I recently finished reading Charles Dickens’ Bleak House. The novel tells the story of Esther Summerson, a young lady peripherally involved in a court case, Jarndyce and Jarndyce, that has lasted for years. While Esther is not a principal in the case, two of her closest friends—John Jarndyce and Richard Carstone, both residents of the aforementioned Bleak House—find themselves at odds in the suit. At the same time, a copyist for one of the agencies involved in the case dies unexpectedly, and the subsequent investigation into his death leads Esther on a quest to discover her own parenthood.
Sometimes, fans of popular fiction find themselves at odds with fans of literary fiction. One who reads Lee Child’s latest Jack Reacher novel, for example, may think he or she has little in common with a fan of Tolstoy, and vice versa. I’ve seen this sentiment multiplied tenfold at writers’ seminars, and yet I’ve always found it contradictory. Literary greats such as Dickens were the popular writers of their generation. When Bram Stoker first published Dracula, for example, critics considered it little more than a cheap horror novel. Yet Count Dracula is now the most iconic vampire of all time, having been used in adaptations too numerous to mention,
Similarly, during his time Charles Dickens was a popular novelist, not a literary novelist. Most notably, Dickens serialized his novels, which allowed him to modify the direction of the story based on readers’ reactions to the latest installment. In truth, this is little different than how writers for a television show such as Lost handle their scripts. In truth, I think this shows how little the tastes of mass audiences have actually changed over time. For example, in one of Bleak House’s more memorable moments, one of the characters dies from spontaneous combustion. When Dickens released this installment, a good number of scientists criticized the fantastical nature the character’s death, which Dickens responded to in the next installment by describing a fictional debate between the characters regarding spontaneous combustion, in which he cited a number of researchers’ claims as to the validity of this subject. (Even today, the verdict on spontaneous combustion is out, though for my part I can’t help but note the victims of such a demise are often smokers, or individuals with other fire-related hobbies…)
As for my part, I concluded long ago that writers such as Charles Dickens, John Steinbeck, Alexander Dumas, Leo Tolstoy, and others wrote works that, for one reason or another, have remained in print for centuries. I figured if I wanted to write novels of my own, then it stood to reason I could learn a thing or two from these folks. I found, just like reading contemporary authors, that I enjoy some classic writers, whereas others may not be favorite (I’d list all of the preceding—Dickens/Steinbeck/Dumas/Tolstoy—among the former, and Virginia Woolf and Nathaniel Hawthorne among the latter). Some works, such as Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, are quite readable, and others, such as Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, are nearly incomprehensible.
Bleak House, in particular, is considered the masterpiece of Dickens’ career. I think it succeeds for several reasons. Dickens’ strength was in creating memorable portrayals of the attributes of a particular person or profession. For example, one of his most recognizable creations—Ebenezer Scrooge—is now a universally-recognized stereotype for a rich, unforgiving, and uncharitable individual. In Bleak House, one of the reasons Jarndyce and Jarndyce ensues for so many years is because the lawyers involved in the case learned there was plenty of money to be made from the Jarndyce estate, and decided it was to their benefit to drag the case out as long as to pad their own pocketbooks. It’s no secret in modern society that lawyers are often the brunt of jokes, sometimes deserved, many times not (I work for a lawyer, and as my boss rightfully points out, should any of us ever find ourselves in need of a good one, we will find ourselves grateful for his or her services). I’d hazard to guess this modern stereotype of the law profession has roots in Bleak House, and in Dickens’ portrayal of the profession.
Second, Dickens taps into a concept that is still relevant today: the plight of the poor. Many of his novels focus on orphans and the working class, from A Christmas Carol to Oliver Twist to Hard Times (all of which draw from Dickens’ own experiences working in a factory after his father was sent to prison). In Bleak House, Dickens creates characters with attributes so extreme as to be comedic—there’s Mr. Smallweed, an unforgiving moneylender; there’s Mrs. Jellyby, who focuses so heavily on her charitable activities in Africa that she neglects her own family; there’s Mrs. Pardiggle, who takes so much pride in her philanthropic acts that she demeans the very people she proclaims to assist; and there’s Harold Skimpole, who defends his utter lack of responsibility as an opportunity for other people to develop the merits of their own generosity by caring for him. In these portrayals, Dickens not only criticizes those who take advantage of the poor, but also makes the case that the institutions in place to serve the downtrodden are failing. In doing so, he touches on a topic that still resonates with people today.
However, what I think makes Bleak House most successful is Dickens’ ability to blend several genres. The greatest stories of stories do this, and it’s what makes them accessible to a multitude of different readers. Bleak House is a legal thriller, it’s a mystery, it’s a romance, it’s a comedy, all of which are tied together by a central cast of well-realized and memorable characters. Great fiction does not tap just one emotion, but several, and this is where Bleak House excels. Though only time will tell which writers of our generation have written truly enduring works, I think it’s writers who, like Dickens, wrote stories that were both popular and accessible to everyone. I’d hazard a guess that J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series will find itself among this group, as well as Agatha Christie’s countless mystery novels (I’ve also concluded that, from Dickens to Tolkien to Christie to Rowling, one must be British to write truly memorable fiction, which unfortunately puts me out of luck). These are the stories our generation has enjoyed the most, and I think they are the ones that will remain in public consciousness the longest. And, at the end of the day, that’s the magic in fiction: a great story can last forever.