By Charles Matthews

Sunday, June 26, 2011

18. Bleak House, by Charles Dickens, pp. 638-686

Chapter 40: National and Domestic through Chapter 43: Esther's Narrative

There has been a change in government, necessitating new elections, so "the London season comes to a sudden end" so that the members of Parliament may campaign for re-election. This brings Sir Leicester home to Chesney Wold, which means the house has to be opened up. Dickens indulges here in a rather lovely but somewhat sinister description of the sun shining into the empty house, illuminating the portraits of Dedlocks past and bringing them to a kind of life.
But the fire of the sun is dying. Even now the floor is dusky, and shadow slowly mounts the walls, bringing the Dedlocks down like age and death. And now, upon my lady's picture over the great chimney-piece, a weird shade falls from some old tree, that turns it pale, and flutters it, and looks as if a great arm held a veil or hood, watching an opportunity to draw it over her.
As if the Ghost's Walk weren't enough haunting for one place.
Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz), Sunset in the Long Drawing-Room at Chesney Wold (Source: David Perdue's Charles Dickens Page)
A groom tells Mrs Rouncewell that Lady Dedlock has not been well since her last visit to the house, and now that she's there again she "takes no great pains to entertain the numerous guests, and, being still unwell, rarely appears until late in the day." There is much talk of politics, of course, in which she takes no interest.

She is sitting in a window looking out at the falling shadows in the park when the arrival of Mr Tulkinghorn is announced. This seems to attract her notice, but only for a moment. There is a gunshot that causes cousin Volumnia to give "her little withered scream," and ask what has happened. "'A rat,' says my Lady. 'And they have shot him.'" At this moment, Tulkinghorn enters. He announces that Sir Leicester's party has lost the seat for which the opposition wanted to put up Mrs Rouncewell's son. Sir Leicester was gratified that Mr Rouncewell chose not to run, but Tulkinghorn tells him that Rouncewell was active in the election -- "against you" and that his son, whom we know as Watt, was active also.

Sir Leicester turns to Lady Dedlock and says, "My Lady, let me suggest in reference to that young woman--" -- meaning Rosa, of course. But she cuts him off: "'I have no intention,' observes my Lady from her window, in a low but decided tone, 'of parting with her.'" Sir Leicester says he only wanted to ask that she "should exert your influence to keep her from these dangerous hands." Tulkinghorn observes "that these people are, in their way, very proud," and that he wouldn't be surprised if they "abandoned the girl ... supposing she remained at Chesney Wold." And then he proposes to tell a story.
"A townsman of this Mr Rouncewell, a man in exactly parallel circumstances as I am told, had the good fortune to have a daughter who attracted the notice of a great lady. I speak of really a great lady; not merely great to him, but married to a gentleman of your condition, Sir Leicester.... The lady was wealthy and beautiful, and had a liking for the girl, and treated her with great kindness, and kept her always near her. Now this lady preserved a secret under all her greatness, which she had preserved for many years. In fact, she had in early life been engaged to marry a young rake -- he was a captain in the army -- nothing connected with whom came to any good. She never did marry him, but she gave birth to a child of which he was the father."
Lady Dedlock remains "perfectly still" as Tulkinghorn tells this story, which ends with the lady betraying her secret through her "imprudence," causing not only "great domestic trouble and amazement," but also with the townsman removing his daughter from the lady's patronage, "as if the lady had been the commonest of commoners."

Perfectly aware why Tulkinghorn has told this story, Lady Dedlock sits through the conversation that follows, and when the other retire to bed, she does, too, "graceful" and "self-possessed." Tulkinghorn withdraws to his room, "sedately satisfied," because "To say of a man so severely and strictly self-repressed that he is triumphant, would be do to him as great an injustice as to suppose him troubled with love or sentiment, or any romantic weakness." His room is at the top of a turret, and he goes out onto its balcony. But he returns when he realizes that Lady Dedlock is at his door. She enters, and he sees "a wild disturbance -- is it fear or anger? -- in her eyes." She sits down and finally asks, "Why have you told my story to so many persons?" He says he did so to inform her that he knew it, and that he only learned it recently. She asks if it has become common gossip, and he it hasn't. As for the girl in the story, he says it was only a hypothetical case.

She volunteers to write or sign anything that would protect her husband, and he assures her that will not be necessary. And she tells him that she is prepared to leave Chesney Wold that night, and that all of her valuables, her jewels and dresses, will remain where they are. But he tells her not to do that: "before you reach the staircase I shall ring the alarm-bell and rouse the house. And then I must speak out, before every guest and servant, every man and woman in it." She must not do anything so drastic because "The sole consideration in this unhappy case is Sir Leicester.... Your flight, Lady Dedlock, would spread the whole truth, and a hundred times the whole truth, far and wide. It would be impossible to save the family credit for a day. It is not to be thought of." For the sake of Sir Leicester, the whole business must remain "hushed up, if it can be."

She replies, "I am to remain upon this gaudy platform, on which my miserable deception has been so long acted, and it is to fall beneath me when you give the signal?" And all he can say is that he will give her warning. His only concern, he insists is "Sir Leicester's feelings and honour, and the family reputation." She returns to her room where she paces the floor in anguish.

Tulkinghorn goes back to London where he finds Mr Snagsby waiting for him outside his office. Snagsby has been bedeviled by Mademoiselle Hortense, who has been regularly turned away from Tulkinghorn's offices, so she had decided to haunt Snagsby's, thinking that he can persuade Tulkinghorn to see her. Her continued presence there has driven Guster into fits and Mrs Snagsby into a jealous rage. So Tulkinghorn agrees to see her.

She arrives sooner than he anticipated, surprising him as he goes down to his wine cellar. She is furious that she was used by him to get the truth out of Jo and then paid off with two sovereigns -- which she now flings at him -- but is still unemployed: "Place me well. Find me a good condition! If you cannot, or do not choose to do that, employ me to pursue her, to chase her, to disgrace and to dishonour her." And she vows that she will keep coming back to annoy him until he does. He replies, "In this city, there are houses of correction (where the treadmills are, for women)" and that he has the power to see to it that she winds up in one if she continues to pester him or Snagsby. But she leaves angrily, making no promise not to keep bothering him.

Back at Bleak House, Esther is still worrying about Richard, and when she mentions to Jarndyce what a bad influence she thinks Skimpole is on Richard, Jarndyce doesn't take her seriously. "Who could be encouraged by Skimpole? .... Such an unworldly, uncalculating, gossamer creature, is a relief to him, and an amusement." But when she mentions that it was Skimpole who "introduced Richard to Mr Vholes, for a present of five pounds," Jarndyce looks troubled. Still, he is certain Skimpole is unaware that he might have done any harm by it, and proposes that they pay a visit to Skimpole at his home to discuss it with him.

Skimpole's household is as disorderly as one might expect. He greets them cheerfully, but when Jarndyce tries to reason with him about Richard's involvement with the Chancery suit, Skimpole blithely insists that it's all beyond his understanding. "I give you my word, Miss Clare and my dear Miss Summerson, I thought Mr Carstone was immensely rich. I thought he had only to make over something, or to sign a bond, or a draft, or a cheque, or a bell, or to put something on a file somewhere, to bring down a shower of money." He is surprised when Ada tells him that Richard is poor.

Esther is of two minds about Skimpole: "The more I saw of him, the more unlikely it seemed to me, when he was present, that he could design, conceal, or influence anything; and yet the less likely that appeared when he was not present, and the less agreeable it was to think of his having anything to do with anyone for whom I cared."

Skimpole presents his daughters, who are giddy young creatures, and his wife, "who had once been a beauty, but was now a delicate, high-nosed invalid suffering under a complication of disorders." One of their daughters has been "married these three years. Now, I dare say her marrying another child, and having two more, was all wrong in point of political economy, but it was very agreeable."

Skimpole returns with them to Bleak House, where they have a surprise visit from Sir Leicester Dedlock.
Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz), Sir Leicester Dedlock (Source: David Perdue's Charles Dickens Page)
He is there, he says, because he is concerned that his dispute with Boythorn may "have prevented you, still more ladies under your escort and charge, from seeing whatever little there may be to gratify a polite and refined taste, at my house, Chesney Wold." He had also heard that Skimpole had been with them, and was concerned that a man "who would appear to possess a cultivated taste for the Fine Arts, was likewise deterred, by some such cause, from examining the family pictures." As Skimpole is there, he is introduced and Sir Leicester extends his invitation in person.

When Sir Leicester has left, Esther decides that she has to tell Jarndyce the truth. "The possibility of my being brought into contact with my mother, of my being taken to her house, -- even of Mr Skimpole's, however distantly associated with me, receiving kindnesses and obligations from her husband -- was so painful, that I felt I could no longer guide myself without his assistance." So she goes to see him, and asks if he remembers the encounter with Lady Dedlock in which she spoke of Jarndyce's acquaintance with her sister. She asks him why the sisters went their separate ways.

Jarndyce is troubled by these questions, and replies, "Who could tell what the secrets of those two handsome and proud women were! You have seen Lady Dedlock. If you had ever seen her sister, you would know her to have been as resolute and haughty as she." Esther then says, "O guardian, I have seen her many and many a time!" He is puzzled by this response, but tells her that Lady Dedlock's sister was almost married to Mr Boythorn. It's her turn to be startled, and she asks why they didn't marry. Jarndyce says Boythorn conjectured that it had to do something with her quarrel with her sister.

Esther's characteristic response is to blame herself: "'O guardian, what have I done!' I cried, giving way to my grief; 'what sorrow have I innocently caused!'" Lady Dedlock's sister, she revealed, was the "godmother" who raised her. "And her sister is my mother!"
The 2005 BBC/Masterpiece Theatre dramatization features Ian Richardson as Lord Chancellor, Patrick Kennedy as Richard Carstone, Dermot Crowley as Mr Vholes, Timothy West as Sir Leicester Dedlock, Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock, Charles Dance as Tulkinghorn, Emma Williams as Rosa, Anna Maxwell Martin as Ether Summerson, Denis Lawson as John Jarndyce, Lilo Baur as Hortense, Tom Georgeson as Clamb, Pauline Collins as Miss Flite, Phil Davis as Smallweed, Loo Brealey as Judy Smallweed, Nathalie Press as Caddy Jellyby, Bryan Dick as Prince Turveydrop, Matthew Kelly as Mr Turveydrop, Sheila Hancock as Mrs Guppy, Burn Gorman as Guppy, Carey Mulligan as Ada Clare, Nathaniel Parker as Harold Skimpole.

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