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September 8, 2020 | Montreal Dickens Fellowship

Montreal Dickens Fellowship
for the best of times

September 20, 2020

Our agenda for today’s meeting:

Introduction to “Bleak House”
Dickens’s life while writing the novel


1) I will be sending out a phoning/mailing list of all our participants.

2) Thank-you for your membership fees of $20.00. I accept only cash or personal cheques. All profits will be donated to the “Tiny Tim” fund of the Montreal Children’s Hospital. Last June, I did manage to send them our usual contribution of $ 500.00, making our total donations almost $5,000.00 since 2012. I will be sending out personal acknowledgements for your dues this week or next.

3) At each meeting, I will present new figurines and new books. As always, Louise is our librarian. Our library has over 100 books by and about Dickens. You can find these on our web site if you are a member. I live in N.D.G. and if you want to borrow books, we can arrange it.

4) Prepare your own refreshments for a relaxing and enjoyable time. Although our break is mid way, please feel free to come and go quietly, as necessary. Please turn off phones or noisy devices. If there is background noise, please mute yourself.

5) Since I cannot give out red folders this year, use your own folders. I have attached in various e-mails, information pertaining to our book:

…..a. Fellowship Folder Cover
…..b. Table of Contents
…..c. 2020/2021 ZOOM schedule
…..d. Study questions for chapters 1-10
…..e. London and Bleak House maps
…..f. Topics for discussion and volunteer presentations
…..g. Tips on speaking and making presentations

I will be resending these attachments in PDF form this week, so everyone can open them. (as per Lynn’s suggestion)

6) Louise and Judith E. will be taking turns doing our chapter summaries. Technically you do not have to read the book to participate but I encourage everyone to give it a try. It is well worth the effort.

7) Judith E. has invited us to the Jane Austen Society of North America’s (JASNA) monthly ZOOM meetings (also hosted by Norm). Her e-mail address is for further information.

8) Andrew Macdougall will be moderating a study program at M.C.L.L. on Dickens, Sept 15-Oct 27.

Dear friends.
This Fall I am moderating an online study group on The Novels of Charles Dickens. It will mainly consist of me performing readings from eight of his novels. It is a seven-week course on Zoom from Tuesday 15th September to Tuesday 27th October at 11:45.There is a cost, $100 I believe, but that allows you to register for other courses as well. Instructions on how to register are below – if you get into difficulties just give me a call: 514 937 5527.

9) A Big Big thank you to Sylvia for being our webmaster!!! We are so lucky to have her!!! Check out news, photos, our novel, Cole’s Notes, etc. on our web site:

10) The London Dickens Fellowship conference in July was cancelled. The Dickens Museum was closed for months, but reopened recently with visits by appointment. They are having an exhibit of Dickens portraits, which have been colourized. The Toronto fellowship activities have been cancelled until further notice.

11) Next month, Oct.20, I will be discussing a time line for the U.K. and for the world for the years 1851-1853. We will listen to our chapter summaries (1-10), discuss our study questions and watch an hour of the 2005 BBC Masterpiece Theatre version of “Bleak House” (with Gillian Anderson). I also have copies of the 1985 version with Dianna Rigg.

Introduction to Bleak House

I have loved reading Dickens since I discovered an antique set in a second hand furniture store when I was 14 years old.
Bleak House has long been one of my very favourite books.

Why Dickens?

Dickens has been a companion to me for most of my life. He makes me laugh out loud and he makes me cry. He is an escape for me in troubled times. I love his language, wit and satire. I love his passion for reform. He was not a politician but his writing affected the course of history. I love feeling satisfied at the end of his books. He ties up all the loose ends and does not leave me up in the air as so many modern novels do. Dickens was a renaissance man, having his finger in every pie of his age. His books reflect this with their many diverse topics. I learn so much about so many things. I love history and, because he was so observant, I really feel that I have had a realistic glimpse at the Victorian age.

I find that when I am reading a Dickens novel, I cannot put it down. I am hooked early on and held by the suspense. I think this comes from the serialized form his works were offered in. He needed to keep his readers interested month to month. I think that is why his characters are so memorable. As one of our members pointed out, they are so familiar even today. It was once said by a woman long ago, that she never met a character in her current life that she hadn’t first met in the pages of Dickens. His characters have universal traits so they seem fresh even today.

Although Dickens words are long and his plots are complex, his themes are clear and his heroes and villains are larger than life and easy to love or hate. Dickens himself had a very complex life and personality and it is so interesting to see himself woven into his books. You can trace characters out of his own life in his novels. It offers a chance to look for clues to Dickens himself. Aside from his own mysterious insertions, his books often offer a mystery or secret, often even a murder and there is no shortage of suspense. Nor is there a shortage of romance. Although Dickens’s relationships and opinions about women (His mother, young sister-in-law, his wife, his mistress) were controversial and his depictions of women often criticized, I think there is a lot of variety in his characterizations of women, ranging from pathetic, bland, one dimensional, innocent maidens to tough, wise matrons, like Betsy Trotwood or Peggoty or villains like Mrs. Bumble or complex women like Miss Havisham or Lady Deadlock.

His descriptions are amazing and so detailed. Indeed, some places or attributes, like the fog in “Bleak House”, the rookeries in “Oliver Twist” or the marshes in “Great Expectations” take on a character of their own.

Why Bleak House?

Bleak House features all of the above and more! Although it is a very large and very complex novel, its plots, characters, themes and social messages are interwoven masterfully. It is very large in scope in every way and truly has something for everyone!

It is Dickens’s 9th novel, written in 20 monthly instalments (32 pages, 2 illustration, and loads of advertising) at a cost of one shilling per issue and published by Bradbury and Evans. His last novel to be illustrated by “Phiz”(Hablot Knight Brown), it was written March 1852-September 1853, between “David Copperfield” and “Hard Times”, at the height of Dickens’s popularity. He was a superstar in his own time and perhaps he felt his fame gave him a certain power and in fact responsibility to effect change in the world around him. “Bleak House” is very reflective of Dickens’s world. It is a biting satire on the social ills of his day and a scathing commentary on the British legal system, especially the courts of equity, dealing in estates, wills, deeds, etc.

In “Bleak House”, Dickens takes on not only the law, but also poverty, poor sanitation, overcrowded cemeteries, smallpox, opium addiction, colonial policy, “telegraphic’ philanthropy, and the uselessness of antiquated aristocracy. It reflects Dickens’s disdain for the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace and even explores scientific discoveries of the day. It has a dinosaur, primordial ooze, madness, religious buffoons and someone with a daughter named “Quebec”.

The novel has several romantic themes, a murder mystery and one of the very first detectives in English literature. It has great female and male characters of all ages and backgrounds, the purist of the pure and the slimiest of the slimy. There are even characters representing Punch and Judy in human form and a case of spontaneous combustion! While not full of humour like ‘Pickwick Papers “or “Nicholas Nickleby”, it has its funny moments and ridiculous people.

“Bleak House” is told by two voices, the heroine “Esther” and a third person, and objective narrator. It is the only novel of Dickens that is told in a woman’s voice. This device helps “break up” this very long read. Esther’s narrative serves as a thread to tie it all together.

On the whole, it is quite a dark and very intense novel, a real rollercoaster of a read! As you read it, I’d like to make a few suggestions.
1) Keep your eyes open for the amazing, repetitive symbols and imagery, prevalent throughout. Examples are: fog, paper, birds, architecture and dwellings.
2) Make a list of all the characters as you encounter them (Timmy’s suggestion). There are so very many characters; this may help you keep track of them all.


Dickens’s Life while writing “Bleak House” (1852-1853)

Dickens’s writing of “David Copperfield” seems to have been a turning point for him. It was largely autobiographical (though not known at the time) and he seems to have become darker and more introspective in his writing since then. His writing became filled more and more with guilty and shameful secrets from the past, which greatly affect the characters.

In 1851, Dickens father died on the operating table while undergoing surgery for kidney stones (possibly associated with Gonorrhoea). Dickens described it as a bloody slaughterhouse. Several weeks later, his infant daughter Dora died of a respiratory illness. Dickens’s wife Kate was away at the time,
at a health ”spa” recovering from depression.

At the time of writing “Bleak House”, Dickens had 9 living children: Charlie: 14
Mamie: 13
Kate: 12
Walter: 10
Francis: 7
Alfred: 6
Sydney: 4
Henry: 2
Edward: born during the serialization of “Bleak House”

It is said that young as his children were, he already saw signs in them of shiftlessness and irresponsibility. “Bleak House” is very much a warning about discipline, self-help and not relying on anyone or anything else (e.g. By inheritance) for your survival.

Dickens’s family moved into Tavistock House as he was writing “Bleak House” It was a big move and he (being a very obsessive individual who liked having control over everything) would have been very involved in decorating, building, financial decisions, etc.

Dickens did not live in a vacuum, but was surrounded by a very large extended family that asked a lot of him. He had also become founder and editor of “Household Words”, a magazine with topical articles and literary contributions. He also ran “Urania House” (a house for fallen women) with his patroness Angela Burdett Coutts. He visited it daily and looked after every detail, down to the women’s uniforms, their selections and their discipline.

He also gave large dinner parties, grand birthday celebrations for his kids, performed magic shows and toured the country directing and acting in amateur theatricals. He sat on the boards of various committees and wrote many articles and letters aside from “Bleak House”. He was troubled by a chronic renal complaint and needed bed rest for a few weeks. He vacationed in Broadstairs, Boulogne and Italy and had many friends (one new one was Wilkie Collins).

Next meeting, I will talk about England in 1851-1853. I will relate specific historical events; social problems and people Dickens knew which influenced his writing of the book, citing specific characters and themes. I will also give a World time line of events just to put the novel within a historical perspective.

Thank you again Norm! Thanks to everyone for joining us! I look forward to seeing you all next time!