Over at The American Conservative, Alan Jacobs takes up the subject of reading Dickens and notes

Bleak House has everything: a cast of characters not discernibly less comprehensive than that of Copperfield; a great mystery story at its heart, featuring one of the first detectives in English fiction, Inspector Bucket; a brilliant and vicious satire on the law; coverage of the whole range of English society, from its height (Sir Leicester Dedlock) to its depths (Jo the crossing-sweeper),

Having just finished the novel myself, I can only agree.

As commentators point out, one of the problematic characters — perhaps the problematic character — is that of Harold Skimpole. A man of few sympathetic characteristics, especially to modern readers. He is a type of Romantic, existing at the sufferance of others, of self-conciously no mind for money, and one who presumes the world to be a gay place. Yet. His carelessness in mannered speech is like a squid’s ink. The person hides behind it, and we rarely see him; perhaps in his home, and again in Bucket’s sharp warning. A character like this raises the awareness of the writing, that the person referred to has his own unspoken history. The verbal display thus hides us from his “real” self.

And Skimpole’s  caricatured Romanticism creates a tension with  Dickens’ own pastoral inclinations (e.g. George’s last scene, turning his back on the Manchester mills to head to the country; or for that matter the sugary description of the New Bleak House in Yorkshire, Esther’s new home). I would think that it is the tug of Romanticism in Dickens that prevents him from seeing or developing Skimpole, the arch Romantic.

Skimpole’s false, Romantic innocence was also the subject of an interesting essay at First Things (1993).


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