By Charles Matthews

Friday, June 10, 2011

2. Bleak House, by Charles Dickens, pp. 27-63

Chapter 3: A Progress through Chapter 4: Telescopic Philanthropy

Esther Summerson begins her part of the narrative. The self-effacement -- "I know I am not clever," etc. -- quickly grows cloying, but fortunately Dickens has a story to tell that distracts us from it. We learn that Esther is an orphan being raised by her "godmother," a Miss Barbary, who is her aunt "in fact, though not in law" -- a curious distinction. And that her childhood is a lonely one, made more so by her godmother's piety: "She was so good herself, I thought, that the badness of other people made her frown all her life."

Esther is raised with no mention of her parents: "I had never heard my mama spoken of. I had never heard of my papa either, but I felt more interested about my mama." And when she broaches the subject to the servant, Mrs Rachael, "another very good woman, but austere to me"), the topic is quickly closed. Birthdays are particularly trying: At school she hears reports of other girls' birthday celebrations but hers "was the most melancholy day at home, in the whole year."

Finally, she thinks she may have guessed the reason for the particular gloominess surrounding her birthdays, and asks her godmother, "did mama die on my birthday?" When the question is rejected -- "Ask me no more, child!" -- Esther becomes upset and demands to know, "Why am I so different from other children, and why is it my fault, godmother?" She receives a terrible answer: "Your mother, Esther, is your disgrace, and you were hers." And the godmother/aunt lashes out cruelly because of "the wrong she did to me," meaning Esther's mother.
"I say no more of it, though it was greater than you will ever know -- than any one will ever know, but I, the sufferer. For yourself, unfortunate girl, orphaned and degraded from the first of these evil anniversaries, pray daily that the since of others be not visited upon your head, according to what is written. Forget your mother, and leave all other people to forget her who will do her unhappy child that greatest kindness. Now, go!" 
No wonder Esther is self-effacing, and strives "to repair the fault I had been born with," about which she feels, in a nice Dickensian insight, "confusedly" both "guilty and yet innocent." It is this spark of recognition that maybe there's a truth beyond that which is proclaimed by others that gives Esther some backbone and more complexity than just the stereotypical virtuous waif.

And then one day they are visited by "A portly important-looking gentleman," to whom Esther is presented by her godmother for inspection and then dismissed. Two years pass, and one evening Esther is reading to her godmother from the Bible and comes across the passage in the gospel of John about the woman taken in adultery. Jesus proclaims, "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her!" Suddenly the godmother arises, puts her hand to her head and cries out, "Watch ye therefore! lest coming suddenly he find you sleeping. And what I say unto you, I say unto all, Watch!" It's from the gospel of Mark about the second coming. She falls down unconscious, presumably from a stroke, and dies a week or so later.

The "portly important-looking gentleman" returns on the day after the godmother's funeral, introduces himself as Kenge, of the firm "Kenge and Carboy, Lincoln's Inn," and asks if Esther has heard of Jarndyce and Jarndyce. He's astonished that she hasn't, because, after all, "the aggregate of costs in Jarndyce and Jarndyce ... amounts at the present hour to from SIX-ty to SEVEN-ty THOUSAND POUNDS!" He informs Esther that he is there to renew "an offer which I was instructed to make to Miss Barbary some two years ago, and which, though rejected then, was understood to be renewable" in the event of the godmother/aunt's death. The offer comes from a Mr Jarndyce who wants "to place her at a first-rate establishment; where her education shall be completed, where her comfort shall be secured, where her reasonable wants shall be anticipated," and so on. As Esther notes here, she later learned "that he was generally called Conversation Kenge."

And so a week later, Esther leaves Windsor, where she has spent her whole life, for a school in Reading. She shares the coach with a man who "looked very large in a quantity of wrappings" but who takes no notice of her until she starts to cry quietly. He demands, "What the de-vil are you crying for?" And she admits that she wasn't aware that she had been, but "that I thought I must have been crying, because of my godmother's death, and because of Mrs Rachael's not being sorry to part with me." He denounces Mrs Rachael and mutters "to himself in an angry manner, ... calling Mrs Rachael names." He opens one of his voluminous cloaks and takes out a plum cake and a pie made from foie gras and offers them to her. She declines them as too rich for her, so he throws them out of the window and doesn't speak to her again until they near Reading, where he takes his leave and tells her to be a good girl and to study.
We left him at a milestone. I often walked past it afterwards, and never, for a long time, without thinking of him, and half expecting to meet him. But I never did; and so, as time went on, he passed out of my mind.
At the school she is met by Miss Donny, who assures her that everything "has been arranged in exact accordance with the wishes of your guardian, Mr Jarndyce." She is taken to Greenleaf, the home of the two Misses Donny, who are twins, and learns that she is to be trained to become a governess. So in addition to her lessons, she also is "very soon engaged in helping to instruct others" among the school's twelve boarders. "I passed at Greenleaf six happy, quiet years. I never saw in any face there, thank Heaven, on my birthday, that it would have been better if I had never been born."

So Esther is almost twenty when she receives a letter from Mr Kenge informing her that Mr Jarndyce wants her to become the companion for a ward of the court in the matter of Jarndyce and Jarndyce. She goes to London, where she is met by a young man from the firm of Kenge and Carboy. We'll soon learn that his name is Guppy. Esther is shocked by the choking fog of London and by the ride "through the dirtiest and darkest streets in the world (I thought)."

At Kenge and Carboy, Mr Kenge informs her that she is going to meet with the Lord Chancellor, and is taken to a room where she meets the wards of the court, Ada Clare and Richard Carstone. Richard is "a handsome youth, with an ingenuous face, and a most engaging laugh." Ada has "such rich golden hair, such soft blue eyes, and such a bright, innocent, trusting face!" (Esther's infatuation with Ada grows thicker as the novel progresses.) Richard is not quite nineteen and Ada is two years younger. They are ushered into the presence of the Lord Chancellor, who is informed by Kenge that Mr Jarndyce is "Jarndyce of Bleak House," which is in Hertfordshire, and that Mr Jarndyce is unmarried. It's then that Esther learns that she is to be the companion for Ada, the Lord Chancellor being assured that "Miss Summerson is not related to any party in the case."

After the Lord Chancellor departs, Esther, Ada and Richard are left to wait in the colonnade outside of Kenge's office while he goes inside to check on something. While they are waiting to be taken to their next destination, "a curious little old woman in a squeezed bonnet, and carrying a reticule, came curtseying and smiling up to us, with an air of great ceremony." We saw her in the first chapter, and we'll later learn that she is Miss Flite and that she is, as Richard observes at this moment, "Mad!" She accepts the designation, which she has overheard, and informs them that she was once a ward of the court, too. "I expect a judgment. Shortly. On the Day of Judgment. I have discovered that the sixth seal mention in the Revelations is the Great Seal. It has been open a long time! Pray accept my blessing." Then Kenge arrives and shoos her away.
She stopped at the bottom of the steep, broad flight of stairs; but we looked back as we went up, and she was still there, saying, still with a curtsey and a smile between every little sentence, "Youth. And hope. And beauty. And Chancery. And Conversation Kenge! Ha! Pray accept my blessing!"
Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz), The Little Old Lady (Source: David Perdue's Charles Dickens Page)
It is too late in the day to go straight to Bleak House, so arrangements have been made for Esther, Ada and Richard to spend the night at Mrs Jellyby's. Kenge is astonished that none of them have heard of Mrs Jellyby, who he tells them "is a lady of very remarkable strength of character, who devotes herself entirely to the public," and especially to "the happy settlement, on the banks of the African rivers, of our superabundant home population." Richard asks about Mr Jellyby, but Kenge has nothing to say about him. "'A nonentity, sir?' said Richard with a droll look." But Kenge is not willing to say even that about Mr Jellyby.

Mr Guppy accompanies them to Mrs Jellyby's, along the way taking the opportunity to say to Esther that the fog "seems to do you good, miss, judging from your appearance." Esther doesn't know what to say in reply. When they reach the Jellybys they discover a great commotion outside, and Guppy goes to investigate. "One of the young Jellybys been and got his head through the area railings!" he reports. Esther, whose schooling has given her some experience with younger children, goes to investigate and discovers that the boy is being attended to by a milkman and a beadle who, "with the kindest intentions possible, were endeavouring to drag him back by the legs, under a general impression that his skull was compressible by those means." There, Dickens's usual narrative voice substitutes for the one he has been trying to craft for Esther, who doesn't characteristically take such a distant and ironic attitude toward someone else's misfortune. This confusion of voice continues throughout the visit to the Jellybys.

Esther persuades them that it would be better to push the boy through the railings: "I thought that, perhaps, where his head could go, his body could follow." They manage to extricate him this way. A servant, "who had been poking at the child from below with a broom," goes to inform Mrs Jellyby that her guests had arrived, and as another child tumbles down the stairs with a great noise, they are ushered into her presence. To Esther's astonishment, Mrs Jellyby takes no account of any of the accidents of the many children in her household.
She was a pretty, very diminutive, plump woman, of from forty to fifty, with handsome eyes, though they had a curious habit of seeming to look a long way off. As if -- I am quoting Richard again -- they could see nothing nearer than Africa!
"Quoting Richard" is a convenient way for Dickens to introduce a sarcastic tone into Esther's narrative.

For her part, Esther is struck by how "not only untidy, but very dirty" the Jellyby household is, but particularly by "a jaded, and unhealthy-looking, though by no means plain girl, at the writing-table, who sat biting the feather of her pen, and staring at us." This is Caddy Jellyby, the oldest child, who acts as her mother's amanuensis. Mrs Jellyby informs them, "We hope by this time next year to have from a hundred and fifty to two hundred healthy families cultivating coffee and educating the natives of Borrioboola-Gha, on the left bank of the Niger." She introduces them to Caddy, but is interrupted by "the unfortunate child who had fallen down-stairs," and who is called Peepy. (Neither "peepee" nor "pee" seem to have had their current urinary connotations at the time, at least as far as I can tell from the OED, so maybe Dickens isn't going there. But I still wonder.)

Esther's maternal instincts take over and she scoops up the dirty little child, whom Mrs Jellyby tries to dismiss, and he falls asleep in her arms. Mrs Jellyby orders Caddy to show Esther and Ada their rooms, and tells Esther to put Peepy down, but she pleads that he's no problem, which seems to satisfy Mrs Jellyby. The rooms are as messy and dirty as the rest of the house, but Caddy offers them some hot water to freshen up, then returns to say that there isn't any and "they couldn't find the kettle, and the boiler was out of order."

They go down the treacherous staircase, whose carpet is missing "stair-wires" (we call them "stair rods") and is full of holes, to dinner with is "a fine cod-fish, a piece of roast beef, a dish of cutlets, and a pudding," all of which is "almost raw." It is as chaotic as the rest of the house, because during it Mrs Jellyby "received so many letters that Richard, who sat by her, saw four envelopes in the gravy at once." (Richard proves useful again.) During the meal, "a mild bald gentleman in spectacles" joins them but "never spoke a word." He turns out to be Mr Jellyby. They are joined after dinner by a Mr Quale who tells Ada that he is "a philanthropist," and informs her that the marriage of Mrs Jellyby and Mr Jellyby is "the union of mind and matter." Quale keeps the conversation focused on Africa, where he has plans for "the coffee colonists to teach the natives to turn piano-forte legs and establish an export trade." Throughout it all, "Mr Jellyby sat in a corner with his head against the wall, as if he were subject to low spirits," though Richard says he would sometimes open his mouth as if he had something to say but "always shut it again, to Richard's extreme confusion, without saying anything."

While Mrs Jellyby and Mr Quale discuss "the Brotherhood of Humanity," and she dictates letters to Caddy, the other children enter and Esther and Ada quietly entertain them by telling them stories "until Mrs Jellyby, accidentally remembering them, sent them to bed." Peepy asks Esther to take him to bed, and after she does she goes to her room to stoke the fire. "On my return downstairs, I felt that Mrs Jellyby looked down upon me rather, for being so frivolous; and I was sorry for it, though at the same time I knew that I had no higher pretensions." But Ada is impressed with how kind and thoughtful Esther is, which pleases Esther no end.

Esther learns from Ada that she has never seen her cousin Jarndyce, but that her mother used to speak "of the noble generosity of his character. Richard, she says, had seen him once and "recollected him as 'a bluff, rosy fellow.'"  Ada goes to bed and Esther is sitting by the fire when there is a knock at the door. It is Caddy Jellyby, who has come to talk and to pour out her grievances: "'I wish Africa was dead!' she said, on a sudden." She admits "I can't do anything hardly, except write. I'm always writing for Ma." She turns her resentment on Ada and Esther, "You think yourselves very fine, I dare say!" But Esther realizes that she is only expressing her embarrassment and frustration and lets her vent them: "'I wish I was dead!' she broke out. 'I wish we were all dead. It would be a great deal better for us." Finally, she falls asleep from exhaustion and Esther lays Caddy's head in her lap and sits up while the girl slumbers.
I began to lose the identity of the sleeper resting on me. Now, it was Ada; now, one of my old Reading friends from whom I could not believe I had so recently parted. Now, it was the little mad woman worn out with curtseying and smiling; now, some one in authority at Bleak House. Lastly, it was no one, and I was no one.
In the morning she wakes to find Peepy staring at her, "so cold that his teeth were chattering."
Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz), Miss Jellyby (Source: David Perdue's Charles Dickens Page)
The 2005 BBC/Masterpiece Theatre dramatization features Charles Dance as Tulkinghorn, Ian Richardson as the Chancellor, Anna Maxwell Martin as Esther Summerson, Carey Mulligan as Ada Clare, Patrick Kennedy as Richard Carstone, Burn Gorman as Guppy, John Lynch as Nemo, Pauline Collins as Miss Flite, Tom Georgeson as Clamb, Alistair McGowan as Kenge, Johnny Vegas as Krook, Natalie Press as Caddy Jellyby, Liza Tarbuck as Mrs Jellyby.

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