4 thoughts on “Victorian Reviews of Bleak House: Observations and Reflections

  1. Pingback: English B1918 S18: The Victorian Novel – Renata Kobetts Miller, Ph.D.

  2. DGK

    What I appreciated most from the anonymous contemporary criticism of Dickens’ “Bleak House” published in the Spectator Review, September 1853, was the insistence on holding artists to some standard. Although the idea of artistry was hardly developed, the reviewer provided a rigorous enough analysis of Dickens’ work to glance an image, like a photo negative, of the ideal an artist ought always to strive for. Principally at fault was Dickens’ use of caricature. The characters of BH were flat, and often lacking motivation for their actions, beyond the prescript of their employment/dress. This criticism suggests that a novelist can and ought to bring humanity to the page, and to rely on stereotypes for a laugh is lazy. Parallel to this idea was an overarching plot that was overlaid upon, rather than integrated with the characters. The critic does not reject the option of a central conflict that affects all the principle characters; only that Dickens’ conceit – the waste, mismanagement, and vanity of the Chancery – and method – to provoke and joke – limited his ability to bring the story to life. Whether these faults are accurate or not, there is one point the Spectator and I can unthinkingly agree, reading Bleak House is a great way to “amuse the idle hours.”


  3. Nilima Islam

    Nilima Islam

    Source: The Literary Examiner.

    The author of this review (who is left unnamed) was very impressed by Dickens’s Bleak House. He claims that the novel will keep Dickens remembered forever; he specifically states, “Mr. Dickens has a large public in the present, and we do not hesitate to declare our belief that he will have one hardly less large in the future” (p.644). As discussed in class, the reviewer was spot on.

    The review goes on to say that the general public’s reaction to Bleak House went several ways. There were some people that realized Dickens wasn’t completely faultless, making the author more human to them, and there were others who were claiming that they would have written the book differently if they were the authors. In class, Brenda brought to my attention that the public probably knew about Dickens’s affair with Ellen Ternan (his “faults”), and the reviewer chose not to expand on this issue—it was well-known, but very hushed up.

    It acknowledges that the novel had some major flaws, one of which was the plot. Since the story was written in parts, people believed that the finished-product didn’t feel “wholesome.” On this, the reviewer quickly defends Dickens by saying, “But let us in the present instance with no less justice remark, that the habit of reading a story in parts is equally apt to prevent many readers from noticing how thoroughly a work so presented to them is calculated from perusal as a whole” (p.644). In other words, for the reviewer, every event leads to another event, and none of the events are isolated incidents. If there happens to be anything irrelevant to the plot, it still maintains itself because it is a portrayal of real life. Another issue that the reviewer brings up is that there are too many characters within the novel. Nonetheless, every character is linked together, making them all connected and unified. Each character also “personifies some main idea, which are ever after found universally applicable” (p.644). On this, I agree with him wholeheartedly. Finally, the reviewer had an issue with Dickens making his protagonist reveal her own good qualities, which made her tone artificial at times. He then goes on to say that this can be ignored because Esther Summerson still has managed to catch so much of the public’s heart.

    Overall, the review was very positive. It struck me so much, though however, that the reviewer was willing to ignore many of the issues he found with Bleak House (unlike the Spectator review), and how much the public was willing to ignore some of the issues they found with Dickens as a man, simply because he was Charles Dickens. This speaks volumes on the author’s popularity and influence.

    Works Cited:
    “Bleak House. By Charles Dickens. Bradbury and Evans.” Review of Bleak House, by Charles Dickens. The Literary Examiner, 8 October 1853, pp. 643-645.


  4. Kevaughn Hunter

    “Bleak House is, even more than any of its predecessors, chargeable with not simply faults, but absolute want of construction.”

    Most interesting about this review or deconstruction is its fundamental disagreement with the author’s intention. Dickens’s push for satire and Chancery criticism seems clear if only from the opening pages; yet that focus (and its ramifications) is specifically what the reviewer chastises.

    To that effect there comes a whole section devoted to Tulkinghorn and his apparent lack of character or want other than the destruction of anyone in his path; or in other words, a representation of the Chancery. “He is a capital instance of an old trick of Mr Dickens, by which the supposed tendencies and influences of a trade or profession are made incarnate in a man, and not only is “the dyer’s hand subdued to what it works in,” but the dyer is altogether eliminated, and his powers of motion, his shape, speech, and bodily functions, are translated into the dye-tub.”

    Knowing the Spectator’s political background colours the criticism in potentially interesting ways as well. The reviewer’s suggestion that Esther’s story is unbelievable because “such a girl would not write her own memoirs,” is notable. It might say something for the reviewer’s particular distaste for Tulkinghorn’s character and Dickens’s focus on the failing rule of law and Chancery (potentially implying political or cultural basis for the objection). It’s definitely interesting, reading contemporary criticism of such a well known and praised author through his lens.

    Brimley, George. “Dickens’s Bleak House.” Review of Bleak House. The Spectator, 24 Sept. 1853, pp. 15–17.

    Accessed from:


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