It is spring 2020 and I am sitting at my desk at home as the nation continues in a period of lockdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. I have been reading Bleak House. Frank Kermode once wrote that a classic is a work that renews its relevance from generation to generation and, as I read I am drawn to consider the parallels Bleak House holds for the present time. You may think that confinement in my home for days on end has led to a regrettable misreading of Dickens' novel through my own immediate preoccupations. But it may be that Bleak House has some of the power of Kermode’s idea of the ‘classic’ and that its relevance can be renewed again and again, as Dickens’ insights into human and social experience continue to resonate in profound ways with later readers who find themselves in unexpected situations.
This is a novel in which a contagious disease — probably smallpox though it is not specified — plays an important role, but it is also a novel about seclusion and boredom under confinement. Written in 1852–53 when Charles Dickens — who died 150 years ago this year — was already an established and successful novelist, Bleak House takes up the interminable Jarndyce and Jarndyce legal case, which has been running in the Court of Chancery for generations with no end in sight. The Court of Chancery, presided over by the Lord Chancellor, was intended to alleviate the potential harshness of the Common Law, and it often heard cases involving trusts, estates and legal guardianship. We are introduced to the wards of the court in this case, Ada Clare and Richard Carstone, orphans who are ‘born into the suit’ and so are under the court’s protection, and Esther Summerson, who is chosen as a companion to Ada, and who narrates some of the novel in her own voice.
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