Dickens indulges in a little attack on class snobbery. Various family hangers-on are staying at Chesney Wold, including cousin Volumnia Dedlock, "a young lady (of sixty), who is doubly highly related; having the honour to be a poor relation, by the mother's side, to another great family," and now lives in retirement in Bath; where she lives slenderly on an annual present from Sir Leicester."
The talk turns to Rosa, whom Volumnia calls "one of the prettiest girls, I think, that I ever saw in my life," and whom Lady Dedlock describes as her "pet -- secretary -- messenger -- I don't know what." They also speak highly of Mrs Rouncewell, who discovered Rosa. But then Sir Leicester gloomily announces "that I have been informed, by Mr Tulkinghorn, that Mrs Rouncewell's son has been invited to go into Parliament," whereupon Volumnia "utters a little sharp scream." In the circles of the landed gentry, no matter how idle and useless they may be, it is unthinkable that a housekeeper's son, even one who has made his fortune in industry, should be afforded such an honor.
"'He is called, I believe -- an -- Ironmaster.' Sir Leicester says it slowly, and with gravity and doubt, as not being sure but that he is called a Lead-mistress; or that the right word may be some other word expressive of some other relationship to some other metal. Volumnia utters another little scream." But Sir Leicester is gratified to report that Mr Rouncewell turned down the offer.
However, the man himself is there, and has requested an audience with Sir Leicester and Lady Dedlock on the subject of the very young woman Volumnia has just praised, Rosa. And so Mr Rouncewell enters, a man "a little over fifty perhaps, of a good figure, like his mother," with "a clear voice, a broad forehead from which his dark hair has retired, and a shrewd, though open face." Rouncewell tells them, "I have never seen Rosa until to-day, but I have some confidence in my son's good sense -- even in love. I find her what he represents her, to the best of my judgment; and my mother speaks of her with great commendation."
His son wants to marry Rosa, but before Mr Rouncewell gives his consent, he wants to make it a condition that Rosa no longer be a servant at Chesney Wold. (In other words, he would consider his son to be marrying down if Rosa remained there.) But "if her removal would be in any way inconvenient or objectionable, I will hold the matter over with him for any reasonable time, and leave it precisely where it is."
That this "Ironmaster" should even presume to impose "conditions" is a challenge to Sir Leicester's sense of the order of things. Lady Dedlock (for good reason) is not so hidebound, and she hears him out when he says, "I am the son of your housekeeper, Lady Dedlock, and passed my childhood about this house. My mother has lived here half a century, and will die here I have no doubt." He is not "ashamed of my mother's position here," he says, and he admits that he has been "an apprentice, and a workman. I have lived on workman's wages, years and years, and beyond a certain point have had to educate myself. My wife was a foreman's daughter, and plainly brought up." But, he adds, they have raised their children "to make them worthy of any station." So he suggests that Rosa should be educated to the same level as his daughters before she marries his son.
Sir Leicester's magnificence explodes. Calmly, but terribly. "Mr Rouncewell," says Sir Leicester, with his right hand in the breast of his blue coat -- the attitude of state in which he is painted in the gallery: "do you draw a parallel between Chesney Wold, and a --" here he resists a disposition to choke -- "a factory?"
Well, yes, Mr Rouncewell says, "I think a parallel may be justly drawn between them." The village school is all very well, "and handsomely supported by this family," he says, but "I do not regard the village-school as teaching everything desirable to be known by my son's wife."
These ideas are, Sir Leicester proclaims, "so diametrically opposed" to his own, "that to prolong this discussion must be repellent to your feelings, and repellent to my own." Lady Dedlock says nothing, and Mr Rouncewell withdraws, saying, "I shall recommend my son to conquer his present inclinations," and bids them good night. But later in her room Lady Dedlock speaks to Rosa herself, and says, "I wish you to be happy, and will make you so -- if I can make anybody happy on this earth." There is something in Rosa's situation that has spoken to her. "Some melancholy influence is upon her; or why should so proud a lady close the doors, and sit alone upon the hearth so desolate?"
Next day the Dedlock cousins are "amazed to hear from Sir Leicester, at breakfast time, of the obliteration of landmarks, and opening of floodgates, and cracking of the framework of society, manifested through Mrs Rouncewell's son."
Winter comes to Chesney Wold, and the house is shut up and the Dedlocks move to their house in town. Sir Leicester and Lady Dedlock are sitting together when a footman announces "The young man, my Lady, of the name of Guppy." Sir Leicester, who has never heard of such a person, is astonished, but he learns that Lady Dedlock is familiar with "The young man of the name of Guppy" and has given instructions that he be admitted.
|Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz), The Young Man of the Name of Guppy (Source: David Perdue's Charles Dickens Page)|
"Your ladyship, there is a mystery about Miss Esther Summerson's birth and bringing up. I am informed of that fact, because -- which I mention in confidence -- I know it in the way of my profession at Kenge and Carboy's. Now, as I have already mentioned to your ladyship, Miss Summerson's image is imprinted on my art. If I could clear this mystery for her, or prove her to be well related, or find that having the honour to be a remote branch of your ladyship's family she had a right to be made a party in Jarndyce and Jarndyce, why, I might make a sort of claim upon Miss Summerson to look with an eye of more decided favour on my proposals than she has exactly done as yet.... I have encountered the person, who lived as servant with the lady who brought Miss Summerson up, before Mr Jarndyce took charge of her. That lady was a Miss Barbary, your ladyship."A "dreadful paleness" falls on Lady Dedlock. And when Guppy tells her that Miss Barbary's servant (i.e., Mrs Chadband, the former Mrs Rachael) was told that Esther's "real name was not Esther Summerson, but Esther Hawdon," Lady Dedlock says, "My God!"
Guppy goes on to tell her that a "law-writer" was found dead at Krook's, and that Guppy has "discovered, very lately, that that law-writer's name was Hawdon." And that a disguised lady had hired "a crossing-sweeping boy" to show her the law-writer's grave. That the boy had mentioned "the rings that sparkled on her fingers when she took her glove off." And that "It was supposed, your ladyship, that he left no rag or scrap behind him by which he could possibly be identified. But he did. He left a bundle of old letters." And tomorrow, Guppy claims, he will take possession of those letters.
Lady Dedlock maintains her calm, and when Guppy proposes to bring those letters to her, she says he may. And Guppy takes his leave.
No one else in the house hears the cry "from a wild figure on its knees."
"O my child, my child! Not dead in the first hours of her life, as my cruel sister told me; but sternly nurtured by her, after she had renounced me and my name! O my child, O my child!"Dickensian melodrama at its ripest, though we may prefer the cold, stoically impassive Lady Dedlock who listened with as little impression as possible to Guppy's revelations.
Esther meanwhile remains ignorant of these revelations about her parentage. At Bleak House, they have spent "nearly three weeks" entertaining Allan Woodcourt's mother, who was invited to visit by Mr Jarndyce. "She took very kindly to me," Esther reports, "and what extremely confidential: so much so that sometimes she almost made me uncomfortable." Which is Mrs Woodcourt's aim: She wants to discourage Esther and her son from marrying. She goes on and on about the Welsh nobility from which the Woodcourts are descended. ("Welsh nobility" being a kind of oxymoron to the English.) She asserts that her "son's choice of a wife, for instance, is limited by it; but the matrimonial choice of the Royal family is limited, in much the same manner." Moreover, on the father's side, Allan is "descended from a great Highland family," making him "one of the last representatives of two old families. With the blessing of Heaven he will set them up again, and unite them with another old family." She also claims that Allan "is fickleness itself ... always paying trivial attentions to young ladies ... ever since he was eighteen." And she administers the coup de grace by saying that Allan "has gone to seek his fortune, and to find a wife -- when do you mean to seek your fortune and to find a husband, Miss Summerson?" She predicts that Esther "will marry some one, very rich and very worthy, much older -- five and twenty years, perhaps -- than yourself."
"It is curious that this should make me uncomfortable, but I think it did," Esther reflects. "I know it did." But she's still willing to give Mrs Woodcourt the benefit of the doubt: "Now, I suspected that she was very cunning; next moment, I believed her honest Welsh heart to be perfectly innocent and simple." Esther has a great capacity for denial.
But for the time being there are the preparations for the wedding of Caddy Jellyby and Prince Turveydrop to occupy her. She and Ada are to be the bridesmaids. Mr Jellyby is out of the shadow of bankruptcy, having liquidated everything possible, and the Jellybys have "removed to a furnished lodging in Hatton Garden (where I found the children, when I afterwards went there, cutting the horsehair out of the seats of the chairs, and choking themselves with it)." Caddy says her father called the children "Wild Indians" and "the best thing that could happen to them was, their being all Tomahawked together," by which, she explains, he means "they are very unfortunate in being Ma's children, and that he is very unfortunate in being Ma's husband; and I am sure that's true, though it seems unnatural to say so." As for Mrs Jellyby, Caddy is unsure whether she really knows her daughter is getting married, even though she has been told so repeatedly.
Clearly something has to be done to get the wedding taken care of, so Esther takes charge. And things go off reasonably well, all things considered. The wedding guests are drawn from Mrs Jellyby's circle of activists, one of whom, Miss Wisk, is an unfortunate Dickensian caricature feminist who objects to weddings in general because "the idea of woman's mission lying chiefly in the narrow sphere of Home was an outrageous slander on the part of her Tyrant, Man." Mrs Pardiggle is there, still proclaiming "that the only one infallible course was her course of pouncing upon the poor, and applying benevolence to them like a strait-waistcoat."
And so Dickens has brought us straight up to a denouement, and postponed its resolution to wander off into a tangent.
The 2005 BBC/Masterpiece Theatre dramatization features Burn Gorman as Guppy, Johnny Vegas as Krook, Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock, Emma Williams as Rosa, Denis Lawson as John Jarndyce, Anna Maxwell Martin as Esther Summerson, Carey Mulligan as Ada Clare, Di Botcher as Mrs Woodcourt, Harry Eden as Jo, Charlie Brooks as Jenny, Alun Armstrong as Mr Bucket, Charles Dance as Tulkinghorn, Katie Angelou as Charley Neckett, Nathaniel Parker as Harold Skimpole.