In my earlier BBC costume drama posts (and there will be more), I failed to mention their best adaptation of the last five years, Bleak House, starring Gillian Anderson in a performance that should wipe Agent Scully permanently from the public mind. She is chilling in an entirely natural way as the wonderfully named Lady Dedlock. Sometimes Dickens goes too far with names, but this is not one of those cases. I would guess it was the success of Bleak House that led the same team, headed by superlative screenwriter Andrew Davies, to attempt Little Dorrit. But source material counts, and the baggier, duller book that is Little Dorrit leads to a baggier, duller miniseries.
Loving the miniseries Bleak House led me to actually read the book. Dickens has always been a bit of a black hole in my nineteenth-century reading list, after unhappy experiences with Great Expectations and David Copperfield. Oliver Twist I read in 6th grade and then starred in an all-school presentation of scenes from Oliver! Then I wore turquoise corduroy knickers and vests for the rest of the year. But a couple of years ago, I read Hard Times after seeing it referenced in a number of architecture books, and realized that it was funny, very funny. A stinging satire of the Industrial Revolution, in fact. No one had ever mentioned that Dickens was funny.
Bleak House, the book, also contains stinging satire — of the courts, of the landed gentry, of those who are too good for hard work. It is simultaneously a satire, a mystery, a coming-of-age novel, a romance, and plea for social reform. It is many books, and written in many voices. Who knew Dickens could draw such a sensitive, self-unknowing character as Esther Summerson and write as if in her diary? Who knew that fog could be another character, suffusing all the chapters in Chancery with darkness, slipperiness and gloom. The narrative shifts perspective, style, even person from chapter to chapter, in a totally modern way. It never gets boring or ridiculous as contemporaries Our Mutual Friend and Little Dorrit do. Reading those two books through, one can feel the serial wheels turning, as if Dickens was stretching things out. There are characters one doesn’t care about, lazy plotting, a lack of momentum. Watching Bleak House, I had no such reservations. Seeing the miniseries first eased me through some moments of literary confusion, and as it was perfectly cast, gave me visuals for the characters that I had no need to replace. All Dickens is not alike. And it is very different to read him at 36 than at 13.