Bleak House, and The Birthday - Linda Newbery

I had another piece lined up for today, but then realised that my posting slot coincides with Charles Dickens' two-hundredth birthday (well, it would be hard to miss that - Dickens is everywhere). He hardly needs another mention, but here it is anyway.

I'm reading Bleak House, enjoying the revelations as the plot unfolds, the slow grinding of the law court in the background, and of course the cast of characters - effete Mr Turveydrop, the neglected but spirited Caddy Jellyby, the birdlike and ever-hopeful Miss Flite, useless Mr Skimpole, Lady Dedlock doomed by her guilty secret. Esther Summerson's first-person narrative alternates with the chapters relayed more conventionally by an omniscient narrator, giving variety and freshness to a complex plot. (Is Esther Summerson the only female character in Dickens to be given her own voice?) Throughout, there are universal themes of finding the balance between happiness and duty, and of individuals striving to find goodness, purpose and love in a society indifferent to suffering.

As I read, I can't help seeing and hearing the superb cast of the excellent BBC adaptation of 2005 - Anna Maxwell Martin such a sympathetic Esther, Carey Mulligan - at the start of her career - bringing charm and personality to the anodyne role of Ada, Charles Dance unforgettable as the steely lawyer Tulkinghorn, and Burn Gorman ridiculous and oleaginous as the ambitious clerk, Guppy. But where to stop? Denis Lawson was perfect as John Jardyce, especially in the poignant scene where he frees Esther from her engagement; Gillian Anderson icy but vulnerable as Lady Dedlock.

I could watch it all over again, and again, with enormous enjoyment: the title sequence alone makes it worth buying the DVD. Although Andrew Davies pruned characters and episodes, his version aired in fifteen half-hour episodes, as well as omnibus repeats - such a treat for winter Sundays. His Bleak House was allowed the time and space for the characters to develop and resonate in viewers' minds. To my mind, it was the best and most satisfying Dickens adaption I've ever seen - so different from the recent Great Expectations, where we hurtled through the plot on fast-forward, hardly allowing us time to care what happened.

Please, let's have more slower-paced drama! Too much compression reduces great stories to nothing but plot. Accelerated Dickens, like breakneck Jane Austen or Charlotte Bronte on speed, is about as satisying as reading Coles' Notes.

How about you? What's your favourite Dickens novel, and your favourite adaptation?


adele said…
I quite agree that this Bleak House is brilliant. We did buy the dvd and thoroughly enjoyed it all over again.
I now have to read the book...
adele said…
Forgot to say: My favourite Dickens is probably David Copperfield ...or else Great Expectations. Very hard to choose. Christmas Carol is dear to my heart...Impossible!
Tja said…
It is inevitable, I suppose, that driven by such extensive pro-Dickens pieces across the media, someone should take the contra view. Annoyingly, I can't recall who, but in yesterday's Independent, Dickens is relegated to the journalist's second division of Victorian writers - mainly on grounds of 'ponderousness' and 'trite' characterisation.
His top ten include, Wilkie Collins, Robert Louis Stevenson, the Brontes, etc - nothing eccentric, but if ponderousness is not your thing, it's hard to understand the inclusion of several of these Names at Dicken's expense.
If I were to find fault with CD's novels, it would be over the inconsistency of the writing in terms of it's ability to hold the reader's attention. There are dull, overwritten passages in most of the big novels. He had no editor! He would run things by his closest mate(s), who did occasionally make suggestions, but that's not the same as an Editor's view. THis raises an interesting historical point: when did it become common place for an author of fiction to work with an editor?
Dan Holloway said…
I remember having to study Bleak House at school. It felt interminable. This adaptation was, however, wonderful. It was the ever-exceptional Phil Davis as Smallweed who stood out for me
Linda Newbery said…
Oh, yes, Dan - "Shake me up, Judy!"

TJA, I think the triteness of characterisation is a just criticism. Skimpole is always Skimpole. Ada is always Ada. Mrs Jellyby is always Mrs Jellyby. You don't expect to be surprised by them, as you might be by more rounded characters.
Linda Newbery said…
PS Dan, I think I'd have found BLEAK HOUSE interminable if made to study it at school. I remember struggling with JANE EYRE and PRIDE AND PREJUDICE at the age of 11 or 12 - both novels I loved later when I read them for myself.
Dan Holloway said…
ouch! Yes, this was at around 12-13 (living in Stroud, we spent most of the initial year studying Laurie Lee ad infinitum!) The same year we did 1984 (in 1984), which I'm sure didn't help it by comparison.

Yes - that line will stay in the memory a long long time!
Debbie Bennett said…
Does studying literature at school help or hinder a love of fiction, I wonder? I've always loved reading, yet hated dissecting books - I remain convinced that many authors did what we do now and wrote what worked for them at the time, not for some great worldly purpose. Reading Jane Eyre at school put me off ever wanting to read it for myself - and yet reading a very brief extract from Brave New World at primary school fascinated me enough to read the whole book at age 10!
Avril said…
I think you're right Debbie, dissecting books can be the death of them. There were things I hated reading at school - Jack London's White Fang, Richard Chrurch's Over The Bridge to name but two. Still I was always ready for the next book as I knew the chances were it would enthrall and transport - as it happened I loved Jane Eyre, loved all of Hardy! I wish we'd read more Dickens but suspect like Dan I might have been put off then. Perhaps the time is now or perhaps I'll get the DVD!
Debbie Bennett said…
I remember doing Over The Bridge by Church (except that I kept calling it Over The Church by Bridge...). Didn't it have a sex scene in it? One of those where the whole class is waiting with bated breath to see who gets to read it and the teacher finishes two paragraphs beforehand and tells you to read the rest at home.
Avril said…
I can't remember - if it did it can't have been memorable
Dennis Hamley said…
Oh, where to start. Yes, I think Bleak House is overwhelming and Andrew Davies's adaptation was superb. I remember Johnny Vegas in it with some affection. I'd always put in a word for Hard Times. People say that the villain and terrible portent is Gradgrind but actually he's a reasonably sympathetic character despite his utilitarian philosophy. No, the appalling creation in that amazing first chapter about education is the teacher MacChokumchild.

But for me, Great Expectations has to be the one. Perfectly constructed, hardly a word wasted even when CD is being florid, emotionally exact and as a story absolutely compelling. The recent BBC adaptation was such a travesty as to make me really very angry.

Actually, I love taking books apart to see how they work. It seems to me that it's exactly what we, as writers, should be doing.
Dennis Hamley said…
By the way, I had to read G E at school and hated it. I was afterwards rather proud to have got a reasonably good English degree without reading a single word of him at university. Then, when I started teaching, I found I was supposed to teach it for O level. Kicking and screaming, I sat down to read it and was just carried away into this amazing man's mind. One of the best reading experiences I've ever had.

TJA, those are good points. The same things about editing could be
said of most Victorian novelists who wrote for serialisation - though there was certainly some censorship, which mean Hardy had to make Angel Clare wheel Tess, Izz Huett and the rest across the stream in a conveniently-placed wheelbarrow. But what writers there were - and of your list, I think that for me, Wilkie Collins wins the prize.
Linda Newbery said…
Thanks, Dennis! Yes, GREAT EXPECTATIONS was one I DID enjoy when I read it at school.

I'd fogotten that about Angel Clare and the wheelbarrow! Hardy wins the Victorian novelist prize, for me. But I like Dickens for different reasons, one of which is the humour which is in abundance even in BLEAK HOUSE.
Nicholas Nickleby is my all time favourite - and I rather liked the version that was on television quite recently. But nothing beats reading the real thing. Liked the spooky Miss Havisham in the television Great Expectations, but doing GE without 'what larks, Pip!' is as unthinkable as doing David Copperfield without 'Donkeys, Janet!' When I was doing radio dramatisations of much loved classics, we used to have script meetings to decide on what HAD to be in, or there would be audience outrage!
Linda Newbery said…
That must have been fascinating, Catherine - the whole business of deciding what's essential and what can be dispensed with.

Yes - GE without What Larks is like The Importance of Being Earnest without the Handbag!
In big dramatisations, where studio time was short (Kidnapped and Catriona in ten hour long episodes, for instance!) we also had meetings - just the producer and myself - and read-throughs to spot the unintentional double entendres which would have started the actors giggling and wasted half an hour of production time.

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