By Charles Matthews

Thursday, June 9, 2011

1. Bleak House, by Charles Dickens, pp. vii-27

Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz), Title Page. Source: David Perdue's Charles Dickens Page

Bleak House (Penguin Classics)Preface, by Terry Eagleton; Introduction, by Nicola Bradbury; Chapter 1: In Chancery through Chapter 2: In Fashion

"Unlike James Joyce or Henry James, Dickens was never much taken with the fetish of organic unity," observes Terry Eagleton in his preface. And some readers hold that against him, noting the mishmash of comic grotesques and sentimentalized "real" people and the shifts in tone from exhortation to irony in almost all of his novels. But as Eagleton suggests, it was this jumble of people and institutions and ideas that seemed so characteristic of the England in which Dickens lived:
England was becoming a more corporate place as Dickens's writing career unfolded, shifting from the stage coaches and rural inns of The Pickwick Papers to trade unions, state education, national transport systems, large-scale banking and industry and governmental red tape. 
Dickens, in a word, saw no unity in the world around him, and consequently presented no unity in the fiction he derived from it. It's telling that his novel begins with a city muffled in fog, which as Eagleton puts it, "allows us to see the place as a whole, but only by allowing us to see nothing at all." And the other unifying factors that Eagleton discerns in the novel are malign: First, "disease, which threatens to seep from the fetid East End to contaminate the metropolitan middle classes." And second, "the Jarndyce case, ... creeping as it does into the novel's most inconsiderable folds and crevices, which provides Bleak House's major evidence of the intermeshing of human destinies."

It's a novel that demands close attention, for even the smallest details, buried as they are in the vastness of the novel, can turn out to have significance.
Bleak House is also, among other things, an early species of detective fiction, and it is perhaps not entirely fanciful to see its sleuth -- Inspector Bucket -- as a kind of surrogate of the novelist himself, plotting and piecing together, fashioning significant affinities, bringing hidden liaisons to light, gradually disclosing a unifying subtext beneath the book's diffuse energies. This, then, is a forensic kind of fiction, in which the early Dickens's notorious use of coincidence -- the random collision of different events or existences -- takes on a deeper moral point.
Both Eagleton and Bradbury note that the image of Dickens as a reformer takes a beating in the late novels such as Bleak House, in which institutions such as Chancery exert an ineluctable power over the characters, creating, in Eagleton's words, "a world in which social processes can no longer be traced back to their human agents." Dickens's increased awareness of the impossibility of reforming a society that has grown beyond human dimensions is reflected in his characters, such as Harold Skimpole:
There is a lot in Skimpole that appeals to the more regressive, fantasizing side of Dickens himself, a man who (much to our profit) never really grew up; and the earlier Dickens might well have treated such a down-at-hell dandy, with his anti-Malthusian horde of children, a good deal more indulgently. Indeed, he does just this in the case of Mr Micawber in David Copperfield. What might earlier have been an engaging childlikeness, however, is lampooned here as squalid egoism.
Dickens is not a particularly reliable social critic: "unlike George Eliot, he had little patience with fact or grasp of complex institutional process.... His judgments are impulsive and emotional, not the fruit of research and reflection." He even tended sometimes to bet on the wrong horse, expressing "withering contempt" for the trade union movement, an actual and effective force for social reform, in the novel Hard Times.

But his emotional, "Romantic" view of society and institutions made him effective as a satirist, enabling him to dramatize "a social order so pervasively false and dehumanized that it would require a good deal more than improved medical facilities in Tom-all-Alone's to set it to rights." As Bradbury points out, Dickens initially thought of using Tom-all-Alone's in the title of the novel, and only after trying out nine variations on that theme did he settle on Bleak House, which is not just a specific place in the novel but also a phrase that "can stand for a larger location too: for England, the Empire, the world of the novel, which is also signalled by the opening sentence, a single word, 'London.'"

Bradbury points out, too, that the novel has endured when other, more specifically "reformist" works have dated, that it "operates outside, as well as within, its mid-Victorian context."
We might now see this text as proto-modernist or even postmodernist, characterized by alienation, a sense of the arbitrary and of infinite regression or provisionality of values. It is semiotic, interested in signs; deconstructive, unravelling systems. Questions, not answers, determine its direction.... the real issue in the work emerges as survival, the value of life going on.... Bleak House is a text indignant with the evils of the England it describes, but impatient with notions of reform, moving from anger and derision towards a kind of long-suffering which cannot right, merely repair, great wrong.
The narrative schism at the heart of the book -- the alternation between "the omniscient storyteller" and Esther Summerson's account of the events -- sets up its essential dynamic. We get at the truth in two different ways: First, through the "knowing third-person narrator" who, by "giving and withholding information, [plays] the reader like a performer his audience." But Esther's apparent naïveté does not necessarily make her a more reliable reporter of events. "We may incline towards Esther as against the conflictual antagonism of the 'other' narrator, but the novel tests and stretches her authority, sometimes uncomfortably.... Esther's intimate and partial share in the narration of Bleak House betrays the duality of her role as victim and proponent of detection -- a specialized version of all expression, perhaps."

For the novel hinges in great deal on how much truth one can handle. In Lady Dedlock's case, "the novel carefully unfolds the damage done in pursuing [her] history, and contrasts it with the greater good of free pardon.... Entrapment is both the subject and the strategy of Bleak House, much as 'the one great principle of the English law is, to make business for itself.'"
Knowledge, and the pursuit of knowledge, is thrilling but hard; and it may destroy its object, undermine its own purpose.... [Lady Dedlock] is both an agent and a victim of the narrative: a romance example working counter to the detective mode, but caught up within it.... The novel holds the balance between mystery and revelation, literary creation and analytical destruction.
Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz), Frontispiece (Source: David Perdue's Charles Dickens Page)

It begins with fog, of course, and with the fog penetrating the Court of Chancery itself. And what is this court, about which we know so little today? It has to do with wills and inheritances, and it
has its decaying houses and its blighted lands in every shire; ... its worn-out lunatic in every madhouse, and its dead in every churchyard; ... its ruined suitor, with his slipshod heels and threadbare dress, borrowing and begging through the round of every man's acquaintance; [it] gives to monied might the means abundantly of wearing out the right; [it] so exhausts finances, patience, courage, hope; so overthrows the brain and breaks the heart; that there is not an honourable man among its practiticioners who would not give -- who does not often give -- the warning, "Suffer any wrong that can be done you, rather than come here!" 
But people do continue to come there, in hopes of settling some long-litigated-over estate, including "a little mad old woman in a squeezed bonnet, who is always in court, from its sitting to its rising, and always expecting some incomprehensible judgment to be given in her favour." Don't worry, we'll see her again.

Right now, the court's drowsy attention is drawn to "JARNDYCE AND JARNDYCE," a case "which was squeezed dry years upon years ago," but it still being litigated, as long as someone will pay a lawyer to do so. And even though "there are not three Jarndyces left upon the earth perhaps, since old Tom Jarndyce in despair blew his brains out at a coffee-house in Chancery Lane; but Jarndyce and Jarndyce still drags its dreary length before the Court, perennially hopeless." The one thing we learn from the hearing of the case today is that the chancellor is meeting with a boy and girl to "satisfy myself on the subject of their residing with their cousin."

So we move from the Court of Chancery to "the world of fashion," both of which "are things of precedent and usage." As for the world of fashion,
There is much good in it; there are many good and true people in it; it has its appointed place. But the evil of it is, that it is a world wrapped up in too much jeweller's cotton and fine wool, and cannot hear the rushing of the larger worlds, and cannot see them as they circle round the sun. It is a deadened world, and its growth is sometimes unhealthy for want of air. 
In this world we meet Lady Dedlock, who has come to town from her place in Lincolnshire, preparatory to leaving for Paris. Her place in Lincolnshire is presently as waterbound as London is fogbound:
The deer, looking soaked, leave quagmires, where they pass. The shot of a rifle loses its sharpness in the moist air, and its smoke moves in a tardy little cloud towads the green rise, coppice-topped, that makes a background for the falling rain.... My Lady Dedlock (who is childless) ... says she has been "bored to death." Therefore my Lady Dedlock has come away from the place in Lincolnshire, and has left it to the rain, and the crows, and the rabbits, and the deer, and the partridges and pheasants.
Her husband is Sir Leicester Dedlock, from a family "as old as the hills, and infinitely more respectable. He has a general opinion that the world might get on without hills, but would be done up without Dedlocks." He is twenty years older than his wife, and his age is upward of sixty-seven. There had been whispers about his marriage to her, "that she had not even family.... But she had beauty, pride, ambition, insolent resolve, and sense enough to portion out a legion of fine ladies." Notice that list of attributes, none of which, except perhaps "sense," is exactly a virtue, with "pride" being in fact a sin, and "ambition" not far behind. As for "insolent resolve," the adjective somewhat attacks the noun it modifies. "She has beauty still, and, if it be not in its heyday, it is not yet in its autumn."

At their house in town, the Dedlocks are meeting with their "legal adviser," a man named Tulkinghorn, "an old-fashioned old gentleman" who still dresses in the eighteenth-century fashion of "knee breeches tied with ribbons, and gaiters or stockings." He dresses all in black, but "One peculiarity of his black clothes, and of his black stockings, be they silk or worsted, is that they never shine." Darkness visible, you might say.

In response to Sir Leicester's question, Tulkinghorn tells them that Lady Dedlock's case has been heard again in Chancery today. Since we've only heard of one case, Jarndyce and Jarndyce, we can assume that she is a party to that one. Lady Dedlock greets the news with a shrug, observing that nothing will ever come of it. Her part in it, we learn, "was the only property my Lady brought" Sir Leicester. Tulkinghorn has some papers relating to the case that he has brought with him, and as he begins to read from them -- "In Chancery. Between John Jarndyce --" -- she asks him to skip over the formalities.
My Lady, changing her position, sees the papers on the table -- looks at them nearer -- looks at them nearer still -- asks impulsively:
"Who copied that?" 
Tulkinghorn is surprised by her sudden interest, and perhaps by her impulsiveness -- it seems to be uncharacteristic of the rather languorous and bored Lady Dedlock we've seen so far. She claims that she asked only "to vary this detestable monotony," but as Tulkinghorn reads on, she suddenly stands up. She must be ill, Tulkinghorn observes.
"Faint," my Lady murmurs, with white lips, "only that; but it is like the faintness of death. Don't speak to me. Ring, and take me to my room!"
Tulkinghorn withdraws, and when Lady Dedlock has been seen to, Sir Leicester returns to inform him, "I never knew my Lady swoon before."
The 2005 BBC/Masterpiece Theatre dramatization features Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock, Timothy West as Sir Leicester Dedlock, Charles Dance as Tulkinghorn, Ian Richardson as the Chancellor, Anna Maxwell Martin as Esther Summerson, Carey Mulligan as Ada Clare, Patrick Kennedy as Richard Carstone, Burn Gorman as Guppy, John Lynch as Nemo, Harry Eden as Jo.

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