Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol during a period when the British were exploring and re-evaluating past Christmas traditions, including carols, and newer customs such as cards and Christmas trees. He was influenced by the experiences of his own youth and by the Christmas stories of other authors, including Washington Irving and Douglas Jerrold. Dickens had written three Christmas stories prior to the novella, and was inspired following a visit to the Field Lane Ragged School, one of several establishments for London’s street children. The treatment of the poor and the ability of a selfish man to redeem himself by transforming into a more sympathetic character are the key themes of the story. There is discussion among academics as to whether this is a fully secular story, or if it is a Christian allegory.
Bleak House is a novel by Charles Dickens, first published as a 20-episode serial between March 1852 and September 1853. The novel has many characters and several sub-plots, and is told partly by the novel’s heroine, Esther Summerson, and partly by an omniscient narrator. At the centre of Bleak House is a long-running legal case in the Court of Chancery, Jarndyce and Jarndyce, which comes about because a testator has written several conflicting wills. In a preface to the 1853 first edition, Dickens claimed there were many actual precedents for his fictional case. One such was probably the Thellusson v Woodford case in which a will read in 1797 was contested and not determined until 1859. Though many in the legal profession criticised Dickens’s satire as exaggerated, this novel helped support a judicial reform movement which culminated in the enactment of legal reform in the 1870s.
There is some debate among scholars as to when Bleak House is set. The English legal historian Sir William Holdsworth sets the action in 1827; however, reference to preparation for the building of a railway in Chapter LV suggests the 1830s.
Of course there’s nothing new about Dickens being able to create wonderful characters. The difference here is that, while Harold Skimpole, Mr Tulkinghorn, Krook et al fizz with bright particularity, their job is to service the story – in Dickens’s earlier novels the endless cameos tend to derail the narrative. Bleak House represents the author at a perfectly poised late-middle moment in his extraordinary art.
So, despite the fact that it’s often inaccurate and reductive and possibly immoral, I understand why we like to call novels “Dickensian.” Over 200 years after the writer’s death, we’re just looking to recapture the feeling his canonical works gave us in some of our contemporary literature. If that sounds like something you’re interested in, some suggestions below.