By Charles Matthews

Saturday, June 25, 2011

16. Bleak House, by Charles Dickens, pp. 555-608

Chapter 35: Esther's Narrative through Chapter 37: Jarndyce and Jarndyce

Esther's blindness turns out to have been nothing but a cliffhanger: She has gotten over it by the time Dickens resumes her narrative. It seems to have been one of those pitfalls of serial publication, betraying Dickens into a discontinuity for the sake of melodrama. It would have been a challenge for him to continue the narrative in her voice if she had remained unable to see, but the introduction and casual withdrawal of the blindness seems to me a considerable flaw.

Instead of blindness, then, we get disfigurement of some vaguely specified sort. It seems to trouble Esther far more than it does any of the other characters -- except for one small child who burbles out that she isn't pretty anymore. We can take Esther's sensitivity to her disfigurement as either an inconsistency in one who has been presented as self-deprecating, or a deepening of the character, showing that she is more complex than she likes to admit. For all my sense that introducing Esther as a narrator was a mistake in the first place, I incline to the latter view: that Esther becomes more interesting because of these inconsistencies. But the "Esther problem" is something for another discussion.

There are some haunting touches in Esther's account of her delirium, in which she "laboured up colossal staircases, ever striving to reach the top, and ever turned, as I have seen a worm in a garden path, by some obstruction, and labouring again." Or "that worse time when, strung together somewhere in great black space, there was a flaming necklace, or ring, or starry circle of some kind, of which I was one of the beads! And when my only prayer was to be taken off from the rest, and when it was such inexplicable agony and misery to be a part of the dreadful thing." These are genuine fever dreams.

Meanwhile, Ada has been crying at the door, wanting to be let in to share in the nursing. Ada is a remarkably uninteresting character in herself, but she serves a dual function: First, as Esther's one true love, a same-sex relationship lacking any hint of sexuality -- a "safe" relationship for the Victorians, a more provocative one for us. But she is also Esther's idealization of herself: beautiful and loved, which Esther can never truly believe herself to be. And so this alter ego has to be kept from the sickroom, and then, for a long time afterward, even when Esther gets well, kept from seeing the "changed" and disfigured Esther, as if Ada should be kept from the truth that only Esther knows. In fact, the truth has been kept from Esther as long as possible by the well-meaning Charley and by Jarndyce: They have taken the precautions of removing the mirrors.

When she has recovered enough for Jarndyce to visit, he tells her that he and Ada have "been perfectly forlorn and miserable; here has your friend Caddy been coming and going late and early; here has everyone about the house been utterly lost and dejected; here has even poor Rick been writing -- to me too -- in his anxiety for you!" I'm not sure you want to tell someone that they've been making other people miserable by your own involuntary illness, but it doesn't seem to bother Esther. She is more interested in Richard's writing to Jarndyce. And once again, Ada has been kept out of the loop: "I have thought it better not to mention it to her." Is this the best policy, especially in a world where secrets have so much power to disorder and destroy as the world Dickens has created?

Richard, Jarndyce says, has written "coldly, haughtily, distantly, resentfully" to Jarndyce, only because he was unable to write directly to Esther with any expectation that she could answer him. "Jarndyce and Jarndyce has warped him out of himself, and perverted me in his eyes," Jarndyce says. Esther clings to a "hope that a little experience will teach him what a false and wretched thing" the Chancery suit is, but Jarndyce is more realistic, having seen its effects before.

Meanwhile, they agree that Ada needs to be kept from the truth about Esther's "altered self." And Jarndyce tells her that Boythorn has offered his place for her recuperation. Esther is glad to accept, "for of all the places I could have thought of, I should have liked to go to none so well as Chesney Wold."

Now she receives a visit from Miss Flite, who had heard of her illness and walked the twenty miles from London "in a pair of dancing shoes" to inquire about her. They make arrangements for her to be brought by carriage. And chattering on, Miss Flite says something about a pocket-handkerchief, and then breaks off in embarrassment and looks at Charley, who had met the carriage, for a decision on whether she should continue to tell the story. Charley gives her the go-ahead, and Miss Flite says that they had been followed on the road by "a poor person in a very ungenteel bonnet," whom Charley identifies as Jenny, the brickmaker's wife. Jenny told them that "a lady with a veil" had stopped at the brickmaker's cottage to ask if they had any information on Esther's health, and that the lady took "a handkerchief away with her as a little keepsake," after learning that it had been Esther's.

Charley explains that it was the handkerchief that Esther had used to cover Jenny's dead baby on the evening of the Pardiggle invasion, and that Jenny had set it aside as a keepsake. "And Jenny wants you to know that she wouldn't have made away with it herself for a heap of money, but that the lady took it, and left some money instead." Miss Flite is convinced that it was "the Lord Chancellor's wife," but Esther "did not think very much about this lady then, for I had an impression that it might be Caddy."

Miss Flite inevitably wanders back into her favorite subject, Chancery, about which she says, "There's a cruel attraction in the place. You can't leave it. And you must expect." Her own father and brother had been drawn by it into bankruptcy, and "drunkenness. And rags. And death. Then my sister was drawn. Hush! Never ask to what!" (I.e., prostitution.) Miss Flite "was ill, and in misery; and heard, as I had often heard before, that this was all the work of Chancery. When I got better, I went to look at the Monster. And then I found out how it was, and I was drawn to stay there." And she warns about Richard: "Let some one hold him back. Or he'll b drawn to ruin."

Then she cheers up: "You have not congratulated me on my physician." Esther is puzzled, and then Miss Flite explains that she's talking about Allan Woodcourt, whose heroism during "a terrible shipwreck over in those East-Indian seas" has been in the news during Esther's illness. She has a clipping about the shipwreck that she gives Esther, who reads it over and over. Miss Flite proclaims, "my brave physician ought to have a Title bestowed upon him. And no doubt he will. You are of that opinion?" Esther says he should, but he won't be so honored:
I said it was not the custom in England to confer titles on men distinguished by peaceful services, however good and great; unless occasionally, when they consisted of the accumulation of some very large amount of money.
Miss Flite is shocked at Esther's cynicism, insisting "that all the greatest ornaments of England, in knowledge, imagination, active humanity, and improvement of every sort, are added to its nobility!" Esther reflects, "I am afraid she believed what she said; for there were moments when she was very mad indeed."  Once again, Dickens can't resist letting his own voice override Esther's.

All of this talk about Woodcourt leads Esther to a revelation of "the little secret I have thus far tried to keep. I had thought, sometimes, that Mr Woodcourt loved me." But now, she claims, she can be happy that they never avowed their love because "the poor face he had known as mine was quite gone from me," and she doesn't have to release him from the vows they never made to each other. (Dickens is clearly borrowing from Jane Austen's Persuasion, which hinges on the reunion of Anne Elliot with a former love after she has "lost her bloom.")

Esther and Charley take up lodgings at Boythorn's, and she delights in "everything in nature.... This was my first gain from my illness. How little I had lost, when the wide world was so full of delight for me." But now we learn that she still hasn't seen herself in the mirror, and she summons up her courage and does it: "I was very much changed -- O very, very much.... I had never been a beauty, and never had thought myself one; but I had been very different from this." And now she's "troubled" because she "had kept Mr Woodcourt's flowers. When they were withered I had dried them, and put them in a book that I was fond of. Nobody knew this, not even Ada." (Considering how much else Ada is being kept in the dark about, that's not surprising.) But she decides to keep them "only as a remembrance of what was irrevocably past and gone, never to be looked back on any more, in any other light."

So then she and Charley set up a schedule of fresh air and exercise, leaving her "scarcely any time to think about that little loss of mine." And one day they are sitting in "a favourite spot of mine in the park-woods of Chesney Wold" that has a "picturesque" view of the "part of the Hall, called The Ghost's Walk." She has heard the legend and it "mingled with the view and gave it something of a mysterious interest." She has heard that the family is not at the mansion, so she is surprised when Lady Dedlock appears.
Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz), Lady Dedlock in the Wood (Source: David Perdue's Charles Dickens Page)
I was rendered motionless. Not so much by her quick advance and outstretched hands, not so much by the great change in her manner, and the absence of her haughty self-restraint, as by a something in her face that I had pined for and dreamed of when I was a little child; something I had never seen in any face; something I had never seen in hers before.
Dickens is laboring mightily to indicate that the "something" is the look a mother gives her child. The scene that follows is inevitably mawkish, especially when Esther sees "in her hand my handkerchief, with which I had covered the dead baby," Esther being the baby that Lady Dedlock had thought dead. Lady Dedlock has her send Charley on ahead as she walks with Esther and reveals, "O my child, my child, I am your wicked and unhappy mother! O try to forgive me!"

She is possessed by a guilt -- over a child born out of wedlock -- that we find difficult to imagine. In a way, the muffling volume of Victorian dress, the layers and layers of cloth, in the Phiz illustration above best expresses the societal repressiveness under which Lady Dedlock and Esther labor. They have a secret that must be kept, partly, as Lady Dedlock exclaims, because "I have a husband, wretched and dishonouring creature that I am!"

This will have to be their only meeting, Lady Dedlock proclaims: "We could never associate, never could communicate, never probably from that time forth could interchange another word, on earth." She gives Esther a letter that she says must be destroyed: "I must evermore consider her as dead." And when Esther asks if their secret is safe, Lady Dedlock warns that "It may be lost by another accident -- tomorrow, any day." She is afraid of Tulkinghorn, "mechanically faithful without attachment, and very  jealous of the profit, privilege, and reputation of being master of the mysteries of great houses.... He is indifferent to everything but his calling. His calling is the acquisition of secrets, and the holding possession of such power as they give him, with no sharer or opponent in it." But, she says, "I will outlive this danger, and outdie it, if I can." ("Outdie" is Dickens's strange and foreboding coinage: It's not in the OED.)

Esther suggests that she might tell Mr Jarndyce, and Lady Dedlock gives her consent -- "a small gift from such a mother to her injured child" -- as long as Esther doesn't tell her that she has done so. "Some pride is left in me, even yet." And as they part, she tells her, "If you hear of Lady Dedlock, brilliant, prosperous, and flattered; think of your wretched mother, conscience-stricken, underneath that mask!"

When she returns to Boythorn's, Esther tells Charley that she has overtired herself from walking after Lady Dedlock left, and that she wants to lie down. She goes to her room and reads the letter:
I had not been abandoned by my mother. Her elder and only sister, the godmother of my childhood, discovering signs of life in me when I had been laid aside as dead, had, in her stern sense of duty, with no desire or willingness that I should live, reared me in rigid secrecy, and had never again beheld my mother's face from within a few hours of my birth.
As for Lady Dedlock's reaction on seeing Esther in the church, she had made her think of what her child might be like "if it had ever lived, and had lived on; but that was all, then."

The revelation makes Esther "heavily sorrowful to think that I had ever been reared.... I felt as if I knew it would have been better and happier for many people, if indeed I had never breathed.... I had a terror of myself, as the danger and the possible disgrace of my own mother, and of a proud family name." As evening comes on, she feels herself drawn toward Chesney Wold, and she goes out again, making her way toward The Ghost's Walk.
Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz), The Ghost's Walk (Source: David Perdue's Charles Dickens Page)
When she reaches it, "my echoing footsteps brought it suddenly into my mind that there was a dreadful truth in the legend of the Ghost's Walk; that it was I, who was to bring calamity upon the stately house; and that my warning feet were haunting it even then." She turns and runs back to Boythorn's.

But in the morning she is cheered by a letter announcing that Ada is coming to visit, and another from Jarndyce complaining that "the housekeeping was going to rack and ruin" at Bleak House.
I saw very well that I could not have been intended to die, or I should never have lived: not to say should never have been reserved for such a happy life. I saw very well how many things had worked together, for my welfare; and that if the sins of the fathers were sometimes visited upon the children, the phrase did not mean what I had in the morning feared it meant. 
In short, Esther experiences some of the optimism carried to an extreme by Skimpole.

Ada arrives, and the reunion is a flood of tears and kisses. Then one day Esther is summoned to meet "a gentleman" at the Dedlock Arms, the inn in the village. She goes there to find Richard, who is on leave. "I want to appear quietly in your country house  here, with you under my arm, and give my charming cousin a surprise. I suppose your loyalty to John Jarndyce will allow that?" He has made it clear to her that he is "not accountable to Mr Jarndyce, or Mr Anybody." She says he is welcome. When she asks how he likes his profession, however, he gives a familiar answer: "It does as well as anything else, for a time." Which causes her to reflect, "So young and handsome, and in all respects so perfectly the opposite of Miss Flite! And yet, in the clouded, eager, seeking look that passed over him, so dreadfully like her!" For he is more full than ever of the thought that Jarndyce and Jarndyce will be settled, and to his advantage.

Moreover, he has brought Skimpole along with him, and says, "He does me more good than anybody." In Esther's opinion, "Richard could scarcely have found a worse friend than this," but she welcomes him anyway. So they go to Boythorn's and surprise Ada, whose love for Richard seems unchanged. On the other hand, Esther reflects, "I almost mistrusted myself, as growing quite wicked in my suspicions, but I was not so sure that Richard loved her dearly." Richard tells Ada that he isn't there to change the terms between them that they had agreed on when they broke their engagement, but was just there to visit.

But inevitably he and Esther quarrel about Jarndyce, when she refers to his warnings about "the family curse," the Chancery suit: "My dear Esther, how can you be so blind? Don't you see that he is an interested party, and that it may be very well for him to wish me to know nothing of the suit, and care nothing about it, but that it may not be quite so well for me?" He has grown suspicious that Jarndyce hopes to benefit at his expense from the suit. "I don't say that he is not an honourable man, out of all this complication and uncertainty; I am sure he is. But it taints everybody. You know it taints everybody. You have heard him say so fifty times. Then why should he escape?" In fact, he says, from studying the conflicting wills, he has discovered that one of them gives him more money than it gives Jarndyce. That has aroused his suspicions about why Jarndyce wants him to stay out of the case. Esther continues to defend Jarndyce as kind and generous, but Richard is unpersuaded.
"I may find out, when it's over, that I have been mistaken in John Jarndyce. My head may be clearer when I am free of it, and I may then agree with what you say today. Very well. Then I shall acknowledge it, and make him reparation."
Esther asks if he is in debt again, and he says, "Why of course I am." He claims that in order to pursue the will most favorable to him and to Ada, he has some expenses.

Esther decides that her only recourse is to try to get Ada on her side, so she "told her exactly what reason we had to dread that Richard was losing himself, and scattering his whole life to the winds." It makes Ada unhappy, and she still believes he's capable of changing his ways, but she writes a letter to him saying, "You can do nothing for my sake that will make me half so happy, as for ever turning your back upon the shadow in which we both were born." It seems to have no effect on him, however.

Esther even tries to enlist Skimpole's help, but although he agrees that the suit is "nothing but fees, fraud, horsehair wigs, and black gowns," he is too childishly self-involved to be of any help in persuading Richard of that.

And then Esther discovers that Richard has a new "legal adviser," a man named Vholes, to whom Skimpole introduced him. Vholes himself comes down to see Richard and is introduced to Esther. He is "a sallow man with pinched lips that looked as if they were cold, a red eruption here and there upon his face, tall and thin, about fifty years of age, high-shouldered, and stooping. Dressed in black, black-gloved, and buttoned to the chin, there was nothing so remarkable in him as a lifeless manner, and a slow fixed way he had of looking at Richard." Rather like a vulture, it would seem. Vholes has come to see Richard because he has been told to let him know whenever the case is being heard in Chancery, and that it will be tomorrow.

So Richard gets ready to go, but when Esther asks Vholes if Richard's presence in court will make any difference, "'No, miss,' Mr Vholes replied. 'I am not aware that it can.'"
I never shall forget those two seated side by side in the lantern's light; Richard, all flush and fire and laughter, with the reins in his hand; Mr Vholes, quite still, black-gloved, and buttoned up, looking at him as if he were looking at his prey and charming it.
And Ada tells Esther "that the more he needed love from one unchanging heart, the more love that unchanging heart would have to give him."
The 2005 BBC/Masterpiece Theatre dramatization features Phil Davis as Smallweed, Charles Dance as Tulkinghorn, Anna Maxwell Martin as Ether Summerson, Hugo Speer as Mr George, Tom Georgeson as Clamb, Michael Smiley as Phil Squod, Pauline Collins as Miss Flite, Denis Lawson as John Jarndyce, Carey Mulligan as Ada Clare, Loo Brealey as Judy Smallweed, Burn Gorman as Guppy, Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock, Anne Reid as Mrs Rouncewell, Warren Clarke as Boythorn, Katie Angelou as Charley Neckett.

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