This book – which is part satire on the British legal system – tells a huge sprawling story about the case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, a matter which has been going on in court for over 60 years, which is mired and bureaucracy, and which seems to snare in it’s web the various people who are embroiled in it.
Caught up in the case are Richard Carstone and Ada Clare, young cousins who gradually come to mean more to each other, but over whose lives the dragging court case will cast a dark shadow. Their friend Esther Summerson, who is herself central to the plot, partly narrates the story; it is also partly narrated in the third person.
Other characters include the haughty and beautiful Lady Dedlock, fighting to keep a secret from long ago; Mr Tulkinghorn, the imposing and intimidating lawyer for Lady Dedlock’s husband; John Jarndyce, a man who has long since stopped caring about the Jarndyce and Jarndyce case, who is not interested in receiving any money from the matter, and wishes that it would all conclude quickly and quietly. He becomes guardian to Ada, Richard and Esther, although Richard’s growing obsession with the Jarndyce and Jarndyce matter threatens to divide them; and poor orphan Jo, who unwittingly and unwillingly holds a vital piece of knowledge that could threaten to alter many lives.
At just shy of 1000 pages, this is certainly an absorbing read, and I felt that I had to concentrate hard to keep all the characters straight in my mind. There was a huge cast of characters – considerably more than those listed above – and some of them seemed to have no connection to others – however, without giving too much away, I thought the ending where many ‘loose ends’ were tied up was terrific.
It hardly seems right to review any work of Dickens without commenting on his wonderful sarcastic sense of humour, which served to lighten the intricate plot. His humour is usually at the expense of his characters, many of whom he seems to hold in contempt. I loved his comment on charity: “…he had remarked that there were two classes of charitable people; one, the people who did a little and made a great deal of noise; the other, the people who did a great deal and made no noise at all.” When talking about law, one character remarks that it is not enough to have truth and justice on your side, you need law and lawyers as well(!) Dickens also takes various swipes at the class system in the country and is not above poking fun at some upper class customs of the time.
The characters were all very distinct, and I felt that by the end of the book I did know them all. Esther was a wonderful, unselfish character, who was easy to care about, and who surely deserved a happy ending (whether or not she got one, I’m not revealing). I enjoyed her narration more than the third person narrative, although it was necessary to have the alternative unknown narrator, as there were parts of the story which Esther was not privy to.
This book was originally published in serial form, and ran in a newspaper for over a year. The book is certainly a hefty size and if you are looking for an introduction to Dickens, this probably isn’t the best book to choose. However, if you’ve read and enjoyed other Dickens books and are wondering whether to read this one, I would certainly recommend it.