1853 Bleak House: Charles Dickens

1853 Bleak House: Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens was clearly influenced by the earlier Gothic novels, and several of Dickens’ stories have elements of the Gothic, such as the Christmas Stories, with their supernatural themes, the highly gothic situations in Oliver Twist and Great Expectations, and the gothic setting and situation of Dickens’ unfinished masterpiece The Mystery of Edwin Drood

Not withstanding all these, I regard Bleak House as Dickens’ Gothic high point. The whole setting of the book is a bleak vision of London as a threatening Gothic city, mired in mud and swathed in fog. The main plot line concerns the interminable legal case of Jarndyce vs Jarndyce, perhaps showing Gothic excesses of the system operating in the Courts of Chancery. The book is also highly collected by detective fiction collectors, as it features one of fiction’s earliest detectives, Inspector Bucket.

The Gothic narrative is reinforced by the some very fine illustrations by Hablot K Browne (Phiz) that are found in the second half of the first edition. These have been specially created by a novel effect of cross hatching on the plates with some fine diagonal lines, which create a feeling of extra gloom. These are called the so called ‘Dark Plates’ of Bleak House, and made very strong visual statements, which enhanced the narrative and were an innovation in 19th century book illustration.

The desirable edition is the first edition, published by Bradbury and Evans in 1853 with the ten dark plates, which can be found for around $2000. A more expensive alternative is to find a complete set of Bleak House in the original issue in 19 parts, which will cost more than $10,000. 

Two examples of the Dark Plate illustrations are shown below.

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