If You Read this Post, Benicio del Toro Will Make-out with You

the angel in the house

The Angel in the House, Coventry Patmore, 1851

When I was in middle school my guiding principle was become someone Benicio del Toro will fall in love with. Preteens have free time. Whenever I found myself with time to kill, I thought “What can I do today that will make me more fascinating so that when I meet Benicio he will think I’m the coolest, smartest, most beautiful woman he’s ever encountered.” I was pretty sure I’d meet him one day, but if not, anyone from the cast of Newsies would do. I guided myself by constantly considering how to hypothetically impress a future lover.

The concept of the wife as the moral center of the household existed long before the publication of Coventry Patmore’s long, narrative poem, from which the concept got its name. Basically, Victorians and those who went before them considered the world an evil place. The world of man, that is. Men had to contend with such corrupting stimuli as drink and gambling and commerce. To cleanse your male soul of corruption and save it from damnation required a pure and moral wife. She had to be innocent, which literally meant keeping her in the house, away from the terrible, debasing influence of . . . education, political power and business decisions. This concept is central to The Angel in the House, a very popular poem in its day and fodder for contemporary social scientists and historians and whatever you call a historical social scientists.

The narrator of The Angel in the House, is about as self-actualized as an 11 year-old. He decides to live a moral life in order to be deserving of his future wife. When you think about it, it’s pretty dumb to conceptualize moral behavior as that which earns you the love of a person you don’t even know. I’ve never met Benicio del Toro. I have no idea how to go about being the kind of person he’d want to marry. When I tried to become someone he’d find interesting, I had to determine for myself what he’d probably like. Really, I was trying to become the kind of adult that I would admire. I was striving for my own approval, but when you’re 11 “do this so you can be self-actualized” is not as motivating as “do this so you can make-out with Benicio del Toro one day.”

My middle school aspiration to please Benicio was silly, but a victimless crime. As of yet, I have not encountered Mr. del Toro and expected him to live up to my childhood fantasies of his worthiness. However, the Angel in the House concept did have victims: women who were expected to be angels, who couldn’t participate in society, because society was inherently corrupting and the whole damn thing would fall apart if women didn’t stay at home being childlike, but you know, childlike in a way that you can still have sex with.

The whole thing makes me want to barf. The poem is trash. Weak verse, nauseating theme. I refuse to dignify it with a full post. Here are some quotes with my annotations as I wrote them while reading. Unedited.

“she grows/more infantine, auroral, mild”   ewwww

“her simplicity” ugh

“there grew/More form and stateliness/Than heretofore between us two” 30 percent in and he’s gone on forever about how loving her makes him feel, but I don’t know anything about her, because she’s not a person, just an ideal for him to chase.

“Man must be pleased; but him to/please is woman’s pleasure;” gross

“With such a bright cheek’d chastity;” Stop. Not sleeping with people is not an accomplishment.

“Buried [her] face within my breast, Like a/pet fawn by hunters hurt.” So gross.

At one point he considers what would happen to him if she died and says “Small household troubles fall’n to me,/As, ‘What time would I dine to-day?” My annotations: Fantasy about wife dying, whining about how he’ll have to figure out when to eat.

You might like The Angel in the House if:

  • you are a Men’s Rights Activist

You might not like The Angel in the House if:

  • even a small part of your brain is capable of logical thought

Penultimate thoughts: Pure trash. This is a concept I think about and talk about and encounter in novels, so I figured I should read the poem. It’s just as insipid as I expected it to be.

Final thoughts: Benicio del Toro has some of the most lovable cheekbones. Mmhm, he sure does. But he’s just a dude, another human who deserves the chance to be fallible. Just as women deserved the chance to encounter the world and be fallible. I’ll probably never know if Benicio would like the woman I’ve become, but I think my preteen self would like her. Shit, I’ve got two cats and two X-Files posters. I get paid to talk to other humans about literature. Tweenage me would love adult me!

North and South, or Love and Capitalism, or Obedience and Hell No, Not Gonna

North and south (2)

North and South, Elizabeth Gaskell, 1855

If you read my recent review of Ruth, you already know that Elizabeth Gaskell has no time for correct, moral Victorian thinking. True to form, in North and South, Gaskell depicts characters who refuse to conform. Rascally rebels with hearts of gold. They do the right thing by their own moral standards. Yay! Fun! No, not fun. Social scorn, loss of status, risk to self and family. But, fun for the reader!

Can we talk for a minute about Elizabeth Gaskell’s treatment within the canon? Do you read the introductions to classic novels? I’ll be honest, I usually read the first couple of paragraphs and skim the rest. Some fool named Alan Sutton wrote these sentences for his introduction to the Pocket Classics edition of Lois the Witch and Other Stories “Mrs. Gaskell (1810-1865) was first and foremost a woman of her time, a lady of Victorian expansiveness. She was not a brilliant, nor a passionate novelist like George Eliot or Charlotte Bronte, but an intelligent, compassionate and enthusiastic woman, whose life centered around her family.” Barf. Barf. Barf. Just barfed in my mouth a little. Excuse me Alan Sutton, but did you really create a dichotomy between women with families and brilliant authors? Really? Bronte and Eliot are passionate, but Gaskell is only enthusiastic? Probably because she was spending all her emotions on her children and husband. Ugh. Pardon me, I need to pause to roll my eyes several times.

Elizabeth Gaskell published under the name Mrs. Gaskell. Bronte and Eliot published under male pseudonyms. Bronte and Eliot did not have conventional families. Does it not seem like this is why Mr. Sutton chooses to relegate Gaskell to some lower tier of writer? Dickens had about 27 children, but judging by his grand position in the canon, had plenty of brilliance and passion left over for his novels. I could write pages about the utter worthlessness of those two sentences. Instead I will say this: I have now read all of Gaskell’s major works and all but one by her contemporary, George Eliot. Middlemarch by Eliot is perhaps my favorite Victorian novel, but I generally prefer Gaskell to Eliot. Yeah, I said it. In Ruth and North and South Gaskell bravely and PASSIONATELY skewers conventional Victorian morality. Meanwhile, Eliot wastes pages upon page of Adam Bede and Silas Marner in affectionate, but incredibly patronizing depictions of charming, rural, simple, superstitious country folk. Her condescending tone rubs my fur the wrong way and is frankly tiresome. I really never thought I would find a Victorian author I preferred to Eliot, but I did and it’s Elizabeth Gaskell.

That being said, Sally Shuttleworth wrote an introduction to the Oxford World’s Classics edition of North and South that gives Gaskell her due. Shuttleworth examines the complexity of the gender, class, and community tensions depicted in the book. It’s a great introduction written by a person capable of seeing past the “Mrs” in Mrs. Gaskell. Shuttleworth is worth a million Suttons. Honestly, if you are interested in the 1,000 merits of Elizabeth Gaskell or North and South, you should pick up a copy and read Shuttleworth’s intro. It’s better than anything that I am about to write.

Let’s get back to business. The heroine of North and South is Margaret Hale. The daughter of a clergyman, Margaret is used to being about the highest ranking person in her tiny town in the south of England. Her father, the novel’s first rebel, resigns from his job, because he objects to some point of doctrine that the Church of England insists he must preach. His little family cannot understand why Mr. Hale must take this stand against the Church, but he feels he must. So, the Hales relocate from the green and sunny South to the smoky, industrial northern town of Milton. Margaret hates it. In fact, she’s a bit haughty and repulsed by the squalid environment and filthy, unmannered masses. Accustomed to deferential treatment, Margaret is frightened by the loud, boisterous crowds in Milton. She actually gets catcalled, “You may well smile, my lass; many a one would smile to have such a bonny face.” Yep, telling scared women to smile is at least as old as the 1850s.

Despite her initial revulsion, Margaret’s heart warms to the workers. She makes friends with a particular family and sees that their wages do not meet their basic needs. Margaret starts feeling very socialist and pro-union when she sees sick and starving Milton families. This feeling creates complications for M, because she must interact socially with the mill owner, Mr. Thornton. Sparks fly. Thornton is a self-made capitalist fatcat. Margaret is an uppity wannabe aristocrat who scorns trade. They really dislike each other, in a classic romcom way where they can’t stop thinking about each other and despite their better judgment feel certain tingles in certain unspeakable regions.

I really love Margaret, partially because she speaks angrily to capitalists at dinner parties just like me. The romance with Thornton is imperfect to me. He’s extra manly, somewhat scary, and uncompassionate. But, the heart wants what it wants. The romance is extra complicated, because Margaret sides with the workers who go on strike, wanting better wages from Thornton. As you can imagine, this drives Thornton crazy, in a sexy way.

You might like North and South if:

  • you loath capitalism.
  • you ruin social events by loudly loathing capitalism.
  • you secretly want to stop loathing capitalism and marry a petrochemical engineer. (Is that a type of engineer?)

You might not like North and South if:

  • you love Ayn Rand.

Final Thoughts: I loved it. The more I think about it, the more I love it. All hail Margaret Hale! Speak truth to power, Victorian heroines, speak truth to power.

The Best-loved Book of the Victorian Era


The Heir of Redclyffe, Charlotte M. Yonge, 1853

Get ready for the single most popular book of the Victorian Period (according to something I read, which I did not fact check, because this is a blog not a Ph.D. thesis. If any universities would like to award me a Ph.D. for this project, I will find some evidence to support that claim.) Everyone and their mom read this book. Girls, boys, men, women, cats, dogs and canaries all read this book, but you don’t have to, because I am going to tell you everything you need to know.

First of all the characters:

Guy Morville—the hero

  • He’s the main guy, a Byronic hero, but sweeter.
  • Floppy chestnut hair.
  • Somewhat effeminate, non-threatening build.
  • Heir to Redclyffe, a dark gothic castle perched on a peak overlooking rugged moors and stormy seas.
  • Guy’s father married the daughter of a traveling musician, much to the dismay of Guy’s grandfather. The father died in a tragic horse riding accident before the grandfather could forgive him.
  • Guy lives in constant fear of turning out like his impetuous father. He subjects himself to an absurd amount of self-discipline. Seriously, any time he enjoys something, he starts thinking “Oh shit, I’m having fun. My dad liked to have fun, and then he died. So, I better not ever have any fun.”
  • Loves animals.
  • Willing to risk his own safety for the wellbeing of any person or animal.

Phillip Morville—the antagonist

  • Half of my annotations in the books are just the word “douche” next to things that Phillip says.
  • Guy’s cousin and next-in-line to be Heir of Redclyffe.
  • Resents Guy, because he wants to be the heir.
  • Generally thinks the worst of everyone.
  • Pompous, conceited, hypocritical ass with a chip on his shoulder the size of Gibraltar.
  • Stands around at parties saying super pleasant stuff like “She’s very Irish” in a scornful tone whenever anyone says something nice about another human.
  • Involved in the military.
  • Part of the gentility, but doesn’t have enough money to marry.
  • Just about the least likable character imaginable.
  • Tall, handsome, manly.

The Edmonstone Family—there are 7,000 of them, but I’ll only mention the ones who matter. They are all somewhat related to Guy and Phillip.


  • The eldest.
  • No discernible personality, except obedience to authority, I guess.


  • Yes, that’s her name.
  • Loves flowers.
  • That’s basically it. (Women don’t need personalities, y’all.) She’s sweet and innocent and all that a female character in a Victorian novel is supposed to be.


  • Only son.
  • Crippled.
  • Funny.
  • The only one in the entire Edmonstone family with the good sense to see that Guy rules and Phillip drools.

Mother and Father

  • Also appear in the novel.

The action of the novel chiefly consists of Phillip trolling Guy and ruining his life. Phillip constantly belittles Guy. He’s a serpent hissing evil thoughts into the ears of the Edmonstones, trying to turn them against Guy. Phillip portrays him as a dangerous, temperamental person, a time-bomb whose horrible inherited traits bubble under the surface waiting to boil over. Meanwhile, Guy is doing his damned best and being sweet to everyone, but those silly Edmonstones have too much respect for Phillip to see that he’s the horrible, dangerous one.

Phillip begins to worry that Laura will fall in love with Guy, because Guy is smart and nice to her, and she watches him from the window while he does sexual things like bale hay with his shirt off (to make a soft seat for a lady to sit on. He’s a gentleman, not a farmer!). Phillip’s resentment toward Guy builds, because Phillip doesn’t have enough income to marry Laura while Guy can marry whenever he wishes, because he has that craggy castle. Phillip secretly proposes to Laura and makes her promise not to tell. Covertly getting engaged to the eldest daughter is the single worst thing a young man can do to a family, so Phillip is being a giant dirtbag by Victorian standards. His romance with Laura is revolting. He’s very paternalistic and moralizing, constantly telling her what to do as if he’s some moral authority, when he’s actually persuading her to violate her parents’ trust. Laura is essentially robbed of the joys of youth, because she’s overwhelmed by her guilty secret. Phillip sucks.

Guy and Amabelle fall in love and much to everyone’s (except Phillip’s) joy, get engaged. Shortly thereafter Guy helps a shady relative out with his gambling debts. Phillip witnesses this and starts spreading rumors that Guy has been gambling. Guy, having promised his uncle that he would never speak about their arrangement, refuses to explain the truth to the Edmonstones. Like so many frustrating literary characters, he does the honorable thing even when it’s the thing that causes the most pain to the best people and helps the evil people get exactly what they wanted. The Edmonstones disown Guy and the engagement is broken off. As you can imagine, Phillip is extra smug about this even though his secret love affair with Laura continues.

Eventually, after much soul-searching and doing nice things for people, Guy manages to be such a magical angel person that the Edmonstones forgive him. He marries Amabelle and they go gallivanting about Europe, being happy and young on mountaintops in Italy and so on. During one excursion silly little Amabelle tries to reach a flower on a steep slope and almost falls to her death. Of course, our dashing hero saves her.

The honeymooners bump into Phillip, who is still a worthless twit. Guy mentions that they are altering their plans to go to some Italian city due to reports of terrible infectious disease. Wannabe alfa-male Phillip just can’t let Guy be right about anything. So, he insists on going there out of sheer obstinacy. The more Amy and Guy plead with him not to go, the more he has to prove.

Phillip goes to Deathtown and despite his profound egotism falls gravely ill. Guy, being the best person in the known world, follows Phillip to Deathtown and patiently nurses him back to health. Selfless Christian that he is, Guy risks his health to save the succubus who has spent his whole life trying to screw Guy over. The power of Guy’s goodness converts Phillip. He realizes that Guy has been really swell this whole time and that he, Phillip, has been truly repugnant. After finally gaining the approval of a male authority, Guy is free to succumb to the illness that Phillip gave him. Yep, he dies. Phillip lives. Twist! Phillip has been the Heir of Redclyffe all along.

Everyone in the world is sad. Amabelle has a baby. She never remarries, because she just can’t.

And that’s the most popular book of the Victorian Era.

You might like The Heir of Redclyffe if:

  • you’re a teenager with great reading comprehension skills.
  • you want to access your sentimental teenager side.

You might not like The Heir of Redclyffe if:

  • you just don’t have time for long novels of insignificant literary merit.

Final thoughts:

It’s not terrible. Revision: it’s not terribly written. There are some good lines in there. The book is a bit trite, overly sentimental and long, but it’s ok. Like most bestsellers, it’s fun, but lacks substance.

The Reading Gloves – Private View


What? Yes. This person created knitted gloves to represent characters from classic literature. I am stunned. Amazing. Jealous.

Originally posted on tomofholland:

Last night saw the private view of my exhibition of The Reading Gloves at Prick Your Finger.

We had so much fun that I completely forgot to take any pictures of all the wonderful people that came for a little nosy, have a beer, or a ginger biscuit baked by my partner.

I’m very happy with the show and it has more or less turned out as I had in mind. Dorian Gray left his gloves on the console table underneath his portrait:

Anna Karenina left blood drops all over the place:

And last but not least, the illicit lovers, Lady Chatterley and Mellors. They just about managed to brush away the chicken feathers before lying down together:

View original

A Victorian Defense of Unwed Mothers


Ruth, Elizabeth Gaskell, 1953

 Today’s blog post comes with a real life embarrassing story!

I am with my mother and her friend enjoying the wild wonder of our cabin in West Virginia. Watching birds, looking at trees, tubing down the beautiful Cacapon River. Short of taking a trip to Wales, this is the perfect spot to get a picture for Ruth by Elizabeth Gaskell.

Poor Ruth, an unwed mother abandoned by her lover, tries to kill herself by jumping into a Welsh river. To get the shot, I need to position myself on the opposite bank from the photographer, so he can get both me and the river in the frame. So, I put my Victorian dress and shawl in my backpack and, against Mom’s protests that the current is too strong, start the arduous process of wading across the shallow part of our rocky little river.


Arriving safely on the other side, I scramble around the banks until I get as close to both the rapids and the photographer as possible. I put the dress and shawl on over my summer clothes and start trying to look forlorn and suicidal. A few minutes later, I am pretty confident I have something usable. Time to take some risk, try something different. “What else should I do?” I shout across the river to my Mom and her friend.

“Bend your knees!  Look at the water!” Mom shouts back, her voice just barely reaching me over the rushing river.


Ever ready to oblige, I bend down as if poised to jump. As I stare intently into the churning current, I feel my left foot start to slip on the wet, algae-coated rock. “No! Don’t slip. You can get your balance back,” I tell myself, but my foot slides down the back of the rock into the water and my body inevitably follows. In my desperate attempt to stay grounded, I have fallen in a pike position, butt nestled in a me-sized cradle of rock, hands and feet poking out of the water.



Hauling myself out, I truly feel the discomfort of sopping wet Victorian garb, including many feet of knitted shawl.


Seeing my genuinely forlorn expression, my mom tells her friend to keep taking pictures.


And that is the story of how I fell in the river in Victorian clothing.

Ruth, the eponymous anti-heroine, also survived her aquatic misadventure. Her benefactor, Thurston, finds her and takes her away from the river before she can fulfill her plan. He and his sister continue to care for Ruth. They help her to see her baby as her chance for redemption and grace. They even convince her to join them in their provincial home, disguised as a widow.

Gaskell chose to write Thurston as a dissenting minister with a physical disability. She characterizes him a man of strong religious and moral conviction, an outsider whose perspective enables him to recognize the folly of conventional thinking. He convinces his sister that while lying is sinful, shutting an erring human out from all human sympathy and (Christian?) kindness is the greater evil.

Writing at a time when women lost “respectability” by even mentioning the name of a “fallen woman,” when unwed mothers were turned out of their family homes to languish and die in poorhouses, Gaskell skewers prejudiced behavior towards unwed mothers. She shows poor Ruth as an orphaned young woman working in harsh conditions as a seamstress, with no one to guide her into adulthood. No one to explain what female behavior was acceptable and what lead to ruin. As Gaskell states “she was too young when her mother died to have received any cautions or words of advice concerning the subject of a woman’s life.”

Lonely, she accepts the friendship of a handsome young gentleman, Mr. Bellingham. Desperate for a glimpse of the familiar spot where she was once so happy, she agrees to accompany him to her old family home. Ruth’s employer happens to see her and Mr. Bellingham together and casts Ruth out with absolutely no one to turn to but…Mr. Bellingham.

(Sometimes I have a glass of wine while I write posts. This post is long, so right about here I had two.)

Innocent little Ruth ends up living with Bellingham as a fallen woman, because what the hell else was she supposed to do at that point? They go on vacation in Wales, where they won’t be recognized. Eventually, B’s mother shows up and does what any good mother would do: convinces her son to abandon his now pregnant lover. Now, Bellingham has a life of luxury and hedonism ahead of him and is free to marry any damn Miss Darcy he happens to run across (but he stays in love with Ruth forever, because she’s perfect). Meanwhile, Ruth is doomed to live as an impoverished pariah with no hope of providing a life worth living to her unborn child. Because, misogyny. This is when she starts to think that the bottom of the river might be the best place for her.

Fortunately for Ruth, kindhearted, farsighted, wonderful Thurston prevents her suicide and slowly persuades her that God will forgive her and she can still lead a meaningful life full of whatever kind of approval it is that Christians seek.

Ruth lives for her child, and loves him with the same love as married women. Cuz love doesn’t know what documents are down at the courthouse, y’all.

Later in the novel, a friend of Ruth’s finds out Ruth’s secret. She is tempted to tell, because she is jealous of the attention her suitor pays to beautiful Ruth. But, she realizes that she had advantages in life that Ruth didn’t have and the same thing could have easily happened to her if their positions were reversed. That’s right, a Victorian character checked her privilege. Compassion triumphed over jealousy, because Elizabeth Gaskell is a queen.

Ruth becomes celebrated in her tiny town for bravely tending to very sick patients, with no concern for her own safety from infection. Wait, I was just going to tell you the ending, but no! You should read it! The ending is fucked up, though. You will cry.

You might like Ruth if:

  • a human heart beats inside your chest.
  • you love a tale of redemption.
  • you like Tyrion Lannister, but wish he didn’t have to exist in a miserable, sadistic world. Seriously, Thurston reminds me of Tyrion, if Tyrion wasn’t subjected to a world of shit.
  • you love social criticism.

You might not like Ruth if:

  • you hate unwed mothers.

Final thoughts:

Ultimately, this book is a vindication of individual morality and forgiveness over hive-mind prejudice and hate. Yes! The kind of book that makes my heart contract with sympathy, empathy and envy. Sympathy for women, because it takes two to make an unwed mother, but only one pays the price. Sympathy because the price was so disproportionately harsh. Empathy with the author who saw a deep, searing flaw in society cause unnecessary suffering and sought to express the iniquity in the form of a novel. Envy because she did it so well and I will never write such a book as Ruth. This book makes me want to SWF Elizabeth Gaskell. I want to go back in time and become her. This book. Sometimes I just rub the pages on my cheek; that’s how much affection I have for this book. Totally worth falling in a river for. I love you, Ruth.

Barkleby the Scrivener!


Bartleby the Scrivener, Herman Melville, 1853

Simone is tired of taking pictures of me and wanted to take pictures of her dog instead. So cute! He made an almost perfect scrivener, except he had a tendency to look happy, which is quite out of character. These pictures make me nostalgic for “Wishbone.”

I am one full year behind in my blogging. Meaning, I am posting about books that I read a year ago. Look, y’all, I’m a reader. I love to read. I have to read. I do it everyday. Writing posts takes time though, which I have none of during the school year. Taking pictures takes time too. I am trying to catch up. I reread Bartleby the Scrivener to prepare to write this. It’s a 90 page novella, so rereading didn’t take up too much time. I had some pretty poignant thoughts about this one, and I wanted to go over it again so I could express them to you adequately.

The story is set in a law office and narrated by the principle lawyer. He sets about to tell the tale of a very odd law copyist, or scrivener, that he employed, providing ample descriptions of his other scriveners for contrast. Compared to his colleagues Bartleby is something of a non-entity. While they exhibit signs of indigestion, drunkenness or ill-temper, Bartleby quietly does his copying, rarely ever behaving like a living organism with human needs.


The trouble begins when Bartleby refuses to do certain tasks. He answers requests from his employer with his signature phrase “I prefer not to,” and declines any further explanation of his behavior. The narrator is clearly befuddled by Bartleby’s behavior and does not know how to proceed. Employees are supposed to obey their employers, but there’s something so pallidly, passively helpless about Bartleby. He’s like an under-pigmented, bottom dwelling fish, incapable of thriving on land.

As the story proceeds, Bartleby prefers not to complete an increasing number of tasks. He remains in his workplace, but does no work. The narrator struggles to know what to do. He knows what is expected of him as an employer. He should throw Bartleby out on the street, but every time he determines to do this, a feeling of sympathy and concern swells up in him. What will become of this man who is so ill-suited to the world?

As Bartleby is such a blank, mysterious character, many interpretations can apply to the story. This is my blog, so I’ll tell you mine. Not quite every person has a brain capable of the functions required to live successfully and independently in human society. Not quite every person can adapt their behavior and personality to the demands of the world around them. Bartleby cannot, or prefers not to, take the actions necessary to function as an employed adult. The narrator grapples with the expectations of his role as an employer and his moral feelings as a compassionate person. The sad reality he faces is that the world does not provide a place for people like Bartleby.

You can see this story as commentary on mental illness, capitalism, individuality, free will or anything else you see in it. Trying not to give away the whole story, I do see a comment from Melville on the tendency of institutions to degrade human morality. Sad, sad, sad, but true. The story is bleak, but I found the narrator’s internal debate over how to treat Bartleby very touching.

Hold on while I Find some Quotes for You:

Now, the utterly unsrumised appearance of Bartleby, tenanting my law-chambers of a Sunday morning, with his cadaverously gentelmanly nonchallance, yet withal firm and self-possessed, had such a strange effect upon me, that incontinently I slunk away from my own door, and did as desired.

I believe that this wise and blessed frame of mind would have continued with me, had it not been for the unsolicited and uncharitable remarks obtruded upon me by professional friends who visited the rooms. But thus it often is, that the constant friction of illiberal minds wears out at last eh best resolves of the more generous.

You might like Bartleby the Scrivener if:

  • you hate Ayn Rand (and, really, what reasonable person doesn’t?)
  • you care about the misfits in this world, not the lovable, ragtag misfits, but the unlovables who need our care
  • you care about Trancendentalism

You might not like Bartleby the Scrivener if:

  • you have no interest in hearing about the habits and habitat of mid 19th century law copyists

Final Thoughts:

I like it. This is not a book for those craving adventure, but one for those who love a tale about the lack of social justice entailed in a capitalist system. Does that describe you? Give it a read.

My Heart Beats Fast for Bleak House


Bleak House, Charles Dickens, 1853

I am so excited about Bleak House, my heart is racing as I type. This book has EVERYTHING.

Within the pages of Bleak House you will find:

  • an orphan of mysterious parentage
  • spontaneous combustion!
  • an elegant and fashionable ice queen with a deadly secret
  • forbidden romance
  • young love struggling to survive in a harsh, perplexing world
  • a touchingly sweet marriage between a flawed couple who understand and forgive each other’s mistakes
  • Charles Dickens’ only female narrator
  • biting criticism of Britain’s justice system
  • a kind, giving female protagonist who takes care of others, but still stands up for herself! (Esther Summerson is the best person ever.)
  • a badass detective
  • so many other elements that I won’t list here, because this book is extraordinarily complex and you should just read it and find out for yourself.

Bleak House is Dickens at his absolute best.  It’s long and there are a lot of characters, which can be challenging for readers, but challenges are good for you and this book is worth it.


Dickens alternates between a cold and distant third person narrator and Esther’s first person narration. The third person sections are eerie, mysterious and compelling. The first person bits are warm, lovable and endearing.

When I was younger, I often wondered why authors choose to write about the dark, painful aspects of life and human behavior. Outside of children’s literature, it is hard to find a book that celebrates joy and kindness. Bleak House does this! Bam! Found one! Charles Dickens pulled it off. Esther Summerson and her guardian John Jarndyce are so caring and kind, your heart will swell up with appreciation for their goodness. All my reading has taught me to expect trouble whenever possible. If there’s a chance for cruelty, pain or disaster, most authors will take it. Because drama. Dickens is such a capable author, he manages to create a tense, exciting book in which characters faced with tough choices choose compassion, forgiveness, understanding. Isn’t that wonderful? Isn’t that in a way more honest than most novels? Yes, there are people in the world who take advantage of others, but in my daily life I think I encounter more people who try their best to be sweet. I hope you do too. And if you don’t, you can escape into the sweet, sweet refuge of Bleak House.

This book is not as beloved in America as it is over the pond. According to a BBC pole, Brits rank it as the 23rd best book ever. The only Charles Dickens novel ahead of it is Great Expectations. I understand why the book is more appealing to Brits than Americans. The primary antagonist in the novel is the Court of Chancery, a division of the English court system that had jurisdiction over a lot of stuff that I don’t understand as I am not a lawyer. As well as I can gather from Bleak House and wikipedia, they ruled on cases involving inheritance. I think it’s a lot more specific than that, but the case in the book involves inheritance. Anyway Dickens’ criticism is that the lawmen conspired make money by deliberating endlessly and never passing a verdict. As he portrays it, estates are consumed in lawyer’s fees before a verdict is reached. Super corrupt and unjust. The problem is that endless judicial deliberation does not make for a fascinating read. But, it’s worth it! I promise you! Read Bleak House!


Please enjoy these quotes:

There were two classes of charitable people: one, the people who did a little and made a great deal of noise; the other, the people who did a great deal and made no noise at all.

The one great principle of the English law is, to make business for itself.

You might like Bleak House if you enjoy:

  • social criticism, particularly of the justice system
  • complex novels with mystery
  • those rare books that celebrate the kindness and compassion that humans are capable of

You might not like Bleak House if:

  • you just can’t with long Victorian novels

Final Thoughts:

Listen, this book is a bit of a slog, I will admit that, but the rewards are so rich. It’s like a long hike to the top of a tall peak. Some parts are beautiful. Some parts are boring. But, when get to the top and see the stunning panorama around you, you feel ecstatic, clear-headed, invigorated; you are reminded that life can be supremely and surprisingly beautiful. Your feet hurt, but you get to keep that memory and that point of view with you.

I am not joking, even a little, when I say that in times of trouble I think about Bleak House to help me fall asleep. When nothing is right in your world, you can remember Esther Summerson and rest easy.

Bleak House is a masterpiece.

Also, Lady Dedlock is a fascinating character. If you are sure you’ll never read the book, watch at least part of the BBC miniseries. Gillian Anderson plays her and she’s more perfect than ever. She’ll suck your heart out with her cold blue eyes.