Dickens always has a cast of dozens, at least, but I've never had quite so difficult a time trying to figure out how they all fit together. That is mostly due to the way that this book is structured, which is quite unlike the other Dickens I've read. Mostly, the characters are in constellations around the main character, but the focus stays on one person. In this case, it is the plot that takes centre stage, and so we are taking a meandering walk through so many different people, which, given previous Dickens experience, I wasn't quite prepared for.
And for the first hundred pages or so, I was convinced that Ada and Lady Dedlock were the same person, and that we were moving back and forth in time - that eventually Ada grew up and married Lord Dedlock, and we would find out why. This is a problem with the narration. In the chapters with Esther and Ada, Esther always referred to Ada as "my darling," "my dear," or "my pet." The first few Lady Dedlock chapters are narrated by a servant who keeps calling her the exact same things - so I thought we still had Esther as a narrator, and that that meant Ada had later married.
But no. These are completely different characters, and there is no trick with timelines here. (The other confusion I had was when a character changed names between pages - on going back and reading it over a few times, I think he was being introduced under a false name, but the switch is so sudden and unexplained that it took me a bit of time to figure it out.) Once these confusions were out of the way, and the story started to draw together, the book became much more interesting.
Bleak House is the story of an ill-fated lawsuit, which taints the lives of all it touches. It has been the property of the lawyers for so long, and has consumed the lives of those who wait for a judgement that may never come. John Jarndyce, who essentially adopts three young people, including the overly modest Esther, the beautiful and kind young Ada, and the somewhat flighty Richard, has long eschewed knowing anything about the case. Two of his wards, however, have interests in the case, and for one, it becomes a source of obsession, that someday he shall be rich. This distracts him from doing anything with his life, and sinks him deeper and deeper into dire straits, and alienates him from those who love him.
Meanwhile, Esther has some shadows over her early life, and comes, over the course of the book, to find out her origins. And the whiff of old scandals is never exhausted - it can always be resurrected to wreck someone's life anew.
The book also takes aim at charity in Victorian England, with those who do charity professionally under Dickens' merciless microscope. They do very little good, and much ill, and those who just help out quietly are shown to be much better.
Oh yes, and there is a case of spontaneous combustion.
As always, a huge cast, and if they don't jump out at me quite as strongly as do many of the David Copperfield characters, there are certainly some memorable ones, most of them unpleasant. I could have strangled Mr. Skimpole.
Bleak House is a very different kind of Dickens, more plot-oriented, with much to say about the ills of Victorian society. I can't say I liked it quite as much as the ones I've already come to love, but it is more cohesive, eventually, and well worth the read.
Read as part of the BBC Big Read