By Charles Matthews

Sunday, June 12, 2011

4. Bleak House, by Charles Dickens, pp. 103-136

Chapter 7: The Ghost's Walk through Chapter 8: Covering a Multitude of Sins

The omniscient narrator returns to take us to the Dedlocks' Lincolnshire estate, Chesney Wold, where it is still raining. Sir Leicester and Lady Dedlock, of course, are in Paris, leaving the housekeeper, Mrs Rouncewell, in charge of the house. She's certainly capable of looking after it, having been there for fifty years.

Mrs Rouncewell raised two sons, the younger of whom became a soldier and never returned. The older could have become steward at Chesney Wold, but he had a talent for science and went into manufacturing, which Sir Leicester regards as nothing less than a revolt against tradition. He married and had a son, whom he named Watt -- presumably after James Watt, whose experiments with steam Mrs Rouncewell's son once imitated.

Watt is visiting his grandmother now, and has taken note of a maid named Rosa, "the daughter of a widow in the village," in whom Mrs Rouncewell has taken particular interest, training her to give tours of the house when they have visitors who want to see it. Such visitors arrive now, and one of them sends in his card. It is Mr Guppy.

Rosa says that Guppy told her they were in the area "on business at the magistrates' meeting ten miles off," and "had heard a great deal said of Chesney Wold," so they applied to see it. "They are lawyers. He says he is not in Mr Tulkinghorn's office, but is sure he may make use of Mr Tulkinghorn's name, if necessary." Mrs Rouncewell is acquainted with Tulkinghorn through his many visits, and he even made her will, so she admits them. She and her grandson will accompany Guppy and his friend on the tour.

Guppy in fact shows no enthusiasm, and quite a bit of fatigue, during the tour, but when he sees "a portrait over the chimney-piece, painted by the fashionable artist of the day," he perks up considerably. Rosa informs him that it is "the portrait of the present Lady Dedlock." Guppy is fascinated by it and is sure he must have seen it somewhere before. He is told, however, that it has never been engraved, so he concludes "I must have had a dream of that picture, you know!"

Still brooding about the picture, Guppy follows Rosa into other rooms until they reach the end of the tour where she says, "The terrace below is much admired. It is called, from an old story in the family, The Ghost's Walk." This piques Guppy's curiosity again, but when he asks Rosa about the "old story," she admits that she doesn't know it. "'It is not related to visitors; it is almost forgotten,' says the housekeeper, advancing. 'It has never been more than a family anecdote.'" And when Guppy asks "if it has anything to do with a picture," still fascinated with the portrait of Lady Dedlock, Mrs Rouncewell assures him that it doesn't.

After Guppy and his friend leave, Mrs Rouncewell tells her grandson and Rosa the story. It dates from the time of Charles I, when the owner of Chesney Wold was Sir Morbury Dedlock. Sir Morbury was a supporter of the king, whom Mrs Rouncewell refers to as "the blessed martyr," but his wife, "who had none of the family blood in her veins, favoured the bad cause." When supporters of the king met at Chesney Wold, she would listen in on their meetings.

Mrs Rouncewell asks, "Do you hear a sound like a footstep passing along the terrace, Watt?" He replies that he hears the rain dripping and "I suppose an echo -- which is very like a halting step." She continues with her story: Sir Morbury and his lady grew further apart during the civil wars, especially after her brother was killed.
"When the Dedlocks were about to ride out from Chesney Wold in the King's cause, she is supposed to have more than once stolen down into the stables in the dead of night, and lamed their horses; and the story is, that once, at such an hour, her husband saw her gliding down the stairs, and followed her into the stall where his own favourite horse stood. There he seized her by the wrist; and in a struggle or in a fall, or through the horse being frightened and lashing out, she was lamed in the hip, and from that hour began to pine away."
She stopped speaking to Sir Morbury, but continued to walk on the terrace, back and forth, as her condition grew worse, until one day she fell. Her husband came to try to help her, but she said, "I will die here, where I have walked. And I will walk here, though I am in my grave. I will walk here, until the pride of this house is humbled. And when calamity, or when disgrace is coming to it, let the Dedlocks listen for my step!"

Since that day, Mrs Rouncewell tells Watt and Rosa, the echo has been heard from time to time, "and so sure as there is sickness or death in the family, it will be heard then." Watt reminds his grandmother that the curse also included "disgrace," but she insists, "Disgrace never comes to Chesney Wold." The present Lady Dedlock, however, continues to hear it, and Mrs Rouncewell points out "a tall French clock" that she says "has a loud beat when it is in motion, and can play music." She asks Watt to start the clock, and asks him if he can still "hear the sound upon the terrace, through the music, and the beat, and everything?" He is standing by the side of the bed in which Lady Dedlock sleeps when he says that he "certainly can" still here it. "So my lady says," his grandmother replies.

We return to Bleak House, where Esther is beginning to take charge of the household affairs, waking early in the morning and watching it grow lighter until "the day shone bright upon a cheerful landscape, prominent in which the old Abbey Church, with its massive tower, threw a softer train of shadow on the view than seemed compatible with its rugged character. But so from rough outsides (I hope I have learnt), serene and gentle influences often proceed."

With her usual (and somewhat cloying) self-deprecation, she remarks on herself as "generally a methodical, old-maidish sort of foolish little person." She takes it on herself to make tea for breakfast long before the others arise. They are joined at breakfast by Skimpole, who prattles on about bees: "he supposed the Bee liked to make honey, or he wouldn't do it -- nobody asked him" and identifies with the idle drones. Everyone enjoys his frivolity, though Esther leaves the others at the table to go about her chores.

She is passing a small room connected to Jarndyce's bedroom when he summons her into it and tells her it is "the Growlery. When I am out of humour, I come and growl here." She protests that he must use it very seldom but he tells her, "When I am deceived or disappointed in -- the wind, and it's Easterly, I take refuge here. The Growlery is the best used room in the house." She remembers how grateful she is for his patronage and impulsively kisses his hand, causing him discomfort: He "walked to the window; I almost believed with an intention of jumping out," but doesn't. It's nothing, he says: "I hear of a good little orphan girl without a protector, and I take it into my head to be that protector."

She gets her emotions under control, and he changes the subject to the Chancery suit. He explains to her that it was once "about a Will, and the trusts under a Will" but now is "about nothing but Costs.... That's the great question. All the rest, by some extraordinary means, has melted away." It began when "A certain Jarndyce, in an evil hour, made a great fortune, and made a great Will." But the question of how the trusts specified in the will were to be administered was the point that brought it all into court, with the result that "the fortune left by the Will is squandered away; the legatees under the Will are reduced to such a miserable condition that they would be sufficiently punished, if they had committed an enormous crime in having money left them; and the Will itself is made a dead letter." Still, the litigation has taken on a life of its own, and everyone involved in it "must have copies, over and over again, of everything that has accumulated about it in the way of cartloads of paper" -- the kind of paper we have seen Krook shoveling into "a kind of well in the floor." And anyone who has ever been named in the suit can't get out of it.

This, he said, is what destroyed his great-uncle, Tom Jarndyce, who was the previous owner of Bleak House. "I was his heir, and this was his house, Esther. When I came here, it was bleak indeed. He had left the signs of his misery upon it." The house had once been called the Peaks, but it was Tom Jarndyce who renamed it Bleak House. "When I brought what remained of him home here, the brains seemed to me to have been blown out of the house too; it was so shattered and ruined."

Esther remarks on "the hopeful change he had made in Bleak House," but Jarndyce observes that there is still some property of the Jarndyces in London that "is much at this day what Bleak House was then." He corrects himself: the property belongs to the Chancery suit and "Costs is the only power on earth that will ever get anything out of it now, or will ever know it for anything but an eyesore and a heartsore. It is a street of perishing blind houses, with their eyes stoned out; without a pane of glass, without so much as a window-frame." Esther cheers him up by reminding him of the great improvement in Bleak House, and he tells her that "These are things I never talk about, or even think about, excepting in the Growlery, here." He says she can tell Richard and Ada as much about these things as she wishes.

Jarndyce says that Esther should call him her Guardian, and she gladly agrees, though she warns him, "I am afraid it will be a disappointment to you to know that I am not clever." He assures her that she is "quite clever enough for him," and proceeds to bestow nursery-rhyme nicknames on her: "Old Woman, and Little Old Woman, and Cobweb, and Mrs Shipton, and Mother Hubbard, and Dame Durden." All this is getting quite icky but fortunately the topic changes to Richard, who "must have a profession." Unfortunately, he says, as a ward in Chancery, "There will be a world more Wiglomeration about it." The word puzzles Esther, so Jarndyce explains that it is his word for bureaucracy, for government officials who wear wigs. The question of Richard's profession, he says, "will be vastly ceremonious, wordy, unsatisfactory, and expensive, and I call it, in general, Wiglomeration."

Then he asks Esther if there is anything she wants to ask him about herself. It's an opportunity to clear many things up that she, unfortunately for the impatient reader, doesn't take. "I am quite sure that if there were anything I ought to know, or had any need to know, I should not have to ask you to tell it to me." But in a novel in which so much unpleasantness is turned up because of the characters' curiosity, perhaps Esther is better off for not exercising hers.

Jarndyce is, as she learns, much sought after by charities and the sort of people like Mrs Jellyby who "form themselves into committees for getting in and laying out money." Dickens's satire on do-gooding bluestockings is a bit heavy-handed, and some of its targets are a bit obscure today, such as the high church movement's "Sisterhood of Mediæval Marys." And some of his targets smack of antifeminism, such as "the Woman of England, the Daughters of Britain, the Sisters of all the Cardinal Virtues separately, the Females of America, the Ladies of a hundred denominations." And here we're introduced to Mrs Pardiggle, who exploits her children as thoroughly as Mrs Jellyby ignores hers. Esther describes her as one of "the ladies who were most distinguished for their rapacious benevolence" -- a phrase that, though she mildly apologizes for it, seems to belong less to Esther than to the other narrative voice in the novel.

Mrs Pardiggle, "a formidable style of lady, with spectacles, a prominent nose, and a loud voice" (again, a rather un-Esther description) has "the effect of wanting a great deal of room ... for she knocked down little chairs with her skirts that were quite a great way off." She has as a train her five very resentful sons -- Egbert, Oswald, Francis, Felix, and Alfred -- all of whom have made charitable donations that they obviously resent: "The face of each child, as the amount of his contribution was mentioned, darkened in a peculiarly vindictive manner." She also proclaims,
"I do not go with Mrs Jellyby in all things. I do not go with Mrs Jellyby in her treatment of her young family. It has been noticed. It has been observed that her young family are excluded from participation in the objects to which she is devoted. She may be right, she may be wrong; but, right or wrong, this is not my course with my young family. I take them everywhere." 
Their father, she announces is O.A. Pardiggle, F.R.S.  As a Fellow of the Royal Society, he is presumably a distinguished scientist, but there is evidently some tension between them over his contribution to her charitable pursuits. Esther tries to imagine what kind of conversation there might be if Mr Pardiggle dined with Mr Jellyby.

Mrs Pardiggle is also tireless: "I am a woman of business. I love hard work. I enjoy hard work.... I do not understand what it is to be tired; you cannot tire me if you try! ... I have seen my young family, and Mr Pardiggle, quite worn out with witnessing it, when I may truly say I have been fresh as a lark!" This elicits a scowl from the "dark-visaged eldest boy." And as if to demonstrate her tirelessness, she invites Esther and Ada to join her in a visit to "a brick-maker in the neighbourhood (a very bad character)." They accept the offer, and along the way Esther is pinched and trampled by the "unnaturally constrained children," who let off steam surreptitiously.
Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz), The Visit at the Brickmaker's, (Source: David Perdue's Charles Dickens Page)
The brickmaker's house is squalid, and no one there is particularly pleased to see Mrs Pardiggle and her retinue. But she sweeps in anyway and proceeds to lecture and badger the household. Then she sweeps off again to another poor household, leaving Esther to observe that "she certainly did make, in this, as in everything else, a show that was not conciliatory, of doing charity by wholesale, and of dealing in it to a large extent."

Esther and Ada linger behind, however, to check on the baby that one of the women is nursing, who seems to be very ill. And just as Ada leans over to touch the baby's face, it dies. Ada is filled with grief, and its mother bursts into tears. Esther takes the baby and covers it with her handkerchief. The men in the room, who were rude and scornful to Mrs Pardiggle, grow quiet and respectful, and the women, "coarse and shabby and beaten," are "softened by the hard trials of their lives." That night, Richard joins Ada and Esther as they return to the brickmaker's house with "some little comforts." They "said as little as we could to Mr Jarndyce, but the wind changed directly."

The chapter ends with a bit of sentimental exhortation that is not to our taste, but serves as a counterpoint to the satirical portrait of Mrs Pardiggle's ostentatious uncharitable charity.
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,  Charles Dance as Tulkinghorn, Tom Georgeson as Clamb, John Lynch as Nemo, Lisa Hammond as Harriet, Burn Gorman as Guppy, Anne Reid as Mrs Rouncewell, Emma Williams as Rosa.

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