Actually, it didn’t. The instance of spontaneous human combustion occurred about halfway through the BBC/Masterpiece Theatre miniseries, not at the end. When you’re working in serialized TV (or novels), you have to have something to grab the audience’s attention and keep them hooked. Why not death by spontaneous combustion?
(On a side note, one of the particular features of the serialized novel was that authors often had a chance to respond to criticism of the previous installment before the next one was published, sometimes even incorporating a response into the text itself. Dickens ended one installment of Bleak House with the spontaneous combustion incident, and was roundly attacked in the press for the improbability of such an occurrence. Thus, he added a paragraph to the first chapter of the next installment: “Some of these authorities (of course the wisest) held with indignation that the deceased had no business to die in the alleged manner; and being reminded by other authorities of a certain inquiry into the evidence for such deaths, reprinted in the sixth volume of the Philosophical Transactions; and also of a book not quite unknown, on English Medical jurisprudences; and likewise of the Italian case of the Countess Cornelia Baudi as set forth in detail by one Bianchini … and also of the testimony of Messrs. Fodere and Mere, two pestilent Frenchmen who would investigate the subject; and further of the corroborative testimony of Monsieur Le Cat, a rather celebrated French surgeon … Still they regard the late Mr. Krook’s obstinacy, in going-out of the world by any such by-way, as wholly unjustifiable and personally offensive.” This seems a more elegant way to respond to criticism than Anne Rice’s diatribes against readers on Amazon.com. By the way, see this article for more information about 19th-century beliefs about spontaneous combustion.)
I’m fascinated by the ways in which 19th-century reading practices must have been affected by the novel’s serialized publication. Of course there’s the well known story about how, when a ship bearing the latest installment of Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop arrived in New York, eager crowds on the pier shouted to those on board, “Is Little Nell dead?” It’s rather like the contemporary mania for each new volume of Harry Potter—though, if you considered all Rowling’s books as installments of one single novel, the said tome would easily outweigh any of Dickens’s voluminous works.
Anyway, the creators of the Bleak House miniseries wanted to replicate the feeling of reading a serialized novel, and Bleak House originally aired on BBC in 16 half-hour segments, close to the original 19 installments of the novel. However, in the U.S., PBS chose to air the series in 6 segments, with the first and last segments clocking in at two hours long and all the in-between episodes at one hour each. Instead of airing the episodes on successive nights, as PBS has done with Masterpiece Theatre in the past, they made us wait a week between each one.
I became a Bleak House addict, eagerly waiting to find out what would happen next: who would Esther Summerson marry? Who would die of consumption? Would the law case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce ever end? I thought Porpoise was hooked too, when, after one episode had ended, he echoed my wish that we could see the next one right away. It turned out, though, that he just wanted it to be over. Sigh.
When I asked him why he wasn’t as intrigued as I was (after all, as different as our literary tastes are, we’re both in agreement that Dickens is the only Victorian novelist worth reading, because he has something none of the others seem to have: a sense of humor), he replied, “Nothing really happened in that whole hour.”
“What? Esther got the smallpox, Krook spontaneously combusted . . .”
“Okay, but other than that. Nothing happened that was essential to the main plot.”
Porpoise was much fonder of last night’s finale, two hours of relatively fast-paced action moved along by the investigations of Inspector Bucket. People died, people got born, and people got married—but mostly after the case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce finally comes to an end.
Reflecting back, I think the feeling of inertia towards the middle of the miniseries was probably quite intentional, an attempt to replicate in the viewers the same sense of stagnation that the characters experience with the interminable law suit, as well as Lady Dedlock’s anxiety over the impending doom of the revelation of the secrets from her past. We know that it’s going to happen, but when? I suspect that this effect was intentional because the skilled Andrew Davies (screenwriter for The Definitive Pride and Prejudice, as well as for Masterpiece Theatre’s Middlemarch) was in charge of adapting Bleak House for television.
Another particularly interesting choice Davies made was in some alterations to the character of Esther, who is the narrator for significant portions of the novel. Apparently (and once again, I can’t judge here, because I haven’t read the novel yet and probably won’t until I have a vast chunk of free time) if modern readers dislike Bleak House, it’s usually because they find Esther’s voice insufferably goody-goody in her preaching of Christian virtue. In the TV series, we see Esther’s high morals more through her compassionate actions than through her words. Moreover, she has a bit of spunk. My favorite scene from the whole series is a brief moment of humor in the final wedding montage, in which Esther almost attacks Mr. Skimpole, who’s smirking in a corner, until her new husband pulls her back into the dance. Her feistiness is all the more admirable—and funny—because of her usual quiet demeanor. She’s only aroused to wrath by Skimpole’s claim to be innocent and defenseless while he defrauds the truly innocent and defenseless.
Justice for the downtrodden, the reversal of fortunes for the wicked rich, is of course one of Dickens’ values that he imparts—sometimes quite blatantly—through most of his fiction. It takes a gifted screenwriter to translate that sense of waiting, longing, for retribution and restoration to a 21st-century audience—without 19th-century didacticism.
But I still want to read the novel.
1 comment February 27th, 2006