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Bleak House (1)

This won't be a book review, since I'm only a third of the way through the novel, which is 665 pages long. Rather, I thought I'd just make a couple of remarks about Dickens' style

• Sometimes the sentences throw me for a loop and I have to reread them, like this one: "Athwart the picture of my Lady, over the great chimneypiece, it throws a broad bend-sinister of light that strikes down crookedly into the hearth, and seems to rend it."

• Describing Lady Dedlock in Paris: "Only last Sunday, when poor wretches were gay - within the walls, playing with children among the clipped trees and the statues in the Palace Garden; walking, a score abreast, in the Elysian Fields, made more Elysian by performing dogs and wooden horses; between whiles filtering (a few) through the gloomy Cathedral of our Lady, to say a word or two at the base of a pillar, within the flare of a rusty little gridiron full of gusty little tapers - without the walls, encompassing Paris with dancing, love-making, wine-drinking, tobacco-smoking, tomb-visiting, billiard card and domino-playing, quack-doctoring , and much murderous refuse, animate and inanimate - only last Sunday, my Lady, in the desolation of Boredom and the clutch of Giant Despair, almost hated her own maid for being in Spirits."

The sentence is basically about how bored Lady Dedlock is. Its descriptive bulk is framed by the adverbial phrase "only last Sunday." If you removed all the verbiage from its swollen center (the good part), the sentence is more or less "Only last Sunday Lady Dedlock almost hated her maid for being happy." But the fun is in the detail, in the litany of nouns paired with present participles: love-making, wine-drinking, quack-doctoring, etc. which evokes the city.

• A description of a portait: "A staring old Dedlock in a panel, as large as life and as dull, looks as if he didn't know what to make of it - which was probably his general state of mind in the days of Queen Elizabeth." I love the "as large as life and as dull" along with the idea of a painted ancestor being puzzled by what's going on in front of him, animating the inanimate, in a way.

• Describing an ill-tempered maid: "... she has a watchful way of looking out of the corners of her eyes without turning her head, which could be pleasantly dispensed with - especially when she is in an ill-humour and near knives." Funny. A little further on he describes her as "a very neat She-Wolf imperfectly tamed." He has a talent for using detail to establish character.

• In his description of Mr. Turveydrop, he focuses on his falseness: "... a false complexion, false teeth, false whiskers, and a wig." Note the whisker/wig alliteration. "He had a cane, he had an eyeglass, he had a snuff-box, he had rings, he had wristbands, he had everything but any touch of nature." Note the "he had a .... set-up, which he finishes nicely with what he doesn't have ("any touch of nature"), which brings the falseness motif to a close.

In the same description, he uses the formula past-participle + preposition to great effect: "He was pinched in, and swelled out, and got up, and strapped down, as much as he could possibly bear." Very baroque, this in/out, up/down symmetry.

• This is a nice description of a girl heading off to work, disappearing into the city: "... we saw her run, such a little, little creature, in her womanly bonnet and apron, through a covered way at the bottom of the court; and melt into the city's strife and sound, like a dewdrop in an ocean."

I especially like the repetition of "little," and then the phrase "melt into the city's strife and sound," which almost makes the simile ("like a dewdrop in an ocean") unnecessary.

• Young Jo is a boy who lives by his wits in the streets. After an impressive evocation of his illiteracy, Dickens describes how his day "changes as it wears itself away, and becomes dark and drizzly." I like this sense of the passage of time as an erosion.

• Like Unknown Hinson, Jo calls a window a "winder," and also speaks a dialect that is to me incomprehensible: "I'm fly ... but fen larks, you know. Stow hooking it!"

• I'm not even going to comment, just copy a nice phrase, referring to Richard's thinking about a career: "... his hankering after the vague things yet to come of those long-deferred hopes ..."

• Mrs. Skinner, the baby-sitter we had as kids, used a peculiar expression when she didn't approve of something: "I don't know, I'm sure." We always found it funny. I was surprised to find the very same expression coming out of the mouth of one of Dickens's characters.

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August 2017

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