Sunday, January 9, 2011

Feeling Rather Bleak, Or a Post of Dickensian Length

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Upon finishing Bleak House, I felt one thing: disappointment. And, frankly, I was disappointed that I felt disappointed. Why, you might ask? Well, the answer is a long one. My relationship with Dickens has been a complicated one: my first exposures to him were enjoyable (Micky's Christmas Carol, a cartoon version of David Copperfield involving cats), but then when it came time to read him, I was not impressed. I read A Christmas Carol in my 7th grade English class (when I was probably too young) and was more confused than anything; then Oliver Twist was on the 10th grade summer reading list, and we all know what being required can do to a book, especially when it is required during the summer (and I LIKED to read!). I read it, but I didn't like it; then we read it again in class, and I hated it. It wasn't until I read A Tale of Two Cities in my senior English class that I realized I might have been mistaken when it came to Mr. Dickens. I loved Tale; I adored it, and my fondness for it has only grown as I have gone on to read and love most of Dickens' novels.

In fact, every Dickens novel I have read since A Tale of Two Cities has been a joyful discovery of an author and style and storytelling that I have come to love more and more with each read. I have read Great Expectations, Dombey and Son, Hard Times, Nicholas Nickleby, Our Mutual Friend, David Copperfield, and Little Dorritt and loved them all; many of these novels are stories that I know I will return to again and again. I plan to read all of Dickens' work (with the possible exception of Edwin Drood because I don't quite understand the appeal of an unfinished Dickens) because I love him That Much.

All this is to say that I fully expected to love Bleak House just as much as all the rest, especially since so many people consider it his masterpiece.

The truth is, however, I did not love it wholeheartedly, and this is why I felt disappointed. I loved pieces of it, but this is the first time (since those troublesome, youthful readings of A Christmas Carol and Oliver Twist) that I have felt annoyed by Charles Dickens. I felt like the Chancery case was overblown, and there were times that I wanted to smack the men in Esther's life for being so condescending and smack Esther for letting herself be treated that way.

Then I took some time away from the novel (thank you, Juliet Marillier!), forgot about it a bit, and was able to come back to it with a slightly more balanced perspective. Surprisingly, this new perspective came about when I revisited the BBC/Masterpiece adaption of Bleak House.

I was having a lazy Saturday morning yesterday before jumping into the grading and planning that needed to be done, and I decided to pop in Bleak House. As I've mentioned before, I watched this miniseries before reading the book, and, in fact, the miniseries was part of the reason that I wanted to make Bleak House my next Dickens. I loved the adaptation when I watched it, and, for better or worse, it affected my reading of the novel (mainly because I knew what would happen to Richard, which troubled and saddened me greatly, which in turn translated itself into a reluctance to continue reading the book past the first hundred pages).

As I watched, I (of course) noticed things that I couldn't have seen before reading the novel, which in turn started me thinking about the novel again. I started to realize that Dickens' mastery at presenting characters, exposing the horrific realities of his time, his genuine love for people (all sorts, really), his longing for a good (i.e. ideal and perfect) woman, and his delight in language, all things that I appreciate about his style, were present and effective in Bleak House. And while I may not have adored Bleak House, and it is not my new favorite Dickens, it is still a good book.

Reading this novel was really a study in how much my choices and reading habits can affect my perception of the book itself (obvious, I know, but I don't often consider this because my choices and habits are generally so helpful in making a book the best it can be for me). Probably the first lesson I learned when it comes to Mr. Charles Dickens? Don't see the movie before reading the book! For me, so much of the joy that Dickens brings to me comes from the way he brings the many intricate webs of storylines and characters together at the end; he makes everything matter, and I love that about his novels. I keep reading to discover how he is going to resolve everything, so knowing the resolution going into the novel is not a good idea for me.

Secondly, I was reminded that I don't react well to books that I take a ridiculously long time to read. I discovered this while reading East of Eden, and I took even longer to read Bleak House (almost 5 months from beginning to end!). When I am reading a challenging book, I do best to focus only on that book until I am done; during these types of reads, my habit of reading multiple books at the same time does NOT help me.

Finally, I had to let myself be okay with not loving this book even though I really wanted to love it. I think these kinds of reads are most upsetting; when we expect to love a book, want to love a book, and then don't, it is almost as if we have been betrayed by the book. And if I'm honest, part of my disappointment comes from the fact that I wanted someday to be able to say that I love EVERYTHING Charles Dickens wrote.

Since this post is now ridiculously long, I will wait to post about the things I DID love about Bleak House. And I have to thank Amanda at the Zen Leaf for hosting the readalong that FINALLY compelled me to actually finish Bleak House!


JoAnn said...

So many points I can relate to here, but first thanks for mentioning the BBC miniseries again. I won't be reading Dickens this winter, but I can certainly watch an adaptation... especially since I've finally read the book!

Over the past year or two, I've discovered that long books are more enjoyable when they get my full attention. My reaction to BH may have been more positive if I could have just gotten lost in the story instead of fitting it in between other short books.

It took me a month to read The Count of Monte Cristo, but that was all I read and I just loved it. Am also hesitant to join any readalongs for W&P...I'll need to throw myself into it when the mood strikes and keep reading until it's over.

Great post!

Read the Book said...

Thanks, JoAnn! I, too loved Count of Monte Cristo when I loved it. I think sometimes you just have to be in the right frame of mind for Dickens...