By Charles Matthews

Saturday, June 25, 2011

17. Bleak House, by Charles Dickens, pp. 609-637

Chapter 38: A Struggle through Chapter 39: Attorney and Client

Esther returns to Bleak House and her housekeeping duties, but she has some business in London to take care of once she gets things in order. She stops to see Caddy as a "pretext for this visit," and finds her supervising the apprentices in the dancing school -- "it seemed such a curious thing to be apprenticed to the trade of dancing," Esther observes. She doesn't seem to notice that this attitude resembles that of Caddy's mother, who, Caddy says, "thinks there is something absurd in my having married a dancing master." But Esther does find her way through a kind of moral approbation: "I conscientiously believed, dancing-master's wife though she was, and dancing-mistress though in her limited ambition she aspired to be, she had struck out a natural, wholesome, loving course of industry that was quite as good as a Mission." (And perhaps just as useful as being housekeeper to an eccentric bachelor? I sometimes feel the urge to smack Esther.)

She also finds that Mr Jellyby and the elder Turveydrop have taken up with each other, Mr Jellyby being at the least a good listener. "That old Mr Turveydrop should ever, in the chances and changes of life, have come to the rescue of Mr Jellyby from Borrioboola-Gha, appeared to me to be one of the pleasantest of oddities."

But now we come to her real mission in London: She is there to see Guppy. "I could hardly have believed that anybody could in a moment have turned so red, or changed so much, as Mr Guppy did when I now put up my veil." And having used her disfigurement to dissuade Guppy from any further pursuit of her, she now also asks him to cease any efforts to discover her parentage: "I am acquainted with my personal history; and I have it in my power to assure you that you never can advance my welfare by such means."

Guppy is thoroughly abashed, but he is not above dragging Caddy in to witness that there has never been any "proposal or promise of marriage whatsoever" between him and Esther, and as they leave he nervously lingers to make sure there is no question of any binding engagement to her.

 The omniscient narrator now takes us to the office of Mr Vholes behind a "jet black door, in an angle profoundly dark on the brightest midsummer morning, and encumbered by a black bulk-head of cellerage staircase, against which civilians generally strike their brows." Mr Vholes, we are told several times, "is a very respectable man." And we are informed, "The one great principle of the English law is, to make business for itself. There is no other  principle distinctly, certainly, and consistently maintained through all its narrow turnings." It is Mr Vholes's respectability, and the fact that he is the supporter of three daughters and has "a father in the Vale of Taunton," that causes his profession to look out for him, especially when there is talk of reforming the practice of law to put such a man at a disadvantage.

We see Mr Vholes in his office as he "takes off his close black gloves as if he were skinning his hands, lifts off his tight hat as if he were scalping himself, and sits down at his desk," on the other side of which is his client, who "rests his aching head upon his hand, and looks the portrait of Young Despair" -- Richard Carstone. Richard is bemoaning the fact that nothing has been done in his case, and the long vacation is about to start, during which nothing can be done. But Vholes assures him, "I am to be found here, day by  day, attending to your interests. That is my duty, Mr C; and term time or vacation makes no difference to me. If you wish to consult me as to your interests, you will find me here at all times alike. Other professional men go out of town. I don't."

Richard is appreciative (if perhaps unaware that this means more billable time for Vholes), but he is depressed nonetheless, "dragging on this dislocated life, sinking deeper and deeper into difficulty every day, continually hoping and continually disappointed, conscious of change upon change for the worse in myself, and of no change for the better in anything else."
Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz), Attorney and Client, Fortitude and Impatience (Source: David Perdue's Charles Dickens Page)
Richard is still nursing his grievance against Jarndyce, proclaiming that he is "anything but the disinterested friend he seemed," that he has become "to me he embodiment of the suit," and "that every new delay, and every new disappointment, is only a new injury from John Jarndyce's hand." He tries to get Vholes to concur in his opinion, but the lawyer is cagey: "I wish to say no more of any third party than is necessary." Richard's interests, he says, "are now paramount in this office." And then Vholes assures Richard, "you will owe me nothing, beyond whatever little balance may be then outstanding of the costs as between solicitor and client, not included in the taxed costs allowed out of the estate." This, unfortunately, sounds just fine to Richard.

As Richard leaves Vholes's office, he is observed, "biting his nails and brooding," by Mr Guppy and Mr Weevle/Jobling. The latter comments, "there's combustion going on there! It's not a case of Spontaneous, but it's smouldering combustion it is." Guppy notes, "he wouldn't keep out of Jarndyce, and I suppose he's over head and ears in debt."

They are on their way to Weevle's former lodgings at Krook's, where their friend Young Smallweed has joined his twin sister and his grandfather in combing through the detritus of the establishment. Guppy has made arrangements for Weevle to clear his belongings out of his old room, and he asks Weevle if it was likely that the letters of Captain Hawdon that Krook was to hand over had survived the fire. Weevle thinks not, but Guppy, mindful of his promise to Esther, tells him that if he should spot "any papers that so much as looked like the papers in question, I would pitch them into the fire, sir, on my own responsibility."

The quest of the Smallweeds, which lasts from "every morning at eight ... until nine at night," has attracted so much interest in the neighborhood that "when the dustman is called in to carry off a cart-load of old paper, ashes, and broken bottles the whole court assembles and pries into the baskets as they come forth."

Guppy is surprised to find Tulkinghorn there, overseeing the Smallweeds' search. They ascend to the second floor room, followed by Krook's cat. After a while, as they are removing the Galaxy Gallery of British Beauty from the walls, Tulkinghorn enters as well, stumbling over the cat, which snarls at him. Tulkinghorn observes, "You are to be congratulated, Mr Guppy; you are a fortunate young man, sir.... High friends, free admission to great houses, and access to elegant ladies." He is referring, of course, to their encounter at Lady Dedlock's when Guppy was forced to tell her that he was unable to obtain Hawdon's letters. As he looks around the room, Tulkinghorn notices the portrait of Lady Dedlock over the mantel, and comments, "A very good likeness in its way, but it wants force of character." And he departs, leaving Guppy to tell his friend "that between myself and one of the members of a swanlike aristocracy whom I now hold in my hand, there has been undivulged communication and association," but that it is now at an end.

The 2005 BBC/Masterpiece Theatre dramatization features Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock, Emma Williams as Rosa, Anna Maxwell Martin as Ether Summerson, Carey Mulligan as Ada Clare, Warren Clarke as Boythorn, Denis Lawson as John Jarndyce, Patrick Kennedy as Richard Carstone, Nathaniel Parker as Harold Skimpole, Patrick Monckton as Mr Grubble, Phil Davis as Smallweed, Loo Brealey as Judy Smallweed, Pauline Collins as Miss Flite, Katie Angelou as Charley Neckett, Dermot Crowley as Mr Vholes, Burn Gorman as Guppy, Charles Dance as Tulkinghorn, Tom Georgeson as Clamb.

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