It took me just over 2 weeks to finish this book. Granted, I was reading it alongside preparing to come back to uni, and volunteering- but that is a long time to be reading one book for me. Surprisingly, just as boredom began to set in, I suddenly started to really enjoy this monster of a novel…
When I saw this on the reading list for my third year Murder, Mystery, Mayhem module I cringed. Wasn’t Charles Dickens really hard to understand? To even like? I remember trying to read the unedited Oliver Twist when I was 11. Needless to say, that was a bit ambitious. But, returning to Dickens 9 years on, and this is being added to my “Favourite Books of All Time” list.
Dickens has a dense writing style, and often goes off on a tangent of description, which can make his novels slightly hard to follow. Don’t let this put you off. Once you get into the swing of his narrative style, the story opens up for you, and you won’t be able to put it down.
*If you’re good at putting two and two together, then the below may contain some spoilers, just to warn you now.*
This particular novel follows Esther Summerson, a girl with mysterious parentage, but a kind heart, who becomes involved in a world that sits in the shadow of an on-going court case called Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce. This court case is with regards to the fortune of an old Jarndyce, who made two wills- but which was the right one? Whilst the descendants fight it out in the courts of chancery, no one actually knows who should inherit his wealth. This is the backdrop to the story, and the narrative always seems to return to the courts of chancery in London (where wills and such are supposedly sorted out, though the lawyers most seems to just be fannying around, wracking up “costs”).
Esther’s story, told by herself, runs alongside another narrative which follows Lady Deadlock, a cold and proud society lady- with a secret to hide, and a blackmailer waiting in the wings to destroy all she holds dear. I have to say, Lady Deadlock was one of my favourite characters. There were many characters that I point blank hated, or was annoyed by (Harold Skimpole, Richard Carstone), but she was not one of them. Despite her history and secrets, I feel Dickens wanted his reader to like Lady Deadlock, or at least appreciate her force of character.
Upon the discovery of the body of an unknown man and law copy writer, both these worlds are sent into a tail spin, and eventually they’re set on course to collide. The novel follows the secrets that gradually come to light, and then the death of Lady Deadlock’s blackmailer himself…
Dickens’ most powerful attribute is his cast of characters. There are a lot of names to keep track of, but each and every story is interconnected in the most fascinating way. Within this main framework we have a number of poorer Londoners, who Dickens paint with startling detail- one such character is Jo. A poor boy living in the slums of London, a lot of the story revolves around what he has the misfortune to see/hear/encounter. Dickens pairs this with a satirical portrait of the London society’s elite, and politicians. Social commentary is a powerful aspect of the tale. Don’t worry, there’s also some comic relief in the form of Mr Guppy, who follows Esther around for a good chunk of the novel, making marriage proposals, and generally being a nuisance.
Dickens’ characters are in no sense 2D. This attribute of his writing actually brought to mind Game of Thrones for me- a startlingly modern comparison I know, but hear me out- the majority of his cast are neither entirely good nor bad. Sir Leicester Deadlock is one example: I had made my mind up that he was a pompous, unlikable rich old man- when the end of the novel showed that he also had a human side, which was fairly heart-breaking. Every character, however mercenary their motive, however nasty they are, has a reason for their acting as they do (with the exceptions perhaps of Grandfather Smallweed, and Mr Harold Skimpole).
For every “surprise” I saw coming in this novel, there was another that I had no idea was around the corner. The entire time you feel as if you’re walking around in the shadows, watching these characters and their lives. I believe that when you read this for the first time you’ll have the same experience- just don’t read the academic introduction first, because that tends to ruin a good book.