By Charles Matthews

Sunday, June 19, 2011

10. Bleak House, by Charles Dickens, pp. 332-366

Chapter 21: The Smallweed Family through Chapter 22: Mr Bucket

Now it's time to introduce a whole lot of new characters. We've met Young Smallweed, whose name, it turns out, is Bartholomew, or Bart. Now we learn that he has a twin, Judith, and that they live with their grandparents. The grandmother is in "a childish state," which is unusual in the Smallweed family, in which even the children are never treated as children -- i.e., given toys or told stories or fairy tales. "With such infantine graces as a total want of observation, memory, understanding and interest, and an eternal disposition to fall asleep over the fire and into it, Mr Smallweed's grandmother has undoubtedly brightened the family."

It's probably worth remarking on the peculiar ways in which childhood and adulthood are tumbled about in Bleak House. We have childish adults (Skimpole, Grandmother Smallweed) and children deprived of childhood (Jo, Charley Neckett, even Esther Summerson). We have neglected children (the Jellybys) and exploited children (the Pardiggles). And we have childless adults (the Dedlocks, John Jarndyce, Tulkinghorn, Miss Flite, et al.). Given that one of the central mysteries of the novel centers on Esther's parentage, and that the question of inheritance (i.e., the passing down of property from one generation to another) is what makes Chancery the tangled morass it is, it's not surprising that parenting or its absence is so prominent a theme in the book.

Grandfather Smallweed, to continue, retains his wits, but is physically impaired. So he and his wife, confined to their chairs by the fireplace, face off against each other in a kind of ongoing Punch-and-Judy routine. He is provided with "a spare cushion ... in order that he may have something to throw at" her "whenever she makes an allusion to money -- a subject on which he is particularly sensitive." But when he flings the cushion, he not only knocks her over in her chair, but he also slumps down in his, so that he has to be "shaken up like a great bottle, and poked and punched like a great bolster" to get him upright again.

The person tasked with the shaking and poking and punching is their granddaughter, Judy. All of the Smallweeds "have been observed to bear a likeness to old monkeys with something depressing on their minds." Judy has "never owned a doll, never heard of Cinderella, never played at any game.... It is very doubtful whether Judy knows how to laugh. She has so rarely seen the thing done." Her twin, Bart, at least goes out in the world, where he keeps company with Mr Guppy. Judy does have help, and it turns out to be Charley Neckett, the orphaned daughter of Skimpole's old nemesis he called "Coavinses." So the Smallweeds have another tie to the novel's central characters.

Young Smallweed -- Bart -- arrives home, and we learn that he never knew his father, who died "fifteen years ago." (We learned earlier that Bart is not quite fifteen.) But he lives in the grandfather's memory as "a good accountant" and as his former partner.The twins' mother, whom the grandfather describes as "as dry as a chip," died not long after they were born. Bart is, as we know, apprenticed in a law office, and Judy, we now learn, "apprenticed to the art and mystery of artificial flower-making." 
Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz), The Smallweed Family (Source: David Perdue's Charles Dickens Page)
A knock is heard at the door, and Charley returns to inform them that it's Mr George.
He is a swarthy browned man of fifty; well made, and good-looking; with crisp dark hair, bright eyes, and a broad chest. His sinewy and powerful hands, as sunburnt as his face, have evidently been used to a pretty rough life.... His step too is measured and heavy, and would go well with a weighty clash and jingle of spurs. He is close-shaved now, but his mouth is set as if his upper lip had been for years familiar with a great moustache; and his manner of occasionally laying the open palm of his broad brown hand upon it, is to the same effect. Altogether, one might guess Mr George to have been a trooper once upon a time.
The appearance of such a substantial, somewhat realistically drawn character at this point raises suspicions that he's more than just another comic foil, like Chadband or the Bayham Badgers. Dickens even stresses the point by comparing Mr George to the Smallweeds: "His developed figure, and their stunted forms; his large manner, filling any amount of room; and their little narrow pinched ways; his sounding voice, and their sharp spare tones; are in the strongest and the strangest opposition."

Mr George has evidently come to repay a loan from Old Smallweed: "Here's the new bill, and here's the two months' interest-money, and a devil-and-all of a scrape it is to get it together in my business." When George remarks that Smallweed will "sell me up at last I suppose, when I am a day in arrear," the old man assures him, "Never! Never, my dear friend! But my friend in the city that I got to lend you the money -- he might!" George mutters, just below the old man's hearing, "The name of your friend in the city begins with a D." (I.e., the Devil.) Meanwhile, Grandmother Smallweed starts to chatter, "Twenty thousand pounds, twenty twenty-pound notes in a money box, twenty guineas, twenty million twenty per cent, twenty --" before her husband can fling the cushion at her and denounce her as "a brimstone idiot. You're a scorpion -- a brimstone scorpion! Your a sweltering toad. You're a chattering clattering broomstick witch, that ought to be burnt!" He calls on George to shake him up in his chair again, which George is glad enough to do, "agitating him violently enugh to make his head roll like a harlequin's."

When the old man recovers from his shaking-up, he asks George if he has any relatives who could vouch for him so "I could persuade my friend in the city to make you a further advance." But George indicates that he is "a vagabond, who has wasted the best time of his life," and that he is reluctant "to go back then to decent people that he never was a credit to, and live upon them.... The best kind of amends then, for having gone away, is to keep away, in my opinion."

And then Smallweed observes, "If you could have traced out the Captain, Mr George, it would have been the making of you. If, when you first came here, in consequence of our advertisements in the newspapers -- when I say 'our,' I'm alluding to the advertisements of my friend in the city, and one or two others who embark their capital in the same way, and are so friendly towards me as sometimes to give me a lift with my little pittance -- if, at that time, you could have helped us, Mr George, it would have been the making of you."

So we understand from this that Smallweed was in search of a certain Captain, whom George was unable to locate. He had responded to an advertisement asserting "that Mr Hawdon (Captain Hawdon, if you hold to the saying, Once a captain always a captain) was to hear of something to his advantage." George, a former trooper, had known this Captain Hawdon at one time, having"been at his right hand many a day, when he was charging upon ruin full gallop." And it was this that brought George into the money-lending orbit of Smallweed. The ad had been a ruse to ensnare the Captain, who "owed us immense sums, all round," Smallweed admits.

George had known the Captain "when he was sick and well, rich and poor. I laid this hand upon him, after he had run through everything and broken down everything beneath him -- when he held a pistol to his head." He should have fired it, Smallweed says, "and blow his head into as many pieces as he owed pounds!" George says, "he had been young, hopeful, and handsome in the days gone by; and I am glad I never found him." He is convinced that the Captain "was drowned long before.... He went over a ship's side. Whether intentionally or accidentally, I don't know."

As he takes his leave, he asks again, "So you think your friend in the city will be hard upon me, if I fail in a payment?" Old Smallweed says, "My dear friend, I am afraid he will." And so "Mr George strides through the streets with a massive kind of swagger and a grave-enough face." He stops in at Astley's Theatre, the home of the circus in London, and watches the performers.
Astley's in 1808 (Source: Wikipedia)
And then he makes his way to his home and place of business, "a great brick building, composed of bare walls, floor, roof-rafters, and skylights; on the front of which, if it can be said to have any front, is painted GEORGE'S SHOOTING GALLERY, &C." He is joined there by his custodian, a small man named Phil, who seems "to have been blown up, in the way of business, at some odd time or times." (We will later learn that Phil's last name is Squod.)

In Lincoln's Inn Fields, Tulkinghorn is sharing a very old port with Mr Snagsby, who is telling him the story of Jo's encounter with the veiled lady/servant. Suddenly, Snagsby realizes that he and Tulkinghorn are not alone: "at a little distance from the table, a person with a hat and stick in his hand who was not there when he himself came in, and has not since entered by the door or by either of the windows." Tulkinghorn reassures Snagsby, "This is only Mr Bucket." The unobtrusive Mr Bucket "is a stoutly-built, steady-looking, sharp-eyed man in black, of about the middle age." He was modeled on Charles Frederick Field, a Scotland Yard detective and later private investigator, whose exploits Dickens also wrote about in several essays. When Snagsby begins to show reluctance to talk about Jo, Bucket assures him, "Don't you be afraid of hurting the boy."

After Snagsby concludes his story, Bucket says, "as far as I can understand it, there seems to be a doubt whether this dead person wasn't entitled to a little property, and whether this female hasn't been up to some games respecting that property, don't you see!" Snagsby doesn't see, but he is persuaded by Bucket to accompany him to Tom-all-Alone's in search of Jo.

It turns out to be a harrowing journey for Snagsby, through filth and poverty and vice, and he "sickens in body and mind, and feels as if he were going, every moment deeper down, into the infernal gulf." Along the way they encounter a body being carried, and Snagsby learns that people there are dying from "the fever," as Bucket puts it, "like sheep with the rot." They finally get a lead that Jo might be known by the name of "Toughy, or the Tough Subject," and in their search they come upon two drunk men who have passed out and the two women with them, one of whom has a baby." The men, they learn, are brickmakers from Hertfordshire who have come to London in search of work but haven't found it. And when we learn that one of the women had a baby who died, we realize that these are the people who were the object of Mrs Pardiggle's "charity," and of Esther and Ada's subsequent attentions.

Then they come across Jo, "trembling to think that he has offended against the law in not having moved on far enough." He has come to deliver some medicine for the baby, and having delivered it agrees to go to Tulkinghorn's office to tell him the story of the veiled woman.

When they enter Tulkinghorn's chambers, however, Jo cries out, "There she is!" "A female figure, closely veiled, stands in the middle of the room, where the light falls upon it. It is quite still, and silent." When Bucket prompts him, Jo says he recognizes the veil and the bonnet and the gown that the figure is wearing. He is certain of it. Then Bucket asks him about the rings that the woman wore, and the figure takes off her glove and shows him her hand. "Jo shakes his head. 'Not rings a bit like them. Not a hand like that.... Hand was a deal whiter, a deal delicater and a deal smaller." Would Jo remember the lady's voice? He thinks he would.
The figure speaks. "Was it at all like this. I will speak as long as you like if you are not sure. Was it this voice, or at all like this voice?"

Jo looks aghast at Mr Bucket. "Not a bit!" 
So what, Bucket asks, made him think it was the lady?  It was the veil, the bonnet and the gown, he says, but it isn't her hand or her rings or her voice. So Bucket gives Jo five shillings and sends him on his way, leaving an uncomfortable Snagsby alone with the woman. But they are joined by Tulkinghorn, and the woman raises her veil, revealing Lady Dedlock's former maid, Hortense. "I will give you no further trouble regarding this little wager," Tulkinghorn tells her, but before she leaves she reminds him that she is now unemployed and needs him "to confer upon me the favour of your distinguished recommendation." He assures her he will.

Bucket confirms what Tulkinghorn already knows: "There an't a doubt that it was the other one with this one's dress on." That is, Lady Dedlock in Hortense's clothes. Snagsby is then sent home, "doubtful of his being awake and out -- doubtful of the reality of the streets through which he goes -- doubtful of the reality of the moon that shines above him." He is soon, however, confronted with "the unchallengeable reality of Mrs Snagsby, sitting up with her head in a perfect beehive of curl-papers and nightcap."
The 2005 BBC/Masterpiece Theatre dramatization features  Sean McGinley as Snagsby, Charles Dance as Tulkinghorn, Alun Armstrong as Inspector Bucket, Charlie Brooks as Jenny, Harry Eden as Jo, Lilo Baur as Hortense, Patrick Kennedy as Richard Carstone, Carey Mulligan as Ada Clare, Denis Lawson as John Jarndyce, Anna Maxwell Martin as Esther Summerson.

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