Oooooh, I really don’t know just where to begin describing this book – it is such a treat to read and has such a wealth of characters and is so beautifully and cleverly worked out. The main theme is the Chancery court case of ‘Jarndyce and Jarndyce’ which is to determine, in the absence of a Will, who the family fortune belongs to. All the main characters are linked to this case, either by being a Jarndyce relation or friend, or by having something to do with the court proceedings. There are also several mysteries running through the book, and many suspicious and duplicitous characters, and many social statements such as the awful conditions that the poor people existed in. There are also several love stories with couples falling in love and getting married, or being separated. All the characters are described so wonderfully and in such detail, and each page is such a delight – just one page of a Charles Dickens book contains as much information and description as several pages in a more modern book.

There is so much to write about each character as they all stand up in their own right. Ones that particularly stood out in my mind (in no particular order) were Mrs Jellyby – the descriptions of her household were partly entertaining as Dickens is really sarcastic about the contradiction of her caring so much for, and being so industrious on behalf of, Africa and yet totally neglecting her own children and house, and partly quite distressing as she really causes upset and unhappiness to her family. Mr Skimpole was a difficult character to judge as I couldn’t decide if he was just naive, or actually very conniving and selfish – he seems to feel the rest of the world owes him a living and he really infuriated me. I loved Mr Jarndyce as he seemed such a genuinely lovely and selfless man, always helping others and being kind. Mr Snagsby was also another genuinely good character, I adored him for being so kind to poor Jo. Detective Bucket was a very interesting person – he seemed to be involved in so many things and to have so much energy and determination, yet he took time to be kind to Jo, he was sympathetic to Grindley when he was ill, and later was so considerate of Sir Leicester, and he was also non-judgemental towards Esther when the truth was revealed to him. Lady Dedlock was a fascinating character as well, so icy cool and calm and composed, and yet the reader discovers more about her life as the book progresses, and we realise that her haughty and aloof manner is quite different to her real feelings inside. I also liked Mr George’s friends Mr & Mrs Bagnet and their lovely family life together, he always deferring to her opinion and yet thinking he is concealing this from her, and the way she patiently puts up with the inadequately cooked birthday lunch in her honour because it meant so much to her husband and children who prepared it.

Dickens’ books are often humorous, but in a very cutting and sarcastic way – I loved Mrs Pardiggle’s proud boasting of her children’s donations of their pocket money to various causes, and the children’s unenthusiasm with this idea and the faces they pull. The Smallweed family is another example of cutting humour, I found their sections really comical with the Grandfather throwing a cushion at the Grandmother and both of them ending up thoroughly dishevelled, and him requiring constant ‘shaking up’ by Judy.

I find it fascinating how widely different the characters are – there are caring people such as Mr Jarndyce and Esther who will go to any lengths to help anybody, then there are Mrs Jellyby and Mr Skimpole who are indifferent rather than cruel, but who still cause a great deal of upset to others, then there are really quite nasty selfish characters that are only out for their own ends such as Mr Tulkinghorn and Mr Smallweed and Madame Hortense. The different social worlds that his characters inhabit are also beautifully contrasted and brought together – Lady Dedlock who lives in such luxury and who has several houses actually ends up asking for help from poor Jo who is considered the lowest of the low. Esther who now lives quite a well-to-do life, (although she always remembers her background), is often brought into contact with Jenny the bricklayer’s wife who lives a fairly desperate existence and endures beatings by her husband. Detective Bucket seems to move throughout the different classes quite easily, being as at ease with Sir Leicester Dedlock as he is with Jo.

The names of his characters are pure genius as well, such as Mr Turveydrop, Mrs Pardiggle, Mrs Jellyby, etc – I absolutely adore these names.

It amazes me how clever the plot is and how intricately and subtly almost everyone is connected – I feel it is like a jigsaw that needs piecing together. For example, Charley is introduced to Esther and Jarndynce, she is the daughter of the debt-collector who harassed their friend Mr Skimpole, she works for the Smallweed family who have Mr George as one of their clients, Mr George helps Grindley when he is ill and Grindley lives in the same building as Charley. Or Mr Snagsby and his wife are having dinner with the Chadblands who seem unimportant characters and yet Mrs Chadbland turns out to be Esther’s old family maid Rachel. Or the character of Nemo who seems an anonymous person hiding his true identity from everyone, and yet actually so many people are connected to him such as Mr George being his friend, Mr Snagsby employing him, Mr Tulkinghorn discovering a mystery relating to him, and Jo knowing him for his kindness. It is all so beautifully designed with subtle clues and threads running throughout, and loose ends appearing that are later cleverly tied up – it really is a masterpiece of storytelling.

And yet his books can be so desperately sad as well, his beautiful and detailed descriptions of funny or happy events or amusing characters can be used to describe such sorrow and cruelty that it brings me to tears – poor Jo, it is heartbreaking what a desperate condition he exists in and how truly awful it is that he has nowhere to turn and no-one to help him, he is just moved on from place to place like a stray dog. I can hardly believe a child could be treated like that. Dickens certainly has the power to make you think about things, and I admire the way he attempts to highlight wrongs and bring about social change in his books.

There are so many more things I want to comment upon, but all the mysteries are so cleverly threaded together and there are surprising twists and turns, that to do so would give away several storylines. But it is always a joy to read a Charles Dickens book, they are so rich in detail and characters and are so beautifully and cleverly written – complete genius.

Comment 4th June 2011:

I have just read this fantastic book again and it has confirmed to me that it is one of my favourite Charles Dickens’ books. Each time I read a Dickens’ book I am impressed afresh with the characters and the depth of their descriptions, and often in re-reading one of his books I find myself seeing new things about the characters.

I found myself puzzling about Esther’s godmother on this re-reading; I can’t decide if she was a good or a bad person. On the good side, she took Esther in and brought her up safely and by doing this she saved Esther’s mother’s reputation, sacrificing her own marriage along the way. On the bad side, she didn’t show Esther any affection and said many cruel things to her, making her feel guilty for being born and that she was unwanted and undeserving of life (it is only Esther’s personality that prevents this treatment from destroying her, I feel), and she pretended to Esther’s mother that her child had died at birth (but is this just the only way she can protect Esther’s mother?). I am undecided about this character and found on this reading that I couldn’t make up my mind about her. Perhaps, like most people, she is a mix of both good and bad intentions but it seems to me that her intentions are extreme; good (sacrificing her own marriage to bring up Esther) and bad (lying to Esther’s mother and being verbally cruel to Esther). A typically complex, and brilliantly written, Dickens’ character.