Bleak House was a novel I didn’t really appreciate until after Andrew Davies’ TV mini-series.
Not that the series was perfect, but it cast a different light on the novel, and I read a criticism of it that brought out some other aspects.
Bleak House is famous for its opening, describing the court of Chancery in the 19th century (its influence is pretty obvious in Kafka’s Der Process):
London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.
Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ‘prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.
That was about the end of the fun for me, because we had it as a set book at A Level at my girls’ grammar school. Now one of the strengths of the novel is its use of multiple narrators, and one of those is an unbearable woman called Esther Summerson. She is supposed to be morally perfect and very sweet and kind and everybody loves her, and all this has to come over between the lines as she is the narrator of her bits of the story. I much prefer nasty or narrowminded narrators like the ones in Wuthering Heights. One thing Andrew Davies does is to remove her narration – pretty predictably. As soon as it isn’t Esther letting us know how wonderful she is, that problem is resolved. Another thing Davies does is to make Esther a bit aggressive, for instance towards Harold Skimpole. So she is no longer so wishy-washy. Not so faithful to the novel, but easier to swallow.
Another aspect I really hated at school was the way these young girls, Esther and Ada above all, were constantly kissing each other and being generally sweet and innocent. This seemed to me to have something to do with Dickens’ somewhat unhealthy attraction to young women. That doesn’t really come out in the TV version, thank goodness. The sad life of Jo, the crossing-sweeper boy (the 19th-c. equivalent of people who wash windscreens), was also pretty hard to take.
Davies of course likes his little idiosyncratic additions. A famous example is in his Pride and Prejudice, where Colin Firth as Mr Darcy plunges fully clothed into a weedy pond just before meeting Elizabeth Bennet at Pemberley, and he also sees her playing with a harlequin Great Dane through a window when he has just got out of his bath. Some of the things he added to Bleak House: a lot of the scenes are very dark, probably accurately, but not too good on a small screen; lots of characters have accents from other parts of the country, not just the Welsh and the man from Shropshire, but also Krook; the shifts from scene to scene are rapid and accompanied by a sound suggesting speed – possibly Davies was trying to convey the sense that the novel originally appeared in instalments – nothing can be put past him.
A curious feature of the series is the way Gillian Anderson plays Lady Dedlock. She is a brilliant choice, but in an interview she said that Lady Dedlock is over the top and rather overdramatizes everything. I’m not sure that that was Dickens’ intention.
There was some wonderful casting, and a lot of the novel came over very well. I know from relations that Mr Smallweed’s ‘Shake me up, Judy!’ became a popular phrase. Mr Guppy was my favourite. Mr Tulkinghorn was excellent too.
But what was particularly useful was an article by Philip Hensher I read (You’ll never catch me watching it), in which he was extremely critical of the adaptation and yet at the same time made it plain he would never watch it. Ridiculous though this was, Hensher obviously loves the novel and when he listed all the things he thought could not be televised, it made me realize the novel’s strengths.
…it seems very unlikely that this dramatisation adds to the quality of the greatest novel in the English language. For a start, I’ve heard that there is no fog to be seen anywhere, which seems rather like filming Moby Dick without the sea. …
And one hears that Mrs Pardiggle has been left out altogether. Frankly, a Bleak House that leaves out Mrs Pardiggle, and above all, the five- year-old Alfred Pardiggle, that most unwilling contributor to the Infant Bonds of Joy, is not a Bleak House I have any great desire to watch. Of course, he, and about a hundred others, contribute hardly anything to the plot, but what else can be left out? Prince Turveydrop? Volumnia Dedlock? The Military Bassoonist? Mr Chadband’s reflection, saying grace, that without “refreshment” “our legs would refuse to bear us, our knees would double up, our ankles would turn over”?
The main reason for not watching this dramatisation, or, in fact, any dramatisation of Bleak House ever again is that one knows one would sit there with gritted teeth waiting for some magnificently unnecessary moment, groaning with pain at its omission or suffering an only temporary relief. Does it, for instance, include that incomparable passage, Krook’s list of the names of Miss Flite’s 25 pet birds: “Hope, Joy, Youth, Peace, Rest, Life, Dust, Ashes, Waste, Want, Ruin, Despair, Madness, Death, Cunning, Folly, Words, Wigs, Rags, Sheepskin, Plunder, Precedent, Jargon, Gammon and Spinach?” It seems fairly unlikely; but, really, I just don’t want to know.
A lot of this is actually there, although Mrs Pardiggle isn’t. (Correction: Mrs Pardiggle is there).
It isn’t, moreover, just a question of leaving out wonderful little corners of plot, or irresistible characters. It’s really a matter of not doing a 10th of the things a book does. A book can switch into historical narration, dense description, authorial comment. It can, as Bleak House does, alternate between past tense and present tense – it’s an extraordinarily sinister moment when Richard suddenly disappears from Esther’s narrative, and appears in an anonymous present-tense section. A film can’t do any of this; it is stuck, forever, in the most banal of a novel’s modes, the narration of action and the transcription of dialogue.
Hensher is right, of course. The TV adaption is not Bleak House, nothing like it. It’s a completely new entity, and in many ways thinner than the book. But I did enjoy it, and it did reconcile me to the novel.