It is amazing how often this goes unsaid. People remark on the weakness of Dickens' plots (although the author of Dombey and Son could plot as tight a story as anyone, when he cared to) as if it were a major issue; which is roughly about as much to the point as to complain about the predictable structure of Homer or Dante. It is the more amazing because this was in fact not even a feature of Dickens alone, but a common feature of his time. Balzac, George Eliot, Manzoni and the greatest Russians - Tolstoy, Dostoyevski, Turgenev - all wrote to depict a whole society, a whole world. The greatest of them all as good as said it in the title of his greatest work: "War and Peace" - that is, the picture of the two conditions of human society. Another giant intimated that the whole complex of his work, novels, romances and short stories poured forth in inexhaustible profusion, was a comedie humaine intended to be as universal and all-reaching as Dante's great epic.
An approach of this kind must be, can't help but be, diffusive. If your main concern with the story is what happens next to Richard Carstone, or to the Dorritts, you are apt to be left confused or even annoyed. But ultimately that is not what the story is offering you. Richard Carstone, in particular, is not important in himself; he is important - and tragic - as one of the victims of Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce, not even necessarily the most prominent. Jo dies more significantly; Krook dies more spectacularly; Lady Dedlock dies more tragically, and although her death is desperately lonely, it involves more people. But whatever their individual guilt - and a couple of them at least are unmistakeably responsible for what happens to them: Richard ignores his benefactor's warning against J vs J and effectively betrays him; Lady Dedlock has the classic Victorian "guilty secret" - it is the long, grinding, engine-like working out of all the consequences of Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce that eventually grinds them both to dust.
Yes, Richard and Lady Dedlock have put themselves in ruinous positions. But their individual guilt is magnified, multiplied, made destructive and unforgiving, not by some Calvinist theology - I think that Dickens would probably point out that millions of women have successfully buried a "guilty" past and millions of young men have outlived youthful follies quite as bad as poor Richard's - but because they fall into the monstrous mechanism of ruin and corruption that spreads out from "that leaden-headed old obstruction" which stops and pollutes ordinary life in Bleak House's England. In Dickens' visionary English, the "obstruction" is at once the archaic remnant of Temple Bar, a structure that chokes traffic outside the Royal Courts of Justice; the Court of Chancery itself; and the case of Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce (no wonder Dickens named it after an illness) which stops and holds up vast amounts of property to no purpose.
And Jarndyce vs.Jarndyce, and all the Chancery environment, do not just ruin individuals like Richard or Lady Dedlock or poor Jo. Their whole atmosphere is mephitic. Around the Court there hover half-mad, ruined figures like the ultimately horrible Mrs.Flite, the diseased Krook, and the half-mad Mr.Gridley, who had not even wanted to be in Chancery but had been dragged in by someone else, and parasites like the vicious Smallweed, an usurer who could have crawled out of the nastier pages of Oliver Twist. These tragic freaks are both the editorial comment and the necessary pendant to the gallimaufry of smug, parasitical lawyers who live on Jarndyce and the whole Chancery establishment; it would not be enough, it would never be enough - although God knows, it would still work - if Dickens were only to show their smugness (the mark, from the beginning, of a Dickens villain), their personal parasitism, their unwarranted yet unbreakably superior attitude. By surrounding his temple of obstruction with this terrifying baroque of ruined minds and ruined lives, Dickens gives us the true dimension, the sociological dimension, of the evil it does. The most ruined and mad of them all, Krook, a store-owner who pointlessly collects mountains of written paper and all kinds of useless things including whole sacks of human hair, is himself nicknamed The Lord Chancellor - another devastating Dickensian editorial comment.
No wonder that the book opens with a vision of London roads choked with filthy mud and oppressive smog; and when it moves out of London, things are no better - the Dedlocks' residence in Lincolnshire is surrounded by floodwater. The happier and luckier characters in the novel are those who have walked, one way or another, away from that focus of "obstruction" and suspended life, Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce; especially the Rouncewell brothers, who, in their different fates - poor but honourable soldier, successful and upright iron-master - embody everything that Dickens' England liked about itself. In these characters, Dickens is saying: this is what this country is capable of. Conversely, the most miserable, the street boy Jo, is completely destroyed by the same mechanism of evil that claims Richard and Lady Dedlock, even though he is guilty of nothing at all. All he has done wrong is being born, goodness knows from whom and goodness knows how, but nevertheless within the reach of the destructive social machinery that emanates from Chancery; and it is part of Dickens' formidable symbolic structure that he earns - honestly - the pathetic pittance that just about keeps him alive, by trying to keep the mud, that all-reaching mud that is the image of obstruction and disease, from incommodating the gentlemen who cross the street.
Above all, the lawsuit is responsible for the very existence of the worst thing in Bleak House's world, the ghastly tenement district called "Tom-All-Alone's". It is because this vast property, in the heart of London, has been held up in Chancery for decades, that it has degenerated into the literally putrescent yet densely inhabited ruin that comes again and again into the story like a living reproach. But "Tom", as Dickens calls it with mocking familiarity, is not just the passive victim of the evil of others, that can just be forgotten about and left to itself; its putrescence is a living engine that works by itself, and that keeps producing the worst possible results:
Darkness rests upon Tom-All-Alone's. Dilating and dilating since the sun went down last night, it has gradually swelled until it fills every void in the place. For a time there were some dungeon lights burning, as the lamp of life hums in Tom-all-Alone's, heavily, heavily, in the nauseous air, and winking—as that lamp, too, winks in Tom-all-Alone's—at many horrible things. But they are blotted out. The moon has eyed Tom with a dull cold stare, as admitting some puny emulation of herself in his desert region unfit for life and blasted by volcanic fires; but she has passed on and is gone. The blackest nightmare in the infernal stables grazes on Tom-all-Alone's, and Tom is fast asleep.
Much mighty speech-making there has been, both in and out of Parliament, concerning Tom, and much wrathful disputation how Tom shall be got right. Whether he shall be put into the main road by constables, or by beadles, or by bell-ringing, or by force of figures, or by correct principles of taste, or by high church, or by low church, or by no church; whether he shall be set to splitting trusses of polemical straws with the crooked knife of his mind or whether he shall be put to stone-breaking instead. In the midst of which dust and noise there is but one thing perfectly clear, to wit, that Tom only may and can, or shall and will, be reclaimed according to somebody's theory but nobody's practice. And in the hopeful meantime, Tom goes to perdition head foremost in his old determined spirit.
But he has his revenge. Even the winds are his messengers, and they serve him in these hours of darkness. There is not a drop of Tom's corrupted blood but propagates infection and contagion somewhere. It shall pollute, this very night, the choice stream (in which chemists on analysis would find the genuine nobility) of a Norman house, and his Grace shall not be able to say nay to the infamous alliance. There is not an atom of Tom's slime, not a cubic inch of any pestilential gas in which he lives, not one obscenity or degradation about him, not an ignorance, not a wickedness, not a brutality of his committing, but shall work its retribution through every order of society up to the proudest of the proud and to the highest of the high. Verily, what with tainting, plundering, and spoiling, Tom has his revenge.
It is a moot point whether Tom-all-Alone's be uglier by day or by night, but on the argument that the more that is seen of it the more shocking it must be, and that no part of it left to the imagination is at all likely to be made so bad as the reality, day carries it. The day begins to break now; and in truth it might be better for the national glory even that the sun should sometimes set upon the British dominions than that it should ever rise upon so vile a wonder as Tom.
"Tom-All-Alone's" is based on actual neighbourhoods in London in Dickens' time; as a matter of fact, Dickens, so often treated as a caricaturist and a monster-maker, invented very little. (Even Krook's final spontaneous combustion, which has given offence to many hyper-rationalist readers, is based on several eyewitness accounts, including some that Dickens himself heard as a young reporter in coroners' courts.) And I wonder how many Londoners and tourists who walk for work or shopping from the High Holborn to Oxford Street realize that this was, until well into the twentieth century, the original of "Tom" - the "rookeries of St.Giles", a frightful nest of crime and disease in the very heart of the richest city (as it then was) in the world. And St.Giles is indeed within easy walking distance of the Court of Chancery. In fact, Dickens' majestic opening describes the road from the legal quarter to St.Giles' - the Holborn Hill - as every Londoner knows it. (St.Giles was cleared out in the twenties, as is shown by the architecture of the ugly, but at least not monstrous, buildings that replaced it; but as late as the nineteen-eighties there were parts of Westminster, now colonized by Russian billionaires and successful professionals, that were still slums, and required the presence of a Crown Court at Horseferry Road. I remember it well. Indeed, Westminster had been known as a haunt of crime and disease since the high Middle Ages.)
The meaning of the story, in so far as it can be boiled down to a single one, is in those tremendous sentences in the passage I quoted: It shall pollute, this very night, the choice stream (in which chemists on analysis would find the genuine nobility) of a Norman house, and his Grace shall not be able to say nay to the infamous alliance. There is not an atom of Tom's slime, not a cubic inch of any pestilential gas in which he lives, not one obscenity or degradation about him, not an ignorance, not a wickedness, not a brutality of his committing, but shall work its retribution through every order of society up to the proudest of the proud and to the highest of the high. Contamination cannot be avoided. Misery and disease affect all of society. Wealthy Sir Leicester Dedlock cannot find relief from them in Chesney Wold; that is the meaning of that symbolic flood that surrounds the place when it is first shown to us. By a million different paths, by the paranoid vigilance of his lawyer and by his wife's involvement in Jarndyce vs.Jarndyce, it reaches in and strangles his happiness. The other great tragic scene in this magnificent novel, balancing the Verdian fury with which Dickens describes Jo's death, is the tremendous scene of Leicester Dedlock fighting against his heart attack to convey to his cousin Volumnia that he forgives his wife and wants her back; tragically unaware that this heroic love is in vain, and that she is already dead of exposure on the grave of her lover. The mechanism of Jarndyce and Chancery has reached out and destroyed the rich and beautiful Lady Dedlock exactly as it destroyed the wretched Jo.
Many of the greatest critics - Chesterton, George Gissing, CS Lewis, Harold Bloom - have called Bleak House Dickens' best novel; which makes it (pace the fans of James Joyce) the greatest novel in the English language. I agree and have agreed ever since I first read it. No doubt, some of Dickens' views could be challenged; especially his anti-intellectualism - he does not seem to think it would make a difference if "Tom" were "got right...by constables, or by beadles, or by bell-ringing, or by force of figures, or by correct principles of taste, or by high church, or by low church, or by no church; whether he shall be set to splitting trusses of polemical straws with the crooked knife of his mind..." In fact, it matters very much and has since made a great deal of difference. The demand for action, any action, to correct a situation that has grown intolerable, is very likely to lead to the wrong action. But having said that, I can think of no more powerful corrective to any and all of the superstitions of past and present. Its world is still with us today.