JOURNAL OF A COMPULSIVE READER
By Charles Matthews

Monday, June 27, 2011

19. Bleak House, by Charles Dickens, pp. 687-718

Chapter 44: The Letter and the Answer through Chapter 46: Stop Him!

Esther and Jarndyce continue their discussion of the secret she has revealed to him and what they should do to keep it secret. She tells him that she has tried to prevent Guppy from pursuing the matter, but that she is also concerned about Mademoiselle Hortense after her eager offer to become her maid. Jarndyce tells her he will be aware from now on of any possible ways the secret might leak out.

And then he tells her, "You have wrought changes in me, little woman, since the winter day in the stage coach. First and last you have done me a world of good, since that time." He then says that he has something he would like to ask her, but he would like to do it in the form of a letter. Esther is no fool, and has already guessed what he's up to, so she agrees that a week from today she will send Charley to him "for the letter." This curious courtship ritual seems silly to us, but it is entirely coherent with the shyness and reticence -- as well as the sexlessness -- of both Jarndyce and Esther. So on the appointed night she sends for the letter:
I opened it and read it. It was so impressive in its love for me, and in the unselfish caution it gave me, and the consideration it showed for me in every word, that my eyes were too often blinded to read much at a time. But I read it through three times, before I laid it down. I had thought beforehand that I knew its purport, and I did. It asked me if would I be the mistress of Bleak House.
She's not marrying a man, she's marrying a house. What decides it for her is that "he could love me just as well as in my fairer days," and that the secret of her parentage is no problem for him. So she accepts the proposal, not without a lot of private tears. And then she performs a kind of symbolic self-immolation: She burns the flowers that Woodcourt had given her. But significantly, after she says yes, "it made no difference presently, and we all went out together, and I said nothing to my precious pet about it." The "precious pet" is Ada, of course, her true love, and the fact that she withholds the information of this engagement from her speaks volumes about her awareness that it is entirely unsuitable.

One morning, she spots Mr Vholes arriving at the house. She "inquired of Charley, as we went in, whether there was not a gentleman with Mr Jarndyce? To which Charley, whose grammar, I confess to my shame, never did any credit to my educational powers, replied, 'Yes, miss. Him as come down in the country with Mr Richard.'" (Dickens's essentially conservative attitude toward class is revealed when he locks some of his characters into their lower-class state, as he does with Charley's supposed ineducability.) Esther enters to find Jarndyce and Vholes in conversation about Richard, who is not only deeply in debt but has also decided to resign his commission. This will leave him with no income whatever, of course.

Esther volunteers to "go down to Deal, where Richard was then stationed, and see him, and try if it were possible to avert the worst." Vholes, who of course is protecting his own interests where Richard is concerned, takes his leave.
Mr Vholes put his dead glove, which scarcely seemed to have any hand in it, on my fingers, and then on my guardian's fingers, and took his long thin shadow away. I thought of it on the outside of the coach, passing over all the sunny landscape between us and London, chilling the seed in the ground as it glided along.
Charley goes with Esther to Deal, a port and garrison town on the Channel near Dover. There they notice that a ship has just arrived from India, and just in case we don't get the significance of that, Esther tells Charley that "people in such voyages were sometimes wrecked and cast on rocks, where they were saved by the intrepidity and  humanity of one man." First, however, they have to meet with Richard, who "was ever the same to me. Down to -- ah, poor fellow! -- to the end, he never received me but with something of his old merry boyish manner." (If we haven't already guessed that Richard is doomed, we know it now.)

He is resolved on leaving the army, having been pretty much written off by his superior officers anyway, and observes, "I only want to have been in the church, to have made the round of all the professions." He is still bitter about what he sees as mistreatment from Jarndyce however, and he tells Esther that Ada has offered him "the little inheritance she is certain of so soon -- just as little and as much as I have wasted -- and begs and prays me to take it, set myself right with it, and remain in the service." And he lashes out at Jarndyce for trying to separate him from Ada, stirring Esther's anger, if only for a moment. But he says he can't accept Ada's money if it involves staying in the army, "retaining me in what I am not fit for, can take no interest in, and am weary of."

So Esther's mission has been fruitless. Besides learning that his departure from the army is a fait accompli, "and having been the bearer of Ada's letter, and being (as I was going to be) Richard's companion back to London, I had done no good by coming down." But on the way back to her hotel she spots a familiar face, and surprises Charley by urging her to hurry.
It was not until we were shut up in our cabin-room, and I had had time to take breath, that I began to think why I had made such haste. In one of the sun-burnt faces I had recognised Mr Allan Woodcourt, and I had been afraid of his recognising me. I had been unwilling that he should see my altered looks. I had been taken by surprise, and my courage had quite failed me.
But she pulls herself together, and when Woodcourt and his friends show up at the hotel, she sends a card to him. "He came immediately. I told him I was rejoiced to be by chance among the first to welcome him home to England. And I saw that he was very sorry for me." She tells him that she sees Miss Flite often, and when he stammers in replying she reflects again, "He was so very sorry for me that he could scarcely speak." The reiteration of this point suggests that some of Woodcourt's emotion is a projection of Esther's: She is feeling sorry for herself. He tells her that he will probably not return to India: "He had not found himself more favoured by fortune there than here. He had gone out a poor ship's surgeon, and had come home nothing better."

And speaking of misfortune, Richard enters. "I saw that after their first greetings were over, and when they spoke of Richard's career, Mr Woodcourt had a perception that all was not going well with him. He frequently glanced at his face, as if there were something in it that gave him pain; and more than once he looked towards me, as though he sought to ascertain whether I knew what the truth was." The suggestion of shared consciousness between Woodcourt and Esther is one of the signals that their relationship will continue to develop.

Woodcourt has to stay with his ship a while longer, so he's forced to decline the offer to accompany them to London, but Esther steals a moment while Richard is looking after the luggage to clue Woodcourt in on Richard's "estrangement from Mr Jarndyce, and to his being entangled in the ill-fated Chancery suit." Woodcourt remarks that Richard is changed: "I  never saw so remarkable a look in a young person. One cannot say that it is all anxiety, or all weariness; yet it is both, and like ungrown despair." Esther asks if Woodcourt will be going to London, and when he says he will be there in a day or two she asks him to befriend Richard and try to help him. He vows to do so: "I will accept him as a trust, and it shall be a sacred one!" Esther accepts this at face value, not recognizing (or at least not admitting) that Woodcourt wouldn't make quite so emotional a vow if it were not for her sake.

And as they leave, Esther once again repeats the motif: "I saw that he was very sorry for me. I was glad to see it. I felt for my old self as the dead may feel if they ever revisit these scenes. I was glad to be tenderly remembered, to be gently pitied, not to be quite forgotten." Does anyone feel glad to be pitied, even "gently?"
Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz), Tom-all-Alone's (Source: David Perdue's Charles Dickens Page)
We are back to the decaying slum that is Tom-all-Alone's, and Dickens is writing about the social and political inertia that afflicts the place, which he now personifies as "Tom."
Whether he shall be put into the main road by constables, or by beadles, or by bell-ringing, or by force of figures, or by correct principles of taste, or by high church, or by low church, or by no church; whether he shall be set to splitting trusses of polemical straws with the crooked knife of his mind, or whether he shall be put to stone-breaking instead. In the midst of which dust and noise, there is but one thing perfectly clear, to wit, that Tom only may and can, or shall and will, be reclaimed according to somebody's theory but nobody's practice. And in the hopeful meantime, Tom goes to perdition head foremost in his old determined spirit.
As with any great problem -- down to such contemporary ones as immigration or drug trafficking or global climate change -- there is an abundance of "somebody's theory" and of "nobody's practice." And as a result, the problem persists until it reaches a flashpoint, which in the case of Tom-all-Alone's has arrived in the form of communicable disease: "There is not a drop of Tom's corrupted blood but propagates infection and contagion somewhere." So grave is the problem that Dickens actually sets it against imperial British pride: "The day begins to break now; and in truth it might be better for the national glory even that the sun should sometimes set upon the British dominions, than that it should ever rise upon so vile a wonder as Tom."

Enter "A brown sunburnt gentleman," i.e., Woodcourt, who has turned his back upon "the British dominions" and is investigating the problems he has seen abroad in his own land. He looks around Tom-all-Alone's and "seems to understand such wretchedness, and to have studied it before." He finds a woman dozing on a doorstep, and speaks to her.
A habit in him of speaking to the poor, and of avoiding patronage or condescension, or childishness (which is the favourite device, many people deeming it quite a subtlety to talk to them like little spelling books), has put him on good terms with the woman easily.
(Perhaps Esther should take this approach with Charley, instead of criticizing her grammar.)

The woman has a bruise on her forehead, and he cleans and binds it. He deduces from the dust on her clothes that her husband is a brickmaker, and we recognize Jenny once again. When she mentions that they have journeyed here from Saint Albans, he betrays the surprise of recognition -- she is from the neighborhood of Bleak House. Woodcourt offers her money, but she says she has some, and is only waiting for her husband to arrive so they can go to their lodgings.

He walks away but then "a ragged figure" approaches, heading in the direction where Woodcourt has left Jenny. Woodcourt has "a shadowy belief that he has seen the boy before." After the boy passes him by, Woodcourt hears a sound of running and turns to see the boy, pursued by Jenny, coming toward him. She calls out for Woodcourt to stop him, which he finally does after giving chase and cornering him. When Jenny calls him "Jo," Woodcourt realizes that he saw him at the coroner's inquest after Nemo/Hawdon's death.

He asks Jenny if Jo had robbed her, and she says, "He did nothing but what was kind-hearted by me, and that's the wonder of it." She tells him that he was ill at her home in Saint Albans, and a young woman "took pity on him ... and took him home" to nurse him. "Allan shrinks back from him with a sudden horror," realizing the connection between Jo's illness and Esther's, which he has heard about from Richard. Jenny continues, "And that young lady that was such a pretty dear, caught his illness, lost her beautiful looks, and wouldn't hardly be known for the same young lady now, if it wasn't for her angel temper, and her pretty shape, and her sweet voice."

Woodcourt questions Jo, who reveals that he has been on the road since then, and has finally returned to Tom-all-Alone's because he's penniless and ill, and thinks he might get some money from Mr Snagsby. Woodcourt asks why Jo left Bleak House. Jo is reluctant to answer, having promised someone not to tell, but he finally admits that he was taken away in the night. Woodcourt asks who took him away. "'I dustn't name him,' says Jo. 'I dustn't do it, sir.'" He is clearly terrified, for even when Woodcourt says the person isn't here, Jo doesn't believe it: "He's in all manner of places, all at wunst." He says the man took him to a hospital, and when he was discharged gave him money and told him never to return to London.

Woodcourt says goodbye to Jenny and takes Jo with him, promising to find him "a better place than this to lie down and hide in."
_____
The 2005 BBC/Masterpiece Theatre dramatization features Anna Maxwell Martin as Esther Summerson, Denis Lawson as John Jarndyce, Lilo Baur as Hortense, Alun Armstrong as Mr Bucket, Carey Mulligan as Ada Clare, Patrick Kennedy as Richard Carstone, Nathaniel Parker as Harold Skimpole, Dermot Crowley as Mr Vholes, Emma Williams as Rosa, Charles Dance as Tulkinghorn, Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock, Phil Davis as Smallweed, Loo Brealey as Judy Smallweed, Hugo Speer as Mr George, Michael Smiley as Phil Squod, Richard Harrington as Allan Woodcourt, Harry Eden as Jo, Sean McGinley as Snagsby, Anne Reid as Mrs Rouncewell, Tim Dantay as Mr Rouncewell, Timothy West as Sir Leicester Dedlock, Charlie Brooks as Jenny, Pauline Collins as Miss Flite, Tom Georgeson as Clamb.



1 comment:

  1. Must be an enjoyable read Bleak House by Charles Dickens. loved the way you wrote it. I find your review very genuine and orignal, this book is going in by "to read" list.

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