a washing,” said the boy, beginning to walk up and down again, and taking the nankeen bonnet much too near the bedstead, by trying to gaze at us at the same time.
We were looking at one another, and at these two children, when there came into the room a very little girl, childish in figure but shrewd and older-looking in the face — pretty-faced too — wearing a womanly sort of bonnet much too large for her, and drying her bare arms on a womanly sort of apron. Her fingers were white and wrinkled with washing, and the soapsuds were yet smoking which she wiped off her arms. But for this, she might have been a child, playing at washing, and imitating a poor workingwoman with a quick observation of the truth.
She had come running from some place in the neighbourhood, and had made all the haste she could. Consequently, though she was very light, she was out of breath, and could not speak at first, as she stood panting, and wiping her arms, and looking quietly at us.
“O, here’s Charley!” said the boy.
The child he was nursing, stretched forth its arms, and cried out to be taken by Charley. The little girl took it, in a womanly sort of manner belonging to the apron and the bonnet, and stood looking at us over the burden that clung to her most affectionately.
“Is it possible,” whispered my Guardian as we put a chair for the little creature, and got her to sit down with her load: the boy keeping close to her, holding to her apron, “that this child works for the rest? Look at this! For God’s sake, look at this!”
It was a thing to look at. The three children close together, and two of them relying solely on the third, and the third so young and yet with an air of age and steadiness that sat so strangely on the childish figure.
“Charley, Charley!” said my Guardian. “How old are you?”
“Over thirteen, sir,” replied the child.
“O! What a great age,” said my Guardian. “What a great age, Charley!”
I cannot describe the tenderness with which he spoke to her; half playfully, yet all the more compassionately and mournfully.
“And do you live alone here with these babies, Charley?” said my Guardian.
“Yes, sir,” returned the child, looking up into his face with perfect confidence, “since father died.”
“And how do you live, Charley? O! Charley,” said my Guardian, turning his face away for a moment, “how do you live?”
“Since father died, sir, I’ve gone out to work. I’m out washing to-day.”
“God help you, Charley!” said my Guardian. “You’re not tall enough to reach the tub!”
“In pattens I am, sir,” she said quickly. “I’ve got a high pair as belonged to mother.”
“And when did mother die? Poor mother!”
“Mother died, just after Emma was born,” said the child, glancing at the face upon her bosom. “Then, father said I was to be as good a mother to her as I could. And so I tried. And so I worked at home, and did cleaning and nursing and washing, for a long time before I began to go out. And that’s how I know how; don’t you see, sir?”
“And do you often go out?”
“As often as I can,” said Charley, opening her eyes, and smiling, “because of earning sixpences and shillings!”
“And do you always lock the babies up when you go out?”
“To keep ’em safe, sir, don’t you see?” said Charley. “Mrs Blinder comes up now and then, and Mr Gridley comes up sometimes, and perhaps I can run in sometimes, and they can play you know, and Tom an’t afraid of being locked up, are you, Tom?”
“No-o!” said Tom, stoutly.
“When it comes on dark, the lamps are lighted down in the court, and they show up here quite bright — almost quite bright. Don’t they, Tom?”
“Yes, Charley,” said Tom, “almost quite bright.”
“Then he’s as good as gold,” said the little creature — O, in such a motherly, womanly way! “And when Emma’s tired, he puts her to bed. And when he’s tired, he goes to bed himself. And when I come home and light the candle, and has a bit of supper, he sits up again and has it with me. Don’t you, Tom?”
“O, yes, Charley!” said Tom. “That I do!” And either in this glimpse of the great pleasure of his life, or in gratitude and love for Charley, who was all in all to him, he laid his face among the scanty folds of her frock, and passed from laughing into crying.
It was the first time since our entry, that a tear had been shed among these children. The little orphan girl had spoken of their father, and their mother, as if all that sorrow were subdued by the necessity of taking courage, and by her childish importance in being able to work, and by her bustling busy way. But, now, when Tom cried; although she sat quite tranquil, looking quietly at us, and did not by any movement disturb a hair of the head of either of her little charges; I saw two silent tears fall down her face.
I stood at the window with Ada, pretending to look at the housetops, and the blackened stack of chimneys, and the poor plants, and the birds in little cages belonging to the neighbours, when I found that Mrs Blinder, from the shop below, had come in (perhaps it had taken her all this time to get up-stairs) and was talking to my Guardian.
“It’s not much to forgive ’em the rent, sir,” she said: “who could take it from them!”
“Well, well!” said my Guardian to us two. “It is enough that the time will come when this good woman will find that it was much, and that forasmuch as she did it unto the least of these— This child,” he added, after a few moments, “could she possibly continue this?”
“Really, sir, I think she might,” said Mrs Blinder, getting her heavy breath by painful degrees. “She’s as handy as it’s possible to be. Bless you, sir, the way she tended them two children, after the mother died, was the talk of the yard! And it was a wonder to see her with him after he was took ill, it really was! ‘Mrs Blinder,’ he said to me the very last he spoke — he was lying there — ‘Mrs Blinder, whatever my calling may have been, I see a angel sitting in this room last night along with my child, and I trust her to Our Father!’”
“He had no other calling?” said my Guardian.
“No, sir,” returned Mrs Blinder, “he was nothing but a follerer. When he first came to lodge here, I didn’t know what he was, and I confess that when I found out I gave him notice. It wasn’t liked in the yard. It wasn’t approved by the other lodgers. It is not a genteel calling,” said Mrs Blinder, “and most people do object to it. Mr Gridley objected to it, very strong; and he is a good lodger, though his temper has been hard tried.”
“So you gave him notice?” said my Guardian.
“So I gave him notice,” said Mrs Blinder. “But really when the time came, and I knew no other ill of him, I was in doubts. He was punctual and diligent; he did what he had to do, sir,” said Mrs Blinder, unconsciously fixing Mr Skimpole with her eye; “and it’s something, in this world, even to do that.”
“So you kept him after all?”
“Why, I said that if he could arrange with Mr Gridley, I could arrange it with the other lodgers, and should not so much mind its being liked or disliked in the yard. Mr Gridley gave his consent gruff — but gave it. He was always gruff with him, but he has been kind to the children since. A person is never known till a person is proved.”
“Have many people been kind to the children?” asked Mr Jarndyce.
“Upon the whole, not so bad, sir,” said Mrs Blinder; “but, certainly not so many as would have been, if their father’s calling had been different. Mr Coavins gave a guinea, and the follerers made up a little purse. Some neighbours in the yard, that had always joked and tapped their shoulders when he went by, came forward with a little subscription, and — in general — not so bad. Similarly with Charlotte. Some people won’t employ her, because she was a follerer’s child; some people that do employ her, cast it at her; some make a merit of having her to work for them, with that and all her drawbacks upon her: and perhaps pay her less and put upon her more. But she’s patienter than others would be, and is clever too, and always willing, up to the full mark of her strength and over. So I should say, in general, not so bad, sir, but might be better.”
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