New York Times: A Very Modern Dickens
Posted at 3:57 PM (PST) on Thursday, January 19, 2006

A Very Modern Dickens, Still Haunting but Lively
New York Times
January 20, 2006

"Bleak House" is too good to be homework.

Unfortunately, it is such a fixture on required reading lists that many people forget to read Dickens's novel for fun. J. Hillis Miller's introduction in the old Penguin edition doesn't help: "The novel calls attention to its own procedures and confesses to its own rhetoric, not only for example, in the onomastic system of metaphorical names already discussed but also in the insistent metaphors of the style throughout." (And he gets the girl?)

The six-part television adaptation beginning on PBS this Sunday is a faithful, respectful rendition of the book that does not in the least feel like fodder for a seminar on semiotics at Yale. The series, made for the BBC, is as pleasurable as its tale is grim. It would probably even please Nabokov, who in a college lecture explained: "All we have to do when reading 'Bleak House' is to relax and let our spines take over. Although we read with our minds, the seat of artistic delight is between the shoulder blades."

The story starts at a spine-tingling pace: a young woman cloaked in gray is swept up in a swirl of rain, fog and mud and sped to London by horse-drawn carriage. It is a romantic journey to the most unromantic of places, the chancery courts. The orphan heroine, Esther Summerson, has been summoned by a stranger, John Jarndyce, to serve at Bleak House as a companion to Ada Clare, who, along with her cousin Richard Carstone, is a ward of the court pending a resolution of the infamous lawsuit Jarndyce v. Jarndyce.

Almost all the bad deeds and ill fortune in "Bleak House" trace back to an inheritance bogged down for generations in never-ending details and dispute. ("There are several wills and fragments of wills," one lawyer says. "All of them different and all of them conflicting.") The novel is perhaps most famous as a denunciation of the British courts - Dickens worked briefly as a law office clerk and court reporter, the blacking factory of his legal experience. But "Bleak House" contains almost every other imaginable Dickensian theme and convoluted plot twist, as well as some of the author's more delicious secondary characters.

The BBC adaptation does justice to Mrs. Jellyby (Liza Tarbuck), a full-throated philanthropist who neglects her appearance, her many children and her ill-managed household to devote herself to numerous charitable causes, including her "Africa project." Harold Skimpole (Nathaniel Parker), a houseguest of John Jarndyce, insists he is an innocent who cares nothing about money but somehow manages to sponge off others to cover his expenses and pay off his debts.

Gillian Anderson, best known in the role of Special Agent Dana Scully on "The X-Files," grew gaunt to play Lady Dedlock, and is almost unrecognizable, but quite compelling in the role. She has mysterious ties to the case and to Esther. Too self-centered and autocratic to command sympathy, she is instead sinister. (She can fire a maid like nobody' s business.) Anna Maxwell Martin is remarkable as Esther, bringing an understated charm to a character whom some critics have found too worthy to be persuasive or interesting. Charles Dance is an elegantly malevolent Mr. Tulkinghorn, the lawyer who manipulates the case - and its plaintiffs - to his own ends.

The adaptation was written by Andrew Davies, who seems intent on bringing the entire English literary canon to television: he also wrote the scripts for "Middlemarch" and "Pride and Prejudice," as well as a TV version of "Vanity Fair." (He sometimes dabbles in the instant classics: the screenplay for "Bridget Jones's Diary.") And Mr. Davies once again serves both the author and the television audience well, letting the story unfold at a lively pace without stinting on Dickens's eccentric minor characters or his scalding social commentary.

This is not the first time the BBC has tackled "Bleak House." Diana Rigg played Lady Dedlock in a 1985 version that was a bit more somber than this one. At that time, the executive producer, Jonathan Powell, said in interviews that its creators had stressed the parallels between Victorian England and the government of Margaret Thatcher - not a flattering likeness.

It's hard to detect any subliminal messages about Tony Blair's Cool Britannia in this "Bleak House." Mostly it is an overt, loving tribute to Dickens and one of his greatest novels. And it proves Nabokov wrong. In his lecture, the writer insisted that if readers did not experience a "shiver" of pleasure in reading "Bleak House," "then let us give up the whole thing and concentrate on our comics, our videos, our books-of-the-week."

This video might make even Nabokov's spine tingle a little.