By Charles Matthews

Thursday, June 30, 2011

21. Bleak House, by Charles Dickens, pp. 752-791

Chapter 49: Dutiful Friendship through Chapter 51: Enlightened

It's Mrs Bagnet's birthday, and we're going to spend a lot of time on that fact until Mr George arrives for the celebration. As the Bagnets go through their business, which is not particularly relevant to any of the major story-lines of the novel, Mr Bagnet does mention that George is "extra-drilled.... By a lawyer. Who would put the devil out." Since we know that lawyer is dead, we have all the more reason to await George's arrival. And when it comes, the Bagnets notice that he is "white" and "shocked." But he tries to brave it out, giving Mrs Bagnet a brooch for her present.

There is some talk of Jo's death, and then a surprise arrives in the form of Mr Bucket, who claims that he saw the musical instruments in the Bagnets' shop-window and is in the market for a second-hand cello -- or "wiolinceller." George introduces him to the Bagnets, who welcome him into their party, and Bagnet manages to ingratiate himself by making much of the Bagnet children.
Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz), Friendly Behaviour of Mr Bucket (Source: David Perdue's Charles Dickens Page)
But when Mrs Bucket tells him that "George has not been in his usual spirits" that evening, Bucket asks, "What should you be out of spirits for? You haven't got anything on your mind, you know." And after some chat about the children and how he and Mrs Bucket don't have any, Bucket repeats himself: "And you haven't got anything on your mind, you know, George; what could you have on your mind!"

Finally, it is time to go, and Bucket leaves with George. He conducts him into a room in a public house, closes the door behind himself, and says, "You must consider yourself in custody, George." He informs George that he is a suspect in the murder of Tulkinghorn. George expresses surprise: "Bucket! It's not possible that Mr Tulkinghorn has been killed, and that you suspect me?" But when Bucket tells him the murder took place at Tulkinghorn's office at ten o'clock the night before, George admits, "Why great Heaven, I was there, last night!"

Bucket says yes, he knows, and that George has "been seen hanging about the place" and that Tulkinghorn "may have been heard to call you a threatening, murdering, dangerous fellow." Sir Leicester Dedlock, he tells George, has offered a reward of a hundred guineas for the apprehension of the murderer. Bucket produces handcuffs and tells George he has to use them. "The trooper flushes angrily, and hesitates a moment; but holds out his two hands, clasped together, and says, 'There! Put them on!'" And, letting George pull down his hat so he doesn't have to meet the eyes of anyone, Bucket conducts him to jail.

And now back to Esther, and in fact back in time several weeks. Caddy Jellyby has been in poor health since giving birth to a baby, "a tiny old-faced mite, with a countenance that seemed to be scarcely anything but cap-border, and a little, lean, long-fingered hand, always clenched under its chin." Though it is her godchild and is named for her, Esther regards it as "quite a piteous little sight." Caddy and Prince have begged Esther to come help nurse Caddy back to health, and after she makes some exhausting day-trips into London, Jarndyce suggests that they move into their lodgings in the city for the duration. He also suggests that they persuade Woodcourt to look in on Caddy, which occasions some embarrassment on Esther's part. She recalls how much Ada and Caddy made of the flowers that Woodcourt sent her, and which she has now burned. 

Since Esther has still not told Ada of her engagement to Jarndyce -- or as she still puts it, "that I was going to be the mistress of Bleak House" -- she now feels more pressure than ever to do so. Ada is celebrating her twenty-first birthday, and Esther goes to her room at the stroke of midnight to be the first to wish her happy birthday. She also takes the opportunity to share the news with Ada, who is happy to hear it. Esther is "so comforted by the sense of having one right, in casting this last idle reservation away, that I was ten times happier than I was before. I had scarcely thought it a reservation a few hours ago; but now that it was gone, I felt as if I understood its nature better." The "as if" in that sentence is a very large one.

Once they get to London, Esther spends most of her time with Caddy, so she sees less of Ada. Mrs Jellyby visits her daughter and granddaughter "occasionally, with her usual distraught manner," taking little notice of the baby, "as if her attention were absorbed by a young Borrioboolan on its native shores." Mr Turveydrop is as demanding as ever: "If the baby cried, it was nearly stifled lest the noise should make him uncomfortable." But he has taken a fancy to Peepy "and would take the child out walking with great pomp," though Peepy has to be expensively dressed, with the cost borne by Caddy and Prince. And because Woodcourt is often there to tend to Caddy, Esther inevitably sees a great deal of him.

But it seems to her that "Ada was not so frankly cheerful with me as she used to be," and "it came into my head that she was a little grieved -- for me -- by what I had told her about Bleak House." Notice that it's always Bleak House that Esther speaks of -- not Jarndyce, and never about being married to him. And how much of her sense that Ada was "grieved -- for me" is Esther's projection of her own feelings?

Finally, Jarndyce asks if "Woodcourt has restored Caddy Jellyby to the full enjoyment of life again?" Esther is pleased to be able to say yes, "and to be repaid by such gratitude as hers, is to be made rich, guardian." That she still calls her husband-to-be "guardian," may be one reason that Jarndyce says, "We would make him as rich as a Jew, if we knew how. Would we not, little woman?" The phrase he uses, with its strong whiff for us of antisemitism, was commonplace well into the twentieth century. It doesn't bother Esther, however, who laughs and says that "it might spoil him" to be rich. And Jarndyce continues this dance on a precipice by commenting, "Rich enough to have his own happy home, and his own household gods -- and household goddess too, perhaps?" He continues to say, "I have been sounding him delicately about his plans" and to observe that "he seems half inclined for another voyage."

Esther, who is holding so tightly on to her emotions that she doesn't betray them even to us, says, "It might open a new world to him."
"So it might," my guardian assented. "I doubt if he expects much of the old world. Do you know I have fancied that he sometimes feels some particular disappointment, or misfortune, encountered in it. You never heard of anything of that sort?"
Esther shakes her head, and Jarndyce continues by saying, "I should say it was likely at present that he will give a long trail to another country." She responds with something politely noncommittal.

This whole scene is fraught with tensions that Dickens unfortunately doesn't know how to express or exploit. Jane Austen or George Eliot or Henry James could have handled it skillfully. But in part because he has trapped himself into Esther's point of view, Dickens can't bring out the ironies in this dialogue as effectively as he might. It ends with Ada, who is listening in, in tears, which when Esther notices, she comments, "I felt that I had only to be placid and merry, once for all to undeceive my dear, and set her loving heart at rest. I really was so, and I had nothing to do but be myself." But does Esther really know herself?

Esther takes Ada upstairs, where Ada says, "if I could only make up my mind to speak to you and my cousin John, when you are together!" Esther doesn't pry into the source of this outburst, even when Ada continues, "O when I think of all these years, and of his fatherly care and kindness, and of the old relations among us, and of you, what shall I do, what shall I do?" Esther has noticed that Ada has been working on something that she puts away when Esther enters, and that the drawer in which she puts it is partly open, but she doesn't take the opportunity to find out what it is. And when she checks to see if Ada is asleep, she notices "that she lay with one hand under her pillow so that it was hidden."

When Woodcourt arrived in London, he sought out Richard, and found him lodging on the second floor of Symonds Inn, in which Vholes has his office. Vholes is full of warnings about Richard's finances, and the necessity of taking what he's owed out of the estate, if it's ever settled. Esther tells us that Woodcourt found Richard "in a dull room, fadedly furnished, "and he told me that he never could forget the haggardness of his face, and the dejection of his manner." He is sunk in self pity, telling Woodcourt, "you can pursue your art for its own sake; and can put your hand upon the plough, and never turn; and can strike a purpose out of anything. You, and I, are very different." He tells Woodcourt that his concern is for Ada as much as for himself.

When Woodcourt tells this to Esther, "It revived a fear I had had before, that my dear girl's property would be absorbed by Mr Vholes, and that Richard's justification to himself would be sincerely this." Now that Caddy has recovered, she proposes to Ada that they visit Richard and is surprised when she hesitates. But once they set out, on "a sombre day" on which "I thought there were more funerals passing along the dismal pavements, than I had ever seen before," Esther is surprised that Ada knows exactly where Richard is lodging. His name is "in great white letters on a hearse-like panel" in the door.

Ada opens the door without knocking, and they find Richard surrounded by "dusty bundles of papers which seemed to me like dusty mirrors reflecting his own mind. Wherever I looked, I saw the ominous words that ran in it, repeated. Jarndyce and Jarndyce." His obsession is visible, and he is open about expressing it: "Either the suit must be ended, Esther, or the suitor. But it shall be the suit, the suit, my dear girl!"
His hopefulness had long beenmore painful to me than his despondency; it was so unlike hopefulness, had something so fierce in its determination to be it, was so hungry and eager, and yet so conscious of being forced and unsustainable, that it had long touched me to the heart.
And now Ada reveals her secret: She and Richard have been married for more than two months. She will not be going home with Esther, but will stay with Richard. "And if ever in my life I saw a love that nothing but death could change, I saw it then before me."
Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz), Light (Source: David Perdue's Charles Dickens Page)
They married because Richard would not accept her money, and Richard claims that they didn't tell Esther because she was so busy nursing Caddy at the time. So Esther gives them her blessing, and puts on a façade of cheerfulness. But when she goes downstairs she bursts into tears and "walked up and down in a dim corner, sobbing and crying." When she reaches home, Jarndyce is out: "The poor boy whom I had found at St Albans had reappeared a short time before, and was lying at the point of death; indeed, was then dead, though I did not know it. My guardian had gone out to inquire about him, and did not return to dinner." So Esther goes out, taking Charley with her, just to look at the lights in the window of the room where Ada and Richard are living. She even goes up to the second floor and kisses "the hearse-like panel of the door, as a kiss for my dear, and came quietly down again, thinking that one of these days I would confess to the visit."

When she gets home, Jarndyce is there. He has already guessed, from her tears and Ada's empty chair, that she and Richard are married. "Bleak House is thinning fast," he says, twice. Which causes her to renew her vow to remain there with him. But she thinks, "I feared I might not quite have been all I had meant to be, since the letter and the answer."

The 2005 BBC/Masterpiece Theatre dramatization features Tom Georgeson as Clamb, Alun Armstrong as Mr Bucket, Timothy West as Sir Leicester Dedlock, Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock, Phil Davis as Smallweed, Anna Maxwell Martin as Esther Summerson, Carey Mulligan as Ada Clare, Denis Lawson as John Jarndyce, Bryan Dick as Prince Turveydrop, Matthew Kelly as Mr Turveydrop, Nathalie Press as Caddy Jellyby, Brian Pettifer as Mr Growler, Richard Harrington as Allan Woodcourt, Dermot Crowley as Mr Vholes, Patrick Kennedy as Richard Carstone, Hugo Speer as Mr George, Michael Smiley as Phil Squod, Lilo Baur as Hortense.

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