AUDIO: Bleak House by Charles Dickens

Review published on May 11, 2018.

I couldn’t resist trying this, despite the running length of 43 hours. This was a story I remember vaguely from a BBC adaptation, a very complex one, so I hoped I’d cope. Miriam Margoyles is an actor I knew I’d be able to enjoy listening to for long periods. She is also, as is evidenced here, a very talented audio narrator, one who (as she admits herself) here has to voice dozens of distinct characters and keep each sounding consistent throughout, from children to adolescents, young men and women, the poor and the gentry, old gentlemen and eccentric old ladies.

And boy, does she pull it off! At times I forgot I was listening to a women, she is almost age- and gender-less to the ear. Very impressive. And it made this a very enjoyable listen.

The story is incredibly complex and layered. I’ll admit that I’ve since borrowed a York Notes from the library so I can revisit some chapters to follow the storylines. There are so many names coming thick and fast that this makes Bleak House a challenge as an audiobook.

I would have liked Margoyles’ introduction at the end of the book rather than the start, as an afterword or note on the edition – her comments on Esther made it hard to judge her objectively, though I found I had a very different opinion of her to the narrator. The few snippets and facts about recording an audiobook made for interesting listening.

With so many characters and stories, the simplest description of this is a legal one – two wards of the court and their companion await a long-overdue ruling on a will. The law is almost a character in the book, its workings grindingly slow and painful, catching people up on its teeth as it turns.

Esther, I found very sympathetic, for the most part, but very much a creature of her time, a demure “little woman” putting others before herself and almost too good. Ada is her “dear one” (I grew tired of this phrase) and seems very young, especially with regards to loving her distant cousin, Richard, who is vulnerable to vacillation and youthful passions.

There are large numbers of secondary characters, some with storylines that tangentially intersect with that of Ada, Richard and Esther. Some stuck in my mind (Jo is as pathetic as I found Little Nell), others I had to look up after their chapters.

A dark work, with the usual Dickens commentary (some explicit in the narration) on poverty and social reform. He takes good swipes at the legal system, makes it look pretty ridiculous.

There are deaths aplenty, abuses and neglect, sad situations – it feels like Victorian London in all its underworld glory.

This was a challenge to concentrate on, for this running length, though I found Esther’s chapters easier to follow than Dickens’. As Margoyles says in her introduction, a second read of the text on paper might be beneficial.

This won’t ever become my favourite Dickens, nor is it the most memorable for either heroes or villains (there are many murky ‘grey’ people here) but it’s definitely worth the effort to become more familiar with.

Katy Noyes 4/5

Bleak House by Charles Dickens
Audible Studios B079LPF5YN audiobook Apr 2018

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