West Tisbury author John Hough, Jr. will lead a discussion this Tuesday, June 21 at the West Tisbury Library on “Bleak House,” Charles Dickens’s novel of family intrigue and boondoggling in the legal profession in mid-nineteenth century England.
The discussion, from 7 to 8:30 pm, is next in the “Islanders Read the Classics” series, sponsored by the Martha’s Vineyard Times and the Martha’s Vineyard Library Association. The event is free and open to the public.
Though Dickens is best-known for “A Christmas Carol,” his 1843 novella that describes how noted skinflint Ebenezer Scrooge opened his heart at Christmas, Mr. Dickens was and is regarded as a social crusader whose novels led to changes in the English social order, including debt and child labor laws, and in the judicial system. The book has been the subject of film, radio, and tv projects for more than a century.
Bleak House stars Lady Dedlock, a 50-ish posh aristocrat with a secret. She bore an illegitimate daughter by a now-dead lover. Her daughter, Esther, thought to be deceased, reappears as a 20-year old ward to kindly Mr. Jarndyce whose home is called Bleak House, though it isn’t bleak at all. Bleakness appears in the form of murder, intrigue, and rascally lawyering related to Lady D’s secret and to several handsome pending inheritances. Subplots woven into the principal story tell the journey of other characters through the hidebound social order of nineteenth century England.
Charles Dickens “wrote long,” as publishers say. Bleak House runs 600 pages in hardcover, longer in paperback. Dickens wrote long not because he was paid by the word, but because he was paid by the installment. Many of his books, including Bleak House, appeared in monthly segments over a year or two, in stand-alone pamphlets which included ads and promotions. It was a sort of soap opera in print that allowed Dickens and his publisher to be paid continuously from the sales of prior instalments.
Pretty ingenuous marketing. The price of a complete book was around 31 shillings at the time, about $7.50 in 1840’s money. Dickens’ instalments each sold for one shilling (25 cents in 1840 currency value), affordable by a much bigger reader base and producing the same revenue over time as a complete book, with less financial risk.
“It’s mind-boggling,” Mr. Hough said of Dicken’s methodology. “Bleak House is Dickens’s best novel and he wrote it on the fly. He couldn’t go back and rewrite.”
“I chose Bleak House (for the Islanders Read the Classic series) because it is my favorite book,” Mr. Hough said. “Not my favorite Dickens book. My favorite book. I’ve read it five or six times and I’m rereading it for the discussion group. I know the plot and characters and how it turns out and it’s still gripping.
“I’m speaking as a writer. I’m not an academic. Lady Dedlock (the heroine) is my favorite character in all of literature, And there are as many or more characters in that novel than in other Dickens novels. They come from all stations of life, high-born and low-born, with eccentricities of all kinds in a central story that is tragic and very moving.
“And he uses two narrative voices,” Mr. Hough said. “One in first person and another in third person in the present tense. That feels so modern to me.” Mr. Hough added that Dickens’s storytelling and style contribute to his continuing popularity. “Dickens was a great storyteller and his works are still in print. He’s still being read. I bet Bunch of Grapes bookstore stocks his work.”
Indeed. The Vineyard Haven bookstore confirmed they offer five or six titles, including “A Christmas Carol,” “Bleak House,” “Great Expectations” and other Dickens’s novels, which are also available at Island libraries.
“I’m sure some people at the (June 21) discussion will have read Bleak House, others may not have read it,” Mr. Hough said. “But we’ll be talking a bit about “A Christmas Carol” and other works so it’s a chance to give him a try and to meet some of the greatest characters in English literature.”
John Hough, Jr. will discuss “Bleak House” by Charles Dickens on Tuesday, June 21 at 7 pm at The West Tisbury Library. For more information, visit westtisburylibrary.com.