Bleak House may well be the finest literary work to come out of nineteenth-century England. In no other Victorian novel is the narrative more artful, the cast of characters more engaging, the satire more biting, the range of life more wonderfully vast. A miracle of authorial creation, the book is constructed around three great themes: the High Court of Chancery, whose endless litigation of Jarndyce and Jarndyce symbolizes the murky institutional fog surrounding all England; the theme of misplaced children, setting whimsical, carefree Harold Skimpole in poignant contrast with sad, young nameless Jo; and the mystery theme, a romantic tangle of trails followed by the three unforgettable sleuths, Guppy, Tulkinghorn, and Bucket, leading to the astonishing revelation of a certain lady's long-held secret. In prose that is unexcelled in its vivid evocation and intensely sensual imagery, Bleak House displays Dickens at the height of his creative powers.
Widely regarded as Dickens’s masterpiece, Bleak House centers on the generations-long lawsuit Jarndyce and Jarndyce, through which “whole families have inherited legendary hatreds.” Focusing on Esther Summerson, a ward of John Jarndyce, the novel traces Esther’s romantic coming-of-age and, in classic Dickensian style, the gradual revelation of long-buried secrets, all set against the foggy backdrop of the Court of Chancery. Mixing romance, mystery, comedy, and satire, Bleak House limns the suffering caused by the intricate inefficiency of the law.
Charles Dickens was born in a little house in Landport, Portsea, England, on February 7, 1812. The second of eight children, he grew up in a family frequently beset by financial insecurity. At age eleven, Dickens was taken out of school and sent to work in London backing warehouse, where his job was to paste labels on bottles for six shillings a week. His father John Dickens, was a warmhearted but improvident man. When he was condemned the Marshela Prison for unpaid debts, he unwisely agreed that Charles should stay in lodgings and continue working while the rest of the family joined him in jail. This three-month separation caused Charles much pain; his experiences as a child alone in a huge city–cold, isolated with barely enough to eat–haunted him for the rest of his life.
When the family fortunes improved, Charles went back to school, after which he became an office boy, a freelance reporter and finally an author. With Pickwick Papers (1836-7) he achieved immediate fame; in a few years he was easily the post popular and respected writer of his time. It has been estimated that one out of every ten persons in Victorian England was a Dickens reader. Oliver Twist (1837), Nicholas Nickleby (1838-9) and The Old Curiosity Shop (1840-41) were huge successes. Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-4) was less so, but Dickens followed it with his unforgettable, A Christmas Carol (1843), Bleak House (1852-3), Hard Times (1854) and Little Dorrit (1855-7) reveal his deepening concern for the injustices of British Society. A Tale of Two Cities (1859), Great Expectations (1860-1) and Our Mutual Friend (1864-5) complete his major works.
Dickens’s marriage to Catherine Hoggarth produced ten children but ended in separation in 1858. In that year he began a series of exhausting public readings; his health gradually declined. After putting in a full day’s work at his home at Gads Hill, Kent on June 8, 1870, Dickens suffered a stroke, and he died the following day.
“Perhaps Bleak House is his best novel. . . . When Dickens wrote Bleak House he had grown up.” —G. K. Chesterton
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