Let's write a variation on part of the opening of Charles Dickens' Bleak House.

Without any context, read this snippet and write down what you think is happening, and anything you notice about the structure and language.

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls deified among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little 'prentice boy on deck.

What is happening in this snippet? Is there anything in the language or structure that captures your attention?

Bleak House is one of longest and most sprawling novels from one of England's longest and most sprawling novelists.

Bleak House cover

Charles Dickens wrote the novel over the course of a year in 20 installments, which were published in serial form and then collected as a book in 1853. (The serial format goes some way to explaining why Dickens' work was often so woolly: all writers make it up as they go along, but serial writers can't go back and change anything.)

Bleak House in serial format

At the heart of the novel is a legal case involving a contested will that runs over decades until legal fees consume all the money that was in dispute.

Around that core is a tangled story about orphanhood, identity, class, industrialisation, life, death, success, failure, marriage, separation, wealth, poverty, and spontaneous human combustion.

Like most of Dickens' work, Bleak House is also a loving portrait of the City of London, which is on full display in the opening pages.

This snippet is the second paragraph in the opening pages of Bleak House. It's actually worth including the first paragraph here for you, because it's also great:

London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln's Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another's umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.

So you can see that the first paragraph of the novel describes London in winter, primarily in terms of mud, but also smoke, soot, dogs, horses, and angry pedestrians.

The second paragraph, our snippet, focuses on fog.

Dickens follows the fog across all points of the compass: from up the river in the west to down the river in the east, and from the Essex marshes in the north to the Kentish heights in the south, and then into the ships and boats moored in Greenwich, nearer to the city center.

If you're not familiar with London, here's a map from the period—but note that Dickens' description extends beyond the boundaries of this map:

Moggs London Map 1860