BLEAK HOUSE

Author: Charles Dickens (1812 – 1870)
Publisher: Wordsworth Classics (2001 edition)
Bought from: NoQ Store

Introduction

Charles John Huffam Dickens is one of England’s most beloved writers. His novels and Christmas–themed novellas were well–received on both sides of the Atlantic during his lifetime and have remained popular to the present day. He helped make the novel the dominant form of English literature during the Victorian Period (1837 – 1901), in place of poetry from the preceding Romantic Period. The literary world celebrated the bicentennial of Dickens’ birth on 7 February 2012.

Dickens’ work is greatly informed by the England he lived in. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing. Wealth and political power were no longer monopolised by the landed aristocracy. A middle class of merchants, industrialists and professionals was emerging. Young men from humble backgrounds (like Dickens himself) began to have great expectations of escaping their old lives and becoming gentlemen. However, for the majority of the population, ie. the working class, everyday life remained extremely harsh. Many flock to cities like London looking for jobs, leading to overcrowding and pushing down wages. Young children often worked to support their families in horrendous and dangerous places like mines and factories and as chimney sweeps. Many young girls became prostitutes. The Victorian Age was, in Dicken’s own words: a shameful testimony to future ages, how civilisation and barbarism walked this boastful island together (p 130).

In 1851, Dickens lost his father and one of his daughters within two weeks. Over the next few years, he wrote a series of novels which have come to be known as his dark novels. The first was Bleak House, Dicken’s ninth novel, which was first published in monthly serials from March 1852 – September 1853, followed by Hard Times (1854) and Little Dorrit (1855 – 1857).

Bleak House was the first novel in which Dickens used the multiple narrators device. The first narrator is Esther Summerson, who wrote her account some 7 years after the conclusion of the story. The other narrator is an unidentified and omniscient third person narrator who speaks in the present tense. There is some connection between the two but it is not made clear what that is exactly.

Bleak House came in at number 79 in a poll conducted by the BBC’s Big Read to find the top 100 best-loved novels (2003)

What is the story about?

The main plot deals with the fictional case of Jarndyce v Jarndyce in the Chancery Court and its effect on the lives of Esther Summerson (who grew up believing she was an orphan), Ada Clare and Richard Carstone (distant cousins and wards of the Chancery Court) and John Jarndyce (master of Bleak House).

A parallel plot revolves around the aristocrat Lady Dedlock whose haughty personality masked a secret that that could ruin her marriage and bring disgrace to her husband.

The two story lines intertwined in a hidden relationship between Esther, Lady Dedlock and a dead law writer. A number of colourful characters play major roles in advancing and/or hindering the uncovering of the relationship, including Tulkington (Sir Dedlock’s lawyer), William Guppy (a law clerk), Krook (a shifty landlord), George (an ex–soldier who unknowingly had links to both of Esther’s parents) and last but not least Inspector Bucket (one of the first detectives to play a key role in English literature).

How is the book?

This is a complete and unabridged edition from Wordsworth Classics. It comes with an introduction and brief but useful notes written by Doreen Roberts from the, University of Kent at Canterbury. There is also a section that described the historical context snd setting of the novel. This book also contains
illustrations by Hablot K. Browne aka Phiz (1815 – 1882) from the original serialisation.

Dickens’ works are available online for free. But this edition, costing only S$3.32 net, bought during a free-delivery promotion, is attractively priced.

Finally …

The melodrama is punctuated with doses of humour. The novel has its share of characters with wonderful Dickensian names, including Tulkinghorn, William Guppy, Conversation Kenge and Vholes, all employed in the legal profession. Coincidences are employed as plot devices, eg. Lady Dedlock just happened to read an affidavit written by someone from her past.

In his book The Western Canon, the literary critic Harold Bloom wrote that Bleak House was Dickens’ greatest novel. Of all the Dickens I have read, this is my favourite.

Et cetera 

Bleak House has been adapted by the BBC three times, the latest one a popular and critically–acclaimed 15–part mini series (2005) starring Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock, Carey Mulligan (before her breakout role in An Education) as Ada Clare and Charles Dance as Tulkington.

ALICE’S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND AND THROUGH THE LOOKING-GLASS

Author: Lewis Carroll (1832–1898)
Publisher: Penguin Books (1998 edition)
Bought from: Book Depository

Introduction

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson was an English author, mathematician, logician and pioneer in the then-new field of photography. Little is known about his childhood. He studied in Christ Church, Oxford. He attained a First Class Honour Moderation in Mathematics in 1852 and graduated with a BA with a First in Mathematics and a Second in Classics in 1854 and an MA in 1857. He was appointed as a lecturer in mathematics in Christ Church in 1856, a post he held until 1881. The appointment required Carroll to take holy orders in the Anglican Church and to remain unmarried. He was made a deacon in 1861 but he managed to resist being ordained as a priest.

Dodgson wrote a number of books on mathematics using his real name. But today, he is remembered for 3 works he wrote using the pseudonym Lewis Carroll: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), Through the Looking Glass And What Alice Found There (1871) and the poem The Hunting of the Snark (1874), all considered classics of the so-called nonsense literature genre.

What is the story about?

In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Alice went down a rabbit hole into Wonderland where she had a series of adventures. The sequel, Through the Looking Glass, is set exactly 6 months after the events in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Alice entered a Looking-Glass world behind a mirror in her house. She read a book written in reverse entitled Jabberwocky and played an elaborate game of chess.

Themes

The first Alice story was written for 10-year old Alice Liddell (1852–1934). She was the daughter of Rev. Henry Liddell, the dean of Christ Church who appointed Dodgson as a lecturer. Dodgson’s relationship with Alice and other little girls, many of whom he photographed, often in the nude, have been the subject of much controversy.

Lewis Carroll gave us some of English literature’s most enduring characters and created wonderful new words.

His creations include White Rabbit, Dodo, the hookah-smoking Caterpillar, the grinning Cheshire Cat, March Hare, Hatter, and The Queen and King of Hearts (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland) and Jabberwocky, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, Humpty Dumpty and a different queen, the Red Queen (Through the Looking Glass).

Words that Carroll invented include nonsense words such as snark and boojum (The Hunting of the Snark) and portmanteau or blend words such as chortle, galumph and mimsy (Through the Looking Glass). In Through the Looking Glass, Humpty Dumpty defined portmanteau to Alice: “there are two meanings packed up in one word” (p 187).

The Alice books also contain some oft-quoted passages such as: “Curiouser and curiouser”, “off with her (or his) head” and “begin at the beginning and go on til you come to the end: then stop” (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland) and “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less” (Through the Looking Glass).

How is the book?

This is a complete and unabridged Centenary Edition in the Penguin Classics series. It comes with an introduction and notes written by Hugh Haughton, a senior lecturer at the University of York. The notes are adequate but (as acknowledged obliquely by Haughton himself in the introduction) nowhere near as extensive as those in the Martin Gardner edition The Annotated Alice (1960). But the Gardner version is expensive.

This volume contains illustrations by John Tenniel (1820–1914) from the first editions of both works.

It also includes Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, a manuscript and illustrated version Dodgson gave little Alice Liddell as a present in 1864. At that time, he was already revising and expanding the story for publication as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. A full facsimile edition of Alice’s Adventures Under Ground was published in 1886.

Finally …

The twin Alice books can be enjoyed by children and adults alike. Today, the books can be read at face value and there is no need to read too much into them. However, Dodgson’s personal life remains an enigma.

DAVID COPPERFIELD

Author: Charles Dickens (1812 – 1870)
Publisher: Wordsworth Classics (2000 edition)
Bought from: NoQ Store

Introduction

Charles John Huffam Dickens is one of England’s most beloved writers. His novels and Christmas–themed novellas were well–received on both sides of the Atlantic during his lifetime. He helped make the novel the dominant form of literature during the Victorian Period (1837 – 1901), in place of poetry from the earlier Romantic Period. The literary world celebrated the bicentennial of Dickens’ birth on 7 February 2012.

Dickens’ work is greatly informed by the England he lived in. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing. Wealth and political power were no longer concentrated in the hands of the landed aristocracy. A middle class of merchants, industrialists and professionals was emerging. Young men from humble backgrounds began to have great expectations of escaping their old lives and becoming gentlemen. However, for the majority of the population, ie. the working class, everyday life remained extremely harsh. Many flocked to cities like London looking for jobs, leading to overcrowding and pushing down wages. Young children often worked to support their families in horrendous and dangerous places like mines and factories and as chimney sweeps. Many young girls became prostitutes. Numerous children ended up destitute, living on the streets and turning to crime just to survive. Charles Dickens was one of the first writers to draw attention to the flight of these children in Victorian England.

David Copperfield was Dicken’s eight novel and written in the middle of his writing career. It was first published as monthly serials from May 1849 – November 1850. Its tone marked a change from his earlier lighter novels. It is his first novel written in first person narrative and the most autobiographical of his work. In his preface to the 1837 edition, Dickens famously wrote:

Of all my books, I like this the best. It will be easily believed that I am a fond parent to every child of my fancy, and that no one can love a family as dearly as I love them. But like many fond parents, I have in my heart of hearts a favourite child. And his name is David Copperfield.

It was voted number 34 in a poll of the top 100 best-loved novels conducted by the BBC’s The Big Read (2003) and picked as number 16 in a list of the 100 greatest novels of all time published by the Observer (2003).

What is the story about?

An adult David Copperfield relates his life story from his birth to his successful career as a writer. A number of unforgettable characters entered, left and reentered his life, including Edward Murdstone (his stepfather and antagonist in the first part part of the story), James Steerforth (his charming but self–serving schoolmate), Wilkins Micawber (his poor but eternally optimistic friend) and Uriah Heep (his nemesis and the main antagonist in the second part of the story). Two strong female characters played key roles in different stages of his life, namely Mrs Pegotty (his faithful nurse) and Betsey Trotwood (his eccentric aunt and benefactor). Finally, there were his three loves, namely Little Em’ly (his childhood friend and first love), Dora Spenlow (his young and foolish first wife) and Agnes Wickfield (quintessential self–sacrificing “better angel” and David Copperfield’s second wife and mother of his children).

How is the book?

This is a complete and unabridged edition from Wordsworth Classics with an introduction and brief notes written by Adrienne Gavin of Canterbury Christ Church, University College (the notes are kind of useful but are not paginated correctly). This volume also contains the illustrations by Hablot K. Browne aka Phiz (1815 – 1882) from the original serialisation.

Dickens’ works are available online for free. But this edition, costing only S$3.32 net, bought during a free-delivery promotion, is attractively priced.

Finally …

The novel is very, very long but not too difficult to follow with its linear plot. It is a classic example of a bildungsroman (coming of age story). The novel features two of English literature’s most well known fictional characters, ie Uriah Heep, the obsequious and scheming antagonist, and Mr Micawber, whose name is today a noun for “one who is poor but lives in optimistic expectation of better fortune”: Merriam–Webster.

Et cetera

Dickens’ work has remained popular until today and often adapted. David Copperfield has been adapted for both big and small screens several times. A two–part BBC production (1999) is notable for Daniel Radcliffe’s first acting role (young David Copperfield) alongside a number of his future co–stars from the Harry Potter series, including Maggie Smith (Betsey Trotwood) and Imelda Staunton (Mrs Micawber).