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Audiobook Classics: Bleak House

Updated on February 3, 2014

"Serial" - The Wikipedia Definition

Bleak House by Charles Dickens, was published in 20 monthly installments between March 1852 and September 1853. Wikipedia defines: In literature, a serial is a publishing format by which a single large work, most often a work of narrative fiction, is presented in contiguous (typically chronological) installments—also known as numbers, parts, or fascicles—either issued as separate publications or appearing in sequential issues of a single periodical publication.[1]More generally, serial is applied in library and information science to materials "in any medium issued under the same title in a succession of discrete parts, usually numbered (or dated) and appearing at regular or irregular intervals with no predetermined conclusion."[2]

In other words, when Dickens leaves us with a cliffhanger at the end of a chapter, we would of had to wait a whole week for the next installment!

Charles Dickens: 19th Century Rock Star

I don't know how I got this idea in my head, but I expected 19th century literature to be stiff exposition, dense, and loaded with allegory. What I soon learned was, above all, Charles Dickens and his contemporaries in France and Russia were master storytellers, and each of their novels true "page turners". I also believe that the success of the authors - who were, unlike many authors and artists of all kinds, alive to enjoy the fruits of their labor - was in part determined by the cultural economics, or the nature of the "mass entertainment business" during the mid-late 19th century.

Dickens career, though he only lived to be 58, provides perhaps the most complete view of the life of the successful man of letters. He was a true literary star, attaining financial success as a writer and speaker that few can reasonably expect in today's fiction-writing market. He wrote for the masses, who could not afford or otherwise did not have access to other forms of entertainment like the theater, the opera, the symphony and so forth.

"Most of Dickens's major novels were first written in monthly or weekly instalments [sic] in journals such as Master Humphrey's Clock and Household Words, later reprinted in book form. These instalments [sic] made the stories cheap, accessible and the series of regular cliff-hangers made each new episode widely anticipated. When The Old Curiosity Shop was being serialized, American fans even waited at the docks in New York, shouting out to the crew of an incoming ship, 'Is little Nell dead?' Part of Dickens's great talent was to incorporate this episodic writing style but still end up with a coherent novel at the end." 1

Dickens stories were so popular that "When new episodes of his novels were released to the public, 'Masses of the illiterate poor chipped inha'pennies to have each new monthly episode read to them, opening up and inspiring a new class of readers.” 2

Dickens was not only aware of the popularity of his work; he used the reactions of his audience to each installment to inform the narrative moving forward:

“... serial publication of narrative fiction...became the dominant Victorian mode for novel publication [and] allowed Dickens to evaluate his audience's reaction, and he often modified his plot and character development based on such feedback."3

Dickens with Tools of The Trade

Charles Dickens (and we thought Macklemore was fashion forward...)
Charles Dickens (and we thought Macklemore was fashion forward...) | Source

The Price of Fame

Some have claimed that Dickens talent as an author was diminished as a result of his commercial sensibilities. Many of his contemporaries complained that his characters lacked depth, their interactions overly sentimental.

“Henry James denied him a premier position, calling him, ‘the greatest of superficial novelists’”.4

Sour grapes, I say. Any artist with Dickens’ commercial success is going to be the target of potshots from all corners. As I’ve pointed out in previous essays, an author’s greatest strength can at the same time to be an author’s greatest weakness, and the subject of Dickens’ sentimentality and shallow characterizations and perfect examples. I can see why a literary critic like James may take issue with Dickens, especially when compared to the more in-depth character profiles offered up by Flaubert and Dostoevsky, who also published popular serial novels. However to accuse Dickens of being overly sentimental or uninterested in character development would be to miss the point, because it is precisely the fashion in which Dickens handles character development, for example, that keeps the narrative moving week to week, month to month. What would his audience think if he devoted one or two installments to describing Esther Summerson’s upbringing, without any suspense or action woven into the story? Dickens is a storytelling machine, and if he gets his audience to come back for the next installment, and if that audience is somehow moved by it on some level, he has accomplished his objective.

The First Installment of Bleak House

The cover of the first serial, 1852
The cover of the first serial, 1852 | Source

Bleak House and the Dueling Narrators

As with most of Dickens’ work, Bleak House touches on the many types of social injustice, but the primary hook is the arcane, corrupt and self-sustaining legal system in 19th century England. One wouldn’t think that the morose, helpless and seemingly insolvable conundrum of Jarndyce v Jarndyce in the hands of the Chancery court would make for a particularly riveting story. So, in order to deliver his indictment of the system in an easily digestible fashion, he weaves it into what I can only characterize as a Victorian detective thriller, seasoned with love interests, disease, death by spontaneous combustion (!), drugs, and the usual child abuse we associate with Dickens. To help all of these elements co-exist, he tells the story from two different points of view: an omniscient commentator with a wonderful satiric voice and the angelic, innocent model of manners, Esther Summerson.

It is clear that these two narrators play distinct roles in Bleak House, and it is Simon Vance's masterful manipulation of these roles in the audio dimension that make the novel so beautifully balanced and complete. For Dickens to effectively convey his scathing criticism of the British judiciary system, along with his satiric potshots at government ineptitude and other social and cultural anachronisms, he must employ his insightful, opinionated and fearless commentator, to whom Simon Vance assigns a powerful voice dripping with irony and a little bit of old-fashioned snarkiness.

The chapters featuring the third person commentator and social critic each set the stage for the plot to follow, and it is this part of the story that carries the mysterious elements of the plot, and contains many of the scenes where Mr. Vance has to stretch his range across a wide variety of entertaining characters.

A Destiny Fulfilled

Why do I get the feeling that Dickens prose came through him effortlessly, as if he were channeling a great narrative spirit who chose him as a herald of tears and laughter, of conscience and responsibility toward his fellow man, of a good story, well told. I prefer to think of Dickens this way, as opposed to a writer so possessed by his own popularity and success that he worked himself to death in 58 years. Like The Bard, and several other truly gifted artists, I like to think Dickens was put on this earth for the purpose and destiny that he fulfilled, and that he had no choice in it. And for that I think we can all be glad.


Simon Vance

Thankfully Simon looks nothing like Charles Dickens.
Thankfully Simon looks nothing like Charles Dickens.

About Simon Vance

LIstening to Simon Vance read Bleak House is is a mind-blowing experience: how one guy can somehow embody not only the voices but the personalities of over 30 characters in one book is, quite honestly, awesome.

Just a minute. You've never heard of Simon Vance? Born in the fifties in Brighton, UK, Mr. Vance has narrated or co-narrated over 450 titles. He is the proud winner of 10 Audie awards and 43 Earphone awards, which he keeps in a mini-storage locker in Concord, CA, his home for the past 25+ years. If you listen to audiobooks a half dozen times a year, chances are you've heard Simon Vance. And if you like Dickens you've come to the right place. Mr. Vance has narrated every single one of them! (www.simonvance.com)

One Voice Actor - 58 Characters (!!)

  • Esther Summerson

  • Richard Carstone

  • Ada Clare

  • John Jarndyce.

  • Harold Skimpole

  • Lawrence Boythorn.

  • Sir Leicester Dedlock

  • Honoria, Lady Dedlock.

  • Mr. Tulkinghorn

  • Mr. Snagsby.

  • Miss Flite

  • Mr. William Guppy.

  • Inspector Bucket

  • Mr. George

  • Caddy Jellyby.

  • Krook

  • Jo

  • Allan Woodcourt

  • Grandfather Smallweed

  • Mr. Vholes

  • Conversation Kenge

  • Mr. Gridley.

  • Nemo (Latin for "nobody")

  • Mrs. Snagsby

  • Guster

  • Neckett

  • Charley

  • Tom

  • Emma

  • Mrs. Jellyby

  • Mr. Jellyby

  • Peepy Jellyby

  • Prince Turveydrop

  • Old Mr. Turveydrop

  • Jenny

  • Rosa

  • Hortense

  • Mrs. Rouncewell

  • Mr. Robert Rouncewell

  • Watt Rouncewell

  • Volumnia

  • Miss Barbary

  • Mrs. Rachael Chadband

  • Mr. Chadband

  • Mrs. Smallweed

  • Young Mr. (Bartholemew) Smallweed

  • Judy Smallweed

  • Tony Jobling

  • Mrs. Guppy

  • Phil Squod

  • Matthew Bagnet

  • Mrs. Bagnet

  • Woolwich

  • Quebec

  • Malta

  • Mrs. Woodcourt

  • Mrs. Pardiggle

  • Arethusa Skimpole

  • Laura Skimpole

  • Kitty Skimpole

  • Mrs. Skimpole

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      Ibidii 3 years ago

      I had switched over to audio format for my books as a legally blind person. I wanted to read but had a difficult time as a teen when I became legally blind. I am grateful for audio format. I have seen two video versions of Bleak House, 2005 and 1985 and loved them both. The audio should be awesome and I look forward to it as I have missed so many classics. I am catching up on them now. Great review!