My Favourite Moments In Novels No.3
We need to talk about Dickens. There’s such a range of moments available to choose from (let’s not have the death of Little Nell or the bludgeoning of Nancy) that it’s quite impossible to narrow down the selection, so let’s have an opening, and it would have to be from ‘Bleak House’, simply because with Dickens you never quite get what you think you’re going to get.
It’s hard to realise now just how contemporary Dickens felt when he was first read; he addressed the concerns of the liberal Londoner, from the wealth gap to government inertia to religious bigotry, but he never forgets that he is telling us a wonderful story. Even so, there’s an ingrained fear of Dickens among the young, that he’ll be too dull, too complex, too dry for them – but when you consider the time teenagers invest in ‘Game Of Thrones’ (itself written by a masterly author) there’s nothing to be afraid of – Dickens in his own way can be a lot less complicated than the average HBO series.
Even so, the start of Bleak House comes as a shock. It sets the scene for the bizarre drama to follow – the story of the participants in a court case so vast and lengthy that no one person has all the details of it.
London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets, as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill.
This is not what we expect of Dickens, a prehistoric image on the first page of the book, and yet it’s entirely appropriate. And where are the verbs in those tiny sentences? Weren’t we taught never to do this at school?
The dinosaur image is appropriate because this is a book bogged down by a vast, slow-moving beast – the case of Jarndyce V Jarndyce, which has ‘passed into a joke’ – and yet the narrative is paradoxically exciting, tightening the screws until it eventually becomes a murder mystery. It takes a brave man to warn you that this will be a slow read – but what a book!