Thursday, March 1, 2012

Bleak House: The Beginning

I have a guilty secret. I am an English and History 'major' (as our American Friends would say), yet I have never read anything by Charles Dickens, the man widely regarded as one of the finest novelists the English language has ever seen. Nothing at all. Not a novel, not a poem (did he write poetry? Doesn't seem like the type...) Not a short story, nor a newspaper article (he was quite the journalist, apparently - he'd undoubtedly be writing for The Guardian if he were alive today. The pompous git.) In my entire career as a consumer of literature, which encompasses everything from Sophocles to Jane Austen to Hunter S. Thompson, I've read entirely nothing of Dickens. Not a word. Nada.

Even worse, I've never even watched any of the seemingly endless adaptations of Dickens' work that the BBC put on year after year. There's just something so soul-destroyingly solemn about his novels and their TV counterparts that makes me want to leave the room. I break into a cold sweat just thinking about Peter Ustinov playing the horrible, wheezing old Grandfather in The Old Curiousity Shop. Even Oliver Twist fills me with dread, though I suspect that's mainly due to all that fruity singing...It's about time I put aside my feeble excuses and fixed deficit in my knowledge of English Literature.

So where to start?  In my second year in college, for part of a 12 week module on 19th Century Literature, we were required to read Charles Dickens' Bleak House.  A quick glance on t'internet tells me that the entire novel weighs in at 360,947 words.  That's an awful lot of words to an undergraduate with a couple of other novels to read for the aforementioned course, as well as all the reading required for three other modules.  When exactly was I supposed to fit in my other course requirements: namely listening to Pink Floyd, watching pretentious movies and of course mild substance abuse? (sorry Mom)

Ok, I'll stop with the recriminations.  I'm better than all that. Onwards and upwards. Bleak House, the novel by Charles Dickens, was first published one hundred and sixty years ago today. Well, when I say published, I mean the first episode was sent out.  Yup, that's right.  Even the Victorians, living in their stuff red-brick mansions, with nothing better to do than spend their days being sexually repressed, weren't expected to read Bleak House or indeed any other Dickens novel all in one go, never mind in twelve weeks while maintaining a robust diet of Koka Noodles and Dutch Gold...

When I found this out I was mildly aggrieved, if I'm honest.  I felt it was rather unfair that I should have to read a gigantic novel with horrible bible paper in a very short space of time when even those nasty moustachioed Victorians were allowed to take almost two years, and all they had to do all day was go around the place being Imperialists and Scrambling For Africa. (They did enjoy a good Scrambling, those Victorians - mad for Africa, they were...)  So I mustered up all my passive-aggression, and didn't read it....  However this was only after I had bought the annotated version for about thirty Euro in the University bookshop (for our American Friends, €30 should be approximately $0.78, by the time you're reading this...), so it has spent the past five years on my shelf, taunting me in its snooty Victorian way.  Sitting their as if it had personally unified Germany under Otto Von Bismarck.

It's two hundred years this year since the birth of Charles Dickens.  It's one hundred and sixty years since Bleak House was published.  Imagine the scene:  A moustached Victorian is sitting in his sun house, enjoying his increasingly varied diet of stuff from abroad thanks to the Casual British Imperialism of Free Trade, while his oppressed maid spends her time cleaning and Diminishing The Role Of The Female In Middle-Class Victorian Society.  His footman brings in the mail.  There's a copy of The Times, and a small package.  He opens the newspaper first and reads the headlines.

Breaking News: Africa Has Been Thoroughly Scrambled By The Imperialist Nations Of Western Europe.

Analysis: Otto Von Bismarck: Has German Reunification Gone Far Enough? Oh Wait We're About Ten Years Too Early.

Investigation: Moving Pictures: Are The People Really Walking That Fast Or Are They Speeding Things Up To Get Us Out Quicker?

Sport: Football Has Been Invented. 

Check Out Page 3 For Our Sexy Picture Of An Oppressed Victorian Housewife Swathed From Head To Toe In Dull Black Material

After he finishes perusing the newspaper, he opens his package.  It's probably around the size of a decent magazine.  It's chapters one to four of Charles Dickens' new novel, Bleak House.  He's happy that it has arrived and looks forward to spending a couple of hours over the next month reading it, when the next issue will arrive.

In my (albeit ignorant) mind I see Dickens' novels as the Victorian equivalent of The Wire or some other smart TV show.  It's a serial, published bit by bit for economic reasons (buying the full novel would have been quite expensive) but also because it's sometimes more enjoyable like that.  So that's how I'm going to read it, as it was originally published, in chunks of three or four chapters every month.  I have made a calendar with the exact publication information, taken from Wikipedia, so I'll try and make that into a public one in case any one wants to join in.  I'll probably write a few thoughts down after finishing each chunk, but nothing structured and certainly nothing as long as this.  Hopefully one or two people will join me - it's not a huge commitment and I really hope it will be a worthwhile experience.  How a novel is read can have a huge impact on its interpretation and enjoyment, and reading it as it was originally meant to can't be a bad thing.

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