By Charles Matthews

Saturday, June 11, 2011

3. Bleak House, by Charles Dickens, pp. 63-103

Chapter 5: A Morning Adventure through Chapter 6: Quite at Home

Caddy Jellyby suggests to Esther that they take a walk, which Ester, "sufficiently curious about London," readily agrees to. Ada joins them, and on the street they meet Richard, who has already gone out. So they stroll in pairs, with Caddy and Esther taking the lead and Ada and Richard following, but Caddy walks on so fast that the other two are obliged to ask her to slow down.

Caddy is eager to complain some more to Esther, this time about Mr Quale, who had visited after dinner the night before. Caddy is convinced that her parents are trying to marry her off to Quale. She complains equally about her mother's neglect: "where's Ma's duty as a parent? All made over to the public and Africa, I suppose!"

They find themselves once again in the environs of Chancery, and there they encounter Miss Flite, who is waiting for the court to open. She suggests that the four of them come see her lodgings, which are nearby: "It will be a good omen for me. Youth, and hope, and beauty, are very seldom there." They find themselves in front of a shop with a number of signs: KROOK, BAG AND BOTTLE WAREHOUSE. KROOK, DEALER IN MARINE STORES. BONES BOUGHT. KITCHEN-STUFF BOUGHT. OLD IRON BOUGHT. WASTE PAPER BOUGHT. LADIES' AND GENTLEMEN'S WARDROBES BOUGHT.
Everything seemed to be bought, and nothing to be sold there. In all parts of the window, were quantities of dirty bottles: blacking bottles, medicines bottles, ginger-beer and soda-water bottles, pickle bottles, wine bottles, ink bottles.
There is also a sign advertising the copying services provided by a man named Nemo. Copyists were in demand before the advent of typewriters and carbon paper and of course long before Xerox machines. We have already seen Lady Dedlock express surprise at the handwriting of a copyist in the documents brought to her by Tulkinghorn. Nemo (the name means "no one," of course) resides at Krook's, as does Miss Flite.

The shop is a jumble of papers and rusty old keys, and rags and bones.
One had only to fancy, as Richard whispered to Ada and me while we all stood looking in, that yonder bones in a corner, piled together and picked very clean, were the bones of clients, to make the picture complete.
Krook himself is in the shop, "an old man in spectacles and a hairy cap ... short, cadaverous and withered; with his head sunk sideways between his shoulders, and the breath issuing in visible smoke from his mouth, as if he were on fire within." That last detail is worth remembering. "His throat, chin, and eyebrows, were so frosted with white hairs, and so gnarled with veins and puckered skin, that he looked, from his breast upward, like some old root in a fall of snow."

Miss Flite urges them in, though none of them are too eager to enter, and introduces them to Krook. "He is called among the neighbours the Lord Chancellor. His shop is called the Court of Chancery." Krook takes a particular interest in Ada's hair: "I have got three sacks of ladies' hair below, but none so beautiful and fine as this. What colour, and what texture!" Richard intervenes indignantly when Krook takes a strand of Ada's hair in his hand. Krook confesses that he can't bear to part with the "old parchmentses and papers in my stock. And I have a liking for rust and must and cobwebs." He is joined by a large gray cat named Lady Jane, and informs them that he also deals in cat skin, but couldn't bear to skin Lady Jane.

He is startled when Miss Flite tells him that these are "the wards in Jarndyce," and when he hears Richard's name, he says, "Carstone.... Yes. There was the name of Barbary, and the name of Clare, and the name of Dedlock, too, I think," among the names he recalls from the case. And he tells them rather gruesomely about the suicide of Tom Jarndyce, who visited the shops when the case was being heard, and said that Chancery was like "being ground to bits in a slow mill; it's being roasted at a slow fire; it's being stung to death by single bees; it's being drowned by drops; it's going mad by grains." The story of Tom Jarndyce makes Ada and Richard turn pale.

Miss Flite intervenes and ushers them upstairs to her room "at the top of the house, ... from which she had a glimpse of the roof of Lincoln's Inn Hall." Esther notes that there is no sign of any food or any clothes other than the ones she is wearing in the room, but in the garret window there are "a number of bird-cages hanging there; some containing birds. There were larks, linnets, and goldfinches -- I thought think at least twenty." Miss Flite tells them that she intends to set them free "When my judgment should be given." But that "Their lives, poor silly things, are so short in comparison with Chancery proceedings, that, one by one, the whole collection has died over and over again." And that she wonders if "I may not one day be found lying stark and senseless here, as I have found so many birds!"

Richard, prompted by Ada, leaves some money on the mantel for Miss Flite, who goes on to say that she can't open the windows because Krook's cat crouches outside looking at the birds, and that "her natural cruelty is sharpened by a jealous fear of their regaining their liberty." As they go back downstairs, she points to the second-floor door to another room, which is Nemo's:
"The only other lodger," she now whispered, in explanation; "a law-writer. The children in the lanes here, say he has sold himself to the devil. I don't know what he can have done with the money."
Downstairs, they find Krook putting some papers "in a kind of well in the floor." Esther brings up the rear as they start to leave, and is accosted by him. He begins writing the letter J on the wall with a piece of chalk. And one by one, erasing each letter when it is finished, he spells out the name "Jarndyce." When Esther confirms that that is indeed the word he has spelled, he proceeds to do the same with "the letters forming the words BLEAK HOUSE." He then explains to her, "I have a turn for copying from memory, you see, miss, though I can neither read nor write."
Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz), The Lord Chancellor Copies From Memory, (Source: David Perdue's Charles Dickens Page)
 They take their leave of Miss Flite and return to Mrs Jellyby's. Along the way, Richard remarks to Ada on how depressing he finds the Chancery business. She agrees, and also agrees to let him call her Ada. He tells her, "We have been happily brought together, thanks to our good kinsman, and it [Chancery] can't divide us now!" Caddy gives Esther's arm a squeeze, acknowledging this developing relationship between Richard and Ada.

They reach Mrs Jellyby's to find that Peepy has been "lost for an hour and a half, and brought home from Newgate market by a policeman." Esther has a pang of regret when she realizes that he must have been searching for her. Fortunately, he is asleep when the coach arrives that will take her away.

On the road, their coach is met by a wagon headed to London, which stops them and delivers welcoming messages for Esther, Richard and Ada from Mr John Jarndyce. In his message, he proposes "that we meet as old friends, and take the past for granted, which confirms in Ada and Richard an impression "that their cousin Jarndyce could never bear acknowledgments for any kindness he performed, and that, sooner than receive any, he would resort to the most singular expedients and evasions, or would even run away." This characteristic bothers Esther, who wonders how she can possibly thank "one who had been my benefactor and sole earthly dependence through so many years."

Finally, they reach Bleak House and are greeted "in a fatherly way" by Mr Jarndyce, who has "a handsome, lively, quick face, full of change and motion; and his hair was a silvered iron-grey. I took him to be nearer sixty than fifty, but he was upright, hearty, and robust." Then Esther realizes that "a pleasant expression in his eyes, recalled the gentleman in the stage-coach, six years ago, on the memorable day of my journey to Reading. I was certain it was he," but, "appearing to read my thoughts, [he] gave such a look at the door that I thought we had lost him."

There is a moment of awkwardness when Jarndyce asks what they thought of Mrs Jellyby. Richard and Ada are evasive, so Jarndyce confronts Esther. "'We rather thought,' said I, glancing at Richard and Ada, who entreated me with their eyes to speak, 'that perhaps she was a little unmindful of her home.'" Jarndyce claims to be "Floored!" but continues to draw out Esther's real opinion. "I may have sent you there on purpose," he tells her. So Esther opines that Mrs Jellyby neglects her domestic duties and subordinates them to her African cause. And Richard blurts out, "The little Jellybys ... are really -- I can't help expressing myself strongly, sir -- in a devil of a state."

Jarndyce then puzzles them by observing, "The wind's in the east." Richard says it was in the north when they were on their way, but Jarndyce insists, "I am always conscious of an uncomfortable sensation now and then when the wind is blowing in the east." This is one of Jarndyce's identifying Dickensian characteristics, blaming a discomfiting situation on an east wind. But Ada praises Esther for taking charge of the children and for making a friend of Caddy, so that Jarndyce asks Richard again about the wind, and when told that it was from the north agrees, "You are right. There's no east in it. A mistake of mine." And he shows them around the house, which turns out to be one of those cozy and complicated dwellings that Dickens takes such delight in.
It was one of those delightfully irregular houses where you go up and down steps out of one room into another, and where you come upon more rooms when you think you have seen all there are, and where there is a bountiful provision of little halls and passage, and where you find still older cottage-rooms in unexpected places, with lattice windows and green growth pressing through them.... The furniture, old-fashioned rather than old, like the house, was as pleasantly irregular.

After they have settled in their rooms and explored the place some more, Jarndyce tells them there is a guest there, "the finest creature upon earth -- a child." But not "literally a child.... He is grown up -- he is at least as old as I am -- but in simplicity, and freshness, and enthusiasm, and a fine guileless inaptitude for all worldly affairs, he is a perfect child." This is Harold Skimpole, whom Dickens modeled on the essayist and poet Leigh Hunt, a friend of Keats and Shelley whose fecklessness resembled Skimpole's.

Although Jarndyce begins cheerfully praising Skimpole's childlike innocence, when Richard asks questions about Skimpole's children, Jarndyce admits that "Harold Skimpole's children have tumbled up somehow or other," and then begins to admit the truth about his friend. "The wind's getting round again, I am afraid. I feel it rather!" Richard then notes that Bleak House is rather exposed to the elements -- it is on a hilltop. And thus Dickens works in the metaphorical significance of his titular house: Its coziness and charm are threatened by the cold realities of the outside world. It is a retreat, but not an escape.

(A side note on "Skimpole's" children. One of Leigh Hunt's children was Thornton Leigh Hunt, who fathered three children by Agnes Lewes, the wife of George Henry Lewes. When Lewes fell in love with Marian Evans (George Eliot), he was unable to divorce Agnes because he had condoned her adultery with Hunt.)

When they return to their rooms to unpack their luggage, a maid brings the keys to the household to Esther, who is surprised to receive them. They then go downstairs and meet Skimpole, "a little bright creature, with a rather large head; but a delicate face, and a sweet voice, and there was a perfect charm in him.... Indeed, he had more the appearance, in all respects, of a damaged young man, than a well-preserved elderly one." Esther sees in him "a romantic youth who had undergone some unique process of depreciation."

Skimpole rattles on insouciantly about his unfitness for the real world, confessing "that he had no idea of time [and] no idea of money." His advice to others is to "go after glory, holiness, commerce, trade, any object you prefer; only -- let Harold Skimpole live!" He also prides himself on allowing others to express their generous impulses by helping him: "I almost feel as if you ought to be grateful to me, for giving you the opportunity of enjoying the luxury of generosity." Esther shrewdly perceives that this explains the affection Jarndyce feels for Skimpole, who will never be tempted to embarrass Jarndyce by expressing his gratitude. They are charmed by Skimpole themselves, "and especially Richard."

Jarndyce is pleased by the way things are proceeding, though he is alert to nuances. When Skimpole praises Ada as a "child of the universe," for example, Jarndyce observes, "The universe ... makes rather an indifferent parent, I am afraid." He also notices the growing closeness of Ada and Richard -- and Esther notices his noticing: "His look was thoughtful, but had a benignant expression in it which I often (how often!) saw again: which has long been engraven on my heart." And as Ada plays the piano and sings softly, with Richard bending over her, Esther notices:
Upon the wall, their shadows blended together, surrounded by strange forms, not without a ghostly motion caught from the unsteady fire, though reflected from motionless objects. Ada touched the notes so softly, and sang so low, that the wind, sighing away to the distant hills, was as audible as the music. The mystery of the future, and the little clue added to it by the voice of the present, seemed expressed in the whole picture.
As with the remark earlier about the exposure of Bleak House to the elements, there's a sinister element haunting this cozy scene.

Some while later, after first Skimpole and then Richard have left the room, the maid who had brought the keys to Esther asks her to come to Skimpole's room: "He has been took, miss!" Esther assumes that she means Skimpole is ill, but it turns out, as Richard explains to her when she enters, that Skimpole has been "arrested for debt." A man in a white great-coat is there to take him away to jail or, as the man says, to "Coavinses." (The note explains that this would be a house of detention run by a man named Coavins. Skimpole applies the name to the man arresting him, and "Coavins's house" becomes "Coavinses.")

Skimpole is unperturbed, even delighted, by the situation, for although he knows that Jarndyce would readily bail him out of the situation by paying the money owed, "'I have the epicure-like feeling that I would prefer a novelty in help; that I would rather,' and he looked at Richard and me, 'develop generosity in a new soil, and in a new form of flower.'" He can't even remember how much he owes, and when the man says "twenty-four pound, sixteen, and sevenpence ha'penny," Skimpole says it sounds "like a small sum?" Esther and Richard scrape together the amount, Esther reflecting, "It was a most singular thing that the arrest was our embarrassement, and not Mr Skimpole's."
Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz), Coavinses (Source: David Perdue's Charles Dickens Page)
 Skimpole observes, "The butterflies are free. Mankind will surely not deny to Harold Skimpole what it concedes to the butterflies!"

The matter settled, they return downstairs, where Esther takes a lesson in playing backgammon from Jarndyce, although "Richard and I seemed to retain the transferred impression of having been arrested since dinner, and that it was very curious altogether." Finally, Skimpole goes to bed, and Ada, Richard and Esther are sitting by the fire when Jarndyce returns, very upset:
"What's this, they tell me? Rick, my boy, Esther, my dear, what have you been doing? Why did you do it? How could you do it? How much apiece was it? -- The wind's round again. I feel it all over me!"
He has learned of their bailing out Skimpole. Esther reminds him that he has characterized Skimpole as a child, and so they treated him as one, which mollifies Jarndyce a bit: "Nobody but a child would have thought of singling you two out for parties in the affair! Nobody but a child would have thought of your having the money! If it had been a thousand pounds, it would have been just the same!" But he makes them promise never to let Skimpole have money -- "Not even sixpences!" -- again. That done, he reports, "I find it was a false alarm about the wind. It's in the south!"
Ada and I agreed, as we talked together for a little while upstairs, that this caprice about the wind was a fiction; and that he used the pretence to account for any disappointment he could not conceal, rather than he would blame the real cause of it, or disparage or depreciate any one.
But it's a dangerous form of transference.

Left alone, Esther reflects on the developing relationship of Ada and Richard, and then to her own situation, particularly the "shadowy speculations which had sometimes trembled there in the dark, as to what knowledge Mr Jarndyce had of my earliest history -- even as to the possibility of his being my father -- though that idle dream was quite gone now."
The 2005 BBC/Masterpiece Theatre dramatization features Anna Maxwell Martin as Esther Summerson, Carey Mulligan as Ada Clare, Patrick Kennedy as Richard Carstone, Denis Lawson as John Jarndyce, Nathanial Parker as Harold Skimpole, Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock, Timothy West as Sir Leicester Dedlock, Charles Dance as Tulkinghorn, Tom Georgeson as Clamb, John Lynch as Nemo, Johnny Vegas as Krook, Natalie Press as Caddy Jellyby, Lisa Hammond as Harriet, Burn Gorman as Guppy.

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