Susan Williams on Charles Dickens’s Bleak House
In Conversation for the Windham-Campbell Prizes Podcast
The Windham-Campbell Prizes Podcast features a series of conversations with the 2023 Windham-Campbell Prize winners about their favorite books. Hosted by Michael Kelleher.
Susan Williams (winner of a 2023 Windham-Campbell Prize for Non-Fiction) joins Windham-Campbell Prizes director Michael Kelleher to talk about the majesty and the drudgery of Bleak House, walking through history in the present, and the complicated realities of Charles Dickens the human.
From the episode:
Michael Kelleher: I don’t know what it is about Bleak House, it’s the book that all of my most literary friends recommend to me by Charles Dickens and I’ve tried twice to read it all the way through and failed. This time I succeeded.
And, I don’t know, my feeling of Charles Dickens is that for me, he’s incredibly interesting to talk about, but he’s horrible to read. Like after I finish reading him, I feel like, God, there’s, there’s so many different ways you could talk about this book and there’s so many interesting things happening, but the pleasure of reading for me is so minimal.
How do you feel about Charles Dickens?
Susan Williams: Well, I do share some of your negative feelings about David Copperfield and also Great Expectations in fact. But I think Bleak House is really quite different. I think it is a great book head and shoulders above all the others, in my view. Having said that though, I found there was a very different experience reading it in the last month than there was of a previous time. I don’t like to say how long.
A very long time ago, when I first read it, I was so excited by what I would call the literary activism of the novel, the spotlight on the, suffering of the poor, of social injustice, the need for sanitary reform. I was just fired up by it and inspired by it too. Reading it this time, I still see that and I appreciate it. However, there are aspects of the book that I don’t feel very comfortable with and I’ve also just read the marvelous biography of Dickens by Claire Tomlin.
And, the Dickens, the person, the man, who emerges from that book is really not much to my taste. I don’t like him because of his behavior towards many people, including his family, you know, so on the one hand, the spotlight he puts on Britain in Bleak House—he rages against the inhumanity, the brutality, the injustice, the tyranny if you like. But in his own domestic life, he was a bit of a tyrant himself.
The fact that after his wife Catherine had had 10 children and additional miscarriages, he decided he’d had enough of her and wanted to remove himself from her because she was growing fat, he said, and languid and that this was also driven by the fact that he’d fallen obsessively in love with a young actress Ellen Turnon.
And by the way, he was 45 and she was 18 at this time, so he wanted to get rid of Catherine. So he installed her in another residence and he insisted on keeping all the 10 children with him. In fact, it appears that there is some evidence to suggest that at that time he tried to have Catherine certified as mad to be put in a mental hospital. The doctor he asked to do that was a friend of his, but he said no and therefore lost the friendship of Dickens.
It’s hard to fit that behavior with his rage against injustice in the novel.
White Malice: The CIA and the Covert Recolonization of Africa by Susan Williams • David Copperfield by Charles Dickens • Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin • The Invisible Woman by Claire Tomalin • “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” BandAid 1984
For a full episode transcript, click here.
Dr Susan Williams is a senior research fellow in the School of Advanced Study, University of London. Her pathbreaking books include White Malice: The CIA and the Covert Recolonization of Africa; Who Killed Hammarskjöld?, which in 2015 triggered a new, ongoing UN investigation into the death of the UN Secretary-General; Spies in the Congo, which spotlights the link between US espionage in the Congo and the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945; Colour Bar, the story of Botswana’s founding president, which was made into the major 2016 film A United Kingdom; and The People’s King, which presents an original perspective on the abdication of Edward VIII and his marriage to Wallis Simpson.
The Windham-Campbell Prizes Podcast is a program of The Windham-Campbell Prizes, which are administered by Yale University Library’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.