Read an Excerpt
From Tatiana M. Holway’s Introduction to Bleak House
“‘What do you think of Bleak House?’ is a question which everybody has heard propounded within the last few weeks, when this serial was drawing towards its conclusion; and which, when the work was actually closed, formed, for its own season, as regular a portion of miscellaneous chitchat as ‘How are you?’”
So began a review of Dickens’s ninth novel, commenting on the commentary Bleak House was generating and attesting, in this way, not just to the popularity of the writer but, even more, to the supra-literary status of his works. “His current story was really a topic of the day,” a reviewer later reminisced; “it seemed something almost akin to politics and newsas if it belonged not so much to literature as to events.” There was a difference, though: in the serial form in which Dickens’s novels were originally published, the topic of the day stretched on for many, many weeks and months, and with most of them being published in nineteen monthly numbers, these works were before the public for over a year and a half.
By the time the serialization of Bleak House, in September of 1853, Dickens had been publishing prodigiously for seventeen years, and his continuous, unprecedented popularity was itself a “regular . . . portion” of contemporary criticism. From the day that “‘Boz’ first carried away the prize of popular applause . . . by the publication of the unrivaled Pickwick . . . he has had no equal in the favor of the reading public,” another review of Bleak House began. Other Victorian writers could sell more books: G. M. Reynolds, for one, whose career began with a plagiarism of The Pickwick Papers, far surpassed Dickens in sales of his sensational series on The Mysteries of London (1845–1855). But Dickens sold extraordinarily well: “I believe I have never had so many readers as in this book,” he remarked in the preface to Bleak House. And these readers were confined to no class. Dickens was a fixture at “every fireside in the kingdom.” When it came to Bleak House “To ‘recommend’ it would be superfluous. Who will not read it?”
Such a popular novel “is, to a certain extent, independent of criticism,” yet another reviewer asserted, effectively throwing up his hands. Nonetheless, critics had to say something, and what they said was quite mixed. There was censure: “Bleak House is, even more than any of its predecessors, chargeable not simply with faults, but absolute want of construction.” There was praise: Bleak House is “the greatest, the least faulty, the most beautiful of all the works which the pen of Dickens has given to the world.” Most readers of Dickens had long agreed that “the delineation of character is his forte,” but whether the characters of Bleak House were “life-like” or “contrived,” “truthful” or “exaggerated” was another matter. So, too, was the plot: in this regard, the novel represented either “an important advance on anything that we recollect in our author’s previous works” or, quite simply, a “failure.” In short, there may have been a great deal of talk about Bleak House, but there was little consensus in what critics said about Bleak House.
Such controversy is notable in itself. Although Dickens’s reputation among critics had fluctuated somewhat, especially in the 1840s, never before had assessments of his work been so conflicting. Nor had derogatory commentary been so pointed. Going beyond the “merits” and “defects” of the workwhich was, after all, not exempt from such judgmentscriticism of Bleak House became criticism of the author, whose “usefulness, instructiveness, and value” were coming to be increasingly questioned and whose very popularity was becoming grounds for alarm. “Author and public react on one another,” another critic began; where “truth of nature and sobriety of thought are largely sacrificed to mannerism and point,” the effect was not good. Within a few years, Dickens’s reputation among criticsthough not his saleswould take an even more pronounced turn for the worse.
Now, though, we bask in Bleak House. Resurrected by a series of influential twentieth-century readers, such as George Orwell and Edmund Wilson, Bleak House has come, once again, to be a “regular portion” of literary inquiry, its interest sustained and augmented by the many modes of reading we have available to us, both within academic institutions and without. In the last twenty-five years, more than four hundred studies of one form or another have been devoted to Bleak House, and, although disagreements certainly persist, Dickens’s most ambitious novel has come to be widely regarded as his most accomplished one, too. Still, the question of what he accomplished in Bleak House remains worth asking, however partial and provisional the answers may be.