The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

X. Dickens

§ 12. Bleak House

As Dickens had never before attained to such an equable combination of the various elements of his power and skill, so he never attained to it again; though some would make a partial exception for Great Expectations. Nothing that he did later, except (and this is not invariably allowed) his last and unfinished work, failed to contain something of his best; nothing, perhaps (except that and Hard Times), was without something of his very best. But the total results were much more unequal; and they began to show, in a degree far greater than had appeared in the earlier work (though there had been something of it there), the “obsession” of social and, to some extent, of political purpose. For a year or fifteen months, after the close of David Copperfield in 1850, Dickens gave the public nothing, except Household Words. But, in the spring of 1852, he began Bleak House, which occupied the rest of that, and most of the next, year. It illustrates most strikingly, and, perhaps, more valuably than any of its successors, the remarks just made. Most of the comic, and some of the serious, parts are “true Dickens” to the very nth; and it is, perhaps, one of the most interesting of all, except in the character of its quasi-heroine and part narrator, Esther Summerson, who is one of the most irritating of Dickens’s unconscious angels, But the overdone onslaught on chancery and the slighter, but still constantly attempted, satire on parliament, the aristocracy and so forth, become, at times, almost insufferable, and the author’s determination to take things seriously provokes a corresponding and retaliatory disposition to take seriously in him things that one hardly notices in the earlier books. Of the too famous Skimpole matter one need not say much. Macaulay, in one of the very latest entries of his diary, has expressed the judgment of most people who have impartially examined the matter. Nobody dreams of imputing to Leigh Hunt the worst rascalities of his eidolon, such as theselling of Jo. But Dickens himself afterwards admitted that he took “the light externals of character” from this veteran of letters—then still living and his friend—and everybody knew that some such not very light characteristics—reckless running into debt and complete neglect of obligation—were common to the fictitious and to the actual personages. The fault of taste, to call it no worse, was very grave; but, as no one but a foolish partisan would maintain that good taste was Dickens’s strong point, there need be no more said.

Other things of a different kind should be noticed because, as has been said, they become stronger and stronger features—not for the better—in Dickens’s general work henceforward. Not to mention many minor improbabilities, the reason for Mr. Tulkinghorn’s persecution of lady Dedlock, on which the whole plot turns, is never made apparent of plausible. The divulging of the secret could do neither himself nor anybody else any earthly good; he certainly was not looking forward to be bought off; and the actual revelation would have been most likely to damage very seriously his character as a sort of living Chubb’s safe for such matters, not to mention that silence gave him continuance of power over his victim. One might add to this the quite illegal hunting of Jo, by the police (which would have got them into considerable trouble if it had ever come before a magistrate) and the entire presentation of some characters, especially Mr. Vholes. For the “spontaneous combustion” business, Dickens had (as Marryat had had before him) the excuse of some quasi-scientific authority; and there is so much that is good in the book that one is loth to speak anything but good of it. But it certainly does show a “black drop”—or two black drops—of quarrelling excessively with the world and of over-emphasising scenes and characters.