It’s a difficult book to summarise. Narrated by Esther it follows the story of a vast cast of characters all connected by Jarndyce vs Jarndyce, a long running case in the convoluted Courts of Chancery which rule on issues of equity such as wills. It’s effectively a Victorian soap or drama, with numerous storylines. When you consider that Dickens often published his novels in serial, they effectively were. With all the plots and characters you need your wits about you as the stories interweave with each other, and eventually all come together.
It’s a book which contains all the things you would expect of Dickens. As a writer his great strengths always lay in an ability to paint these extremely atmospheric scenes, and weave engaging tales which also prick at the conscience of the reader. In this case the issues of choice are the ridiculousness of the Courts of Chancery, societies views on “fallen women” and their children, though there is also the commentary on poverty as you would expect in Dickens. Of these things he is the undeniable master.
The characterisation is possibly the weakest element. There is a lack of depth to the characters compared to the other great novelists including many of Dickens contemporaries. Mr Jarndyce for example, despite being one of the central characters, is never more then the generous benefactor. I never got a feel for him as a person. Esther though sweet and likeable is not one of the great heroines, she is too angelic and passive. The most interesting character is without a doubt Lady Dedlock. She is one of the few characters we get a real feel for and insight into. Sir Dedlock is also quite interesting. Despite being a paragon of the establishment, he turns against societal expectations when he learns the truth about Lady Dedlock which was very sweet. Perhaps if there had been less characters we would have got a better feel for the main characters. Some characters could certainly have been dispensed with. Harold Skimpole is an awful irritating character who serves no clear purpose. He occasionally comes out with statements which I suspect are intended to represent the views of society but beyond this he has no definable role. There are other equally irritating characters, I had a thorough disliking of all characters connected with the legal profession which is of course the point, but Harold Skimpole is without a doubt the worst and most superfluous. Yet for all that even occasionally weak characterisation by Dickens is still far better then most writers, and his strengths more then cancel out these weaknesses.
Would I recommend it? Most definitely. It is an enjoyable and engaging read. It draws you in surprisingly quickly for a book of its length. I saw most of the twists and reveals coming but it didn’t lessen my enjoyment of it. Even if your not a Dickens fan it’s worth giving it a shot…and that’s coming from another non Dickens fan. It’s even made me consider giving another of his books ago at some point.