Welcome to a Group Read: Charles Dickens’ ‘Bleak House’

THIS COLUMN IS FROM SPRING 2014, when some of our readers decided to explore Bleak House with us.

UDPATE 2018—Over the years, many readers have commented on the opening page of this grand novel with its masterful description of London’s fog, which mingled with coal soot in Dickens’ era and was truly a defining metaphor for the whole novel that would soon unfold. So, here is that famous paragraph:

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ’prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds. 

Charles Dickens Bleak House covers Penguin Classics and original magazine editionCALL THIS cOLUMN … An Exciting Little Experiment. It’s 2014 and I’m your host, ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm.

We’re launching a very simple Group Read of a book: Charles Dickens’ Bleak House. For our religiously inspired readers, G.K. Chesterton called this sprawling novel Dickens’ greatest book. For our more literary readers, Yale scholar Harold Bloom seconds Chesterton’s view. An impressive chorus agrees with them. Daniel Burt’s famous listing of the 100 greatest novels of all time ranks Bleak House as No. 12, right up there with the likes of War and Peace, Ulysses and Moby Dick.

We’ve got some good friends reading along—and encouraging you to try Dickens!

  • MARY LIEPOLD: I’ve known Mary for many years, first as the online voice of the Peace X Peace international women’s network. Mary describes herself as Freelance Writer, Editor and Activist. Her own love of Dickens encourages others to read along with us: “I think the emotional workout is precisely what literature is for. It generates and exercises our emotional intelligence, without which we’re all doomed. Happy reading!”
  • BENJAMIN PRATT: Ben is one of our most popular ReadTheSpirit columnists and authors—and he’s also known for reviving the literary appraisal of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. Ben says he’s “in” for this Group Read: “Dickens is the consummate satirist. He paints verbal parables that enable us to see ourselves with all our personal and communal warts. Ian Fleming did the same thing with his journalist’s eyes—showing us amazing portraits of our social decadence in his James Bond series.”
  • AND YOU? We’ve now posted recommendations for a first and second week of readings in Bleak House. On April 7, we will post thoughts on Week 3, covering Chapters 4 and 5. In those delightful chapters, Dickens introduces several of his most enduring characters: the zealous Mrs. Jellyby and the haunting Mr. Krook and Miss Flite (with her special birds). Join us!

WEEK 1: Read Chapter 1

Read Chapter 1, “In Chancery.” That’s just 7 pages in the Penguin Classics Edition of Bleak House. But use any copy of the book that is close at hand. Every library has copies and there are many free versions, too.  (See below.) As you read, pay particular attention to the famous opening sequence about “the fog.” Read those two pages aloud to a friend or loved one.

WEEK 2: Read Chapters 2 and 3

In Week 1, a small but encouraging number of readers dove into this Bleak House Group Read, sending some emails, talking about the idea on Facebook and encouraging others to take part. In answer to readers’ first question, we are not “dating” these “weeks” so that this online experience of the book can be enjoyed at any point. Depending on the response we get to this very simple form of a Group Read, we may launch others in coming months. Come on along! Here’s what’s waiting in Week 2 …

  • READ ALOUD During his lifetime, Dickens performed such spirited public readings that he sometimes collapsed in exhaustion afterward. As your host for this Group Read, I spent a day this past week as a caregiver for my disabled father and the best part of our day was my reading aloud to him the first three chapters of Bleak House. Try it! Take turns with a spouse or friend.
  • CAN WE SEE THE CLUES? By the end of Chapter 3, many key characters have been introduced, including Esther, the Dedlocks, the powerful and predatory lawyer Mr. Tulkinghorn and the haunting victim of the courts, Miss Flite. Several readers told me these opening chapters seemed “like a lot of overly wordy stage setting.” If so, that’s because 21st-century readers aren’t picking up the clues to the overall mystery that Dickens artfully lays out in scene after scene. If we were watching Law and Order, our radar for “clues” would have been set off a half dozen times. In Chapter 2, for example, don’t miss Lady Dedlock’s shock when casually glancing at a page of handwriting. Dickens started his career as one of the fastest scribes in British courts—so he was a famous master of handwriting styles.
  • THE ESTHER PROBLEM (AND RASHOMON) In the 1970s, when I studied comparative world literature at the University of Michigan, novels by Sir Walter Scott and Charles Dickens (with the exception of Bleak House) were missing from the curriculum.  Now, an influential circle of literary scholars argues that Scott, whose novels enthralled a generation before Dickens, was a pioneering “postmodern novelist,” introducing a wide range of narrators who readers would find were flawed in their perspectives. In 1950, Akira Kurosawa’s murder mystery Rashomon gave the world a term for this kind of storytelling through an accumulation of unreliable narrators. The single biggest criticism of Bleak House is that Dickens’ attempts at creating sympathetic female characters, like Esther, were just one-dimensional images of childish women. As you meet Esther in Bleak House, consider this: What if Esther actually is a brilliantly crafted “unreliable narrator”? In Chapter 3, Dickens bends over backward to paint a vivid portrait of Esther through the many flaws and gaps in her narration. Bleak House is more Rashomon than you may suspect!

WHY HERE?

Sure, there are many Group Read websites, including GoodReads, where I have occasionally posted reviews myself. Today, however, we’re trying a very simple Group Read right here at ReadTheSpirit, because it’s so Fast and Flexible. Want to join in the fun? Add Comments below—or feel free to email me directly at ReadTheSpirit@gmail.com with your thoughts. If this is popular, we’ll do more Group Reads.

WHY BLEAK HOUSE?

It’s one of the world’s most inspiring novels. This tale of men and women caught in the stranglehold of Britain’s notorious Court of Chancery has something for everyone. I first read it in 1969 and it inspired my career in journalism. I’m not alone. If you do wade through the more than 2,000 GoodReads reviews of the book, you’ll find people saying things like: It’s “incredible”! And, it “has had a redeeming effect on me.” One reviewer called it “the 1853 version of The Wire.” But that’s not why I’m re-reading Bleak House this time. I picked it up again because …

  • MY SON IS STARTING LAW SCHOOL My son Benjamin is an urban planner who has concluded that, in order to really help challenged communities, he needs legal expertise as well. In his initial enthusiasm, he is reading classic books about the law. Someone recommended Dickens, who began his career as a court reporter. Benjamin was the first recruit in this little Group Read.
  • ANN MORISY Talk about cutting through “the fog”! As you will read in this author interview, British “community theologian” Ann Morisy recently crossed the Atlantic, bringing her provocative message that hope doesn’t trickle down—it springs from the ground up. Of course, in Dickens’ era, he did campaign for desperately needed top-down reforms in the UK, but in his later novels he had lost much of his early faith in top-down benevolence and he became a stronger advocate of grassroots change. OurValues columnist Dr. Wayne Baker also chimed in with a series comparing Americans and our British cousins.
  • SEEKING AMERICA’S COMMON GROUND As Editor of ReadTheSpirit, I’m helping Wayne Baker and Ken Wilson launch their books United America and A Letter to My Congregation. In his day, Dickens campaigned for common values and became a Benthamist—a follower of philosopher Jeremy Bentham. Here are just a few of the things Wikipedia says about Jeremy Bentham: He advocated the separation of church and state, freedom of expression, equal rights for women, the decriminalizing of homosexual acts, the abolition of slavery, the abolition of the death penalty, and the abolition of physical punishment, especially that of children. Bentham also was an early advocate of animal rights, like Methodism’s John Wesley. Not a bad Common Ground, hmmm?
  • AND, THIS IS FREE The book is free, at the moment, for your Kindle reader (or for the free Kindle App you can load onto your iPhone or iPad). The entire book also is free right now through Project Gutenberg.

Cynthia Lyons thanks to Taildraggers blogThere’s even a free audio version of Bleak House, created by one of the most colorful audio-book readers ever to turn a page. Her name was Cynthia Lyons. A true Baby Boomer, she was born in 1946, grew up in the New York area and later moved to Naperville, Indiana. She was a well-known attorney, she loved book clubs—and she took up “aerobatic flying” in middle age. She loved to compete in performing eye-popping and stomach-churning flying stunts in a small airplane—and continued into her 60s.

Somehow, she also found the time to volunteer as a prolific LibriVox reader. You can get her complete audio version of Bleak House either from the Internet Archive or directly from LibriVox. Unfortunately, Cynthia died in 2011 and never found time to publish her reasons for recording Bleak House—an enormous investment of her time and energy. But it seems clear from various pieces of her online legacy that Cynthia’s passions for the law and for books converged in her passion for Bleak House.

WHY SO SLOW?

You may be asking: Why are we reading only 7 pages in the first week? This novel is close to 1,000 pages! Answer: What’s the rush!?!

Benedictine monks in Vermont prepare for lunch in 2010.

Benedictine monks in Vermont prepare for lunch in 2010.

One of my favorite stories involves my son Benjamin and our author Rabbi Bob Alper, who we visited in Vermont in 2010 (and where we produced a very popular column headlined Folks So Tough They Don’t Need a Last Name). During that Vermont visit, Ben, Bob and I spent a day with the Catholic Benedictine monks of the Weston Priory. The casually dressed but iron-disciplined monks invited us to join them in what they called a “Red Lunch.” Or, that’s what we thought they said. Ben, Bob and I expected something like a tomato dish, red wine and maybe cherry pie. Hardly! This was a “Read Lunch”—a simple meal of vegetables eaten in utter silence as one monk opened up a book and read aloud. The kicker to this amazing little tale is the book that was opened: Diarmid McCullough’s 1,184-page Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years. The monks thoroughly enjoyed their food and just 3 pages of the massive book at that Read Lunch!

Again I say: What’s the rush!?!

HOW CAN I GET INVOLVED?

Get the book. Read along. Post a comment. Tell friends on Facebook. Email me directly, if you’d like, at ReadTheSpirit@gmail.com

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Comments: (5)
Categories: Great With Groups

Comments

  1. Bobbie Lewis says

    Thanks for recommending LibriVox! I’m downloading Bleak House to listen to during our next road trip.

  2. When will this start?

  3. This is a GREAT idea, David. Have shared with my Facebook crowd and will share with my Twitter folks later this evening (we’re a night-owl bunch). I’ve started reading. Like the pace–allows me to do some over lunch, which these days seems to be the only time I have for readings like this.

  4. Mary Liepold says

    One Saturday afternoon in 1965 the man I was dating called up & asked where I wanted to go that night. I told him I was reading Bleak House and intended to stay home alone and finish it. He understood right away that I wasn’t rejecting him, I just wanted to finish my book. What could I do? I married him.

    Count me in, David! And thanks for the tip about LibriVox. We might get my big sister with very low vision in too. I may even start recording books.

  5. Sharon Wildey says

    Count me in. I am transitioning from Costa Rica to Chicago. Would love the company.