Dickens and Life Today: “Bleak House”

(BBC 8 part tv series starring Diana Rigg and Denholm Elliott)

It’s been a while…

Funny how little London had changed between the late 1500s and the mid 1800s. It was still a smelly, grimy, ugly place in which road sweeps helped anyone with money across the horse-muddy streets. The buildings were sordid and run-down and multitudinous rats roamed freely. (Dore’s sordid pictures of London did not lie.)

So much for whatever Romantic notions derived from reading Jane Austen’s country estate novels. Definitely a more realistic picture with thousands of poor, orphans, illegitimate children, serious illnesses, hard labor, slavery, and pathetic deaths. Sort of like our modern world, no?

The view of courts, law, and justice are extremely negative–where trials drag on and fortunes are milked by the legal system. Indeed, every one in this book seems to have an angle or agenda–again something very realistic and modern. Information which may have been kept secret (for reasons of privacy) becomes sought after for the money it can bring the criminal or the power over others it can bring the unscrupulous. (Information as dross, currency)  Again, all very modern like e-spying or online bullying. The worst of human beings never changes–a truth that Dickens revisited many times in his books.

And always the ones who are strange, crazy, or eccentric like Crook or Miss Flite. Have we not known our share of crazies and kooks in our own time and lives?
Bleak House which is actually a haven for rebuilding lives is much sunnier than miserable London where corruption flourishes, no more so than via the legal system and court–supposedly marks of civilization and fairness. Dickens points out that life ain’t fair and many unfortunates cannot help or avoid their fates because of the contexts they are born into. Those who are corrupt use others freely, pushing the envelopes of slavery and abuse without blushing. But he also presents people who are kind and good, who try to ameliorate the tragic and hopeless situations of others. Dickens’ picture of humanity and human nature is, amazingly and aesthetically, a balanced one.

I am halfway through this outstanding production which oozes with mystery, suspense, and atmosphere. Long before tv and iPads, readers once found entire, accurate worlds in Dickens’ deservedly-famous novels. He keeps the reader interested and fascinated with his many interlinked plots and subplots. He was a master storyteller.

It is a shame he has fallen off the modern cultural radar. As much as Shakespeare and other truly great writers, he showed us who we really, sadly, are and where we could stand serious improvement as a species.

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