By Charles Matthews

Monday, June 13, 2011

5. Bleak House, by Charles Dickens, pp. 137-181

Chapter 9: Signs and Tokens through Chapter 11: Our Dear Brother

Days pass at Bleak House, and Esther begins to notice that Richard is "one of the most restless people in the world." So far, however, nobody seems to be terribly concerned about his restlessness. He expresses a vague interest in going to sea, so Jarndyce writes "to a relation of the family, a great Sir Leicester Dedlock," about Richard's prospects, but Sir Leicester responds by essentially blowing Richard off: "he would be happy to advance the prospects of the young gentleman if it should ever prove to be within his power, which was not at all probable." Lady Dedlock does add a nice note about recalling that she was related to Richard in some distant fashion "and trusted that he would ever do his duty in any honourable profession to which he might devote himself." This is notable only as the first intersection of the distantly separated worlds of Bleak House and Chesney Wold. Richard shrugs off the shrugging off, and retreats into fantasies of commanding his own "clipping privateer" -- a merchant vessel -- and abducting the Lord Chancellor until he judges in their favor.

Esther remarks to herself that "Richard had a carelessness in his character that quite perplexed me -- principally because he mistook it, in such a very odd way, for prudence." When Mr Jarndyce replaces the money Richard and Esther had contributed to pay off Skimpole's debts, Richard treats it not as replenished funds but as "found money" -- as if he now had an extra ten pounds. Esther tries to talk sense to him, but he isn't hearing it. Still, she regards him as "frank and generous" and notes, "He was ardent and brave, and in the midst of all his wild restlessness, was so gentle that I knew him like a brother in a few weeks."

Jarndyce now receives a visit from an old friend, Lawrence Boythorn, who is modeled on the writer Walter Savage Landor, a friend of Dickens. Jarndyce, who knew Boythorn at school, says, "He was the most impetuous boy in the world, and now he is the most impetuous man. He was then the loudest boy in the world, and he is now the loudest man. He was then the heartiest and sturdiest boy in the world, and he is now the heartiest and sturdiest man. He is a tremendous fellow." All of this seems to presage Boythorn's being something of a bore to the reader, and he is, but Dickens is determined to wedge Boythorn/Landor into the novel, and he does. His chief role in the novel is as an antagonist to Sir Leicester Dedlock, who is his neighbor in Lincolnshire, and with whom he has a running feud over right of way to his property. Once again, the Bleak House and Chesney Wold worlds make contact.

Aside from being a large and loud and "very handsome old gentleman" in Esther's view, he also brings with him a tiny canary who flits around and perches on his head in a manner that is supposed to emphasize Boythorn's gentle-giantness. At the dinner table, Boythorn fulminates about the Dedlocks: "that fellow is, and his father was, and his grandfather was, the most stiff-necked, arrogant, imbecile, pig-headed numskull, ever, by some inexplicable mistake of Nature, born in any station of life but a walking-stick's!" But he has kind words for Lady Dedlock, "the most accomplished lady in the world, to whom I would do any homage that a plain gentleman, and no baronet with a head seven hundred years thick, may."

Boythorn asks if there have been any communications for him from Kenge and Carboy, but Esther, who now keeps track of the mail, says no. Later, playing backgammon with Jarndyce, she asks if Mr Boythorn had been married. Jarndyce says no, but "He was all but married, once. Long ago. And once." He hints that the failure of this romance "has had its influence on all his later life," but Esther senses that Jarndyce really doesn't want to talk about it: "I could not pursue the subject without changing the wind."

The next morning, a letter comes from Kenge and Carboy brought by one of their clerks, who turns out to be Mr Guppy. At first, Esther is "glad to see him, because he was associated with my present happiness," insofar as he was the one who met her when she arrived in London to join the Jarndyce household. Guppy takes the correspondence to Boythorn, and it seems to upset him. Even though his room was in another part of the house, Esther "heard his loud voice rising every now and then like a high wind, and evidently blowing perfect broadsides of denunciation."

Guppy returns a little shaken, and Esther serves him lunch, at which Guppy quickly drinks several glasses of wine. She is in the middle of working on the household accounts, and continues to do so as Guppy launches into a proposal:
"My present salary, Miss Summerson, at Kenge and Carboy's, is two pound a-week.... My mother has a little property, which takes the form of a small life annuity.... She is eminently calculated for a mother-in-law.... My own abode is lodgings at Penton Place, Pentonville. It is lowly, but airy, open at the back, and considered one of the 'ealthiest outlets. Miss Summerson! In the mildest language, I adore you. Would you be so kind as to allow me (as I may say) to file a declaration -- to make an offer!"
Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz), In Re Guppy. Extraordinary Proceedings (Source: David Perdue's Charles Dickens Page)
Esther declines, decisively: "Get up from that ridiculous position immediately, sir, or you will oblige me to break my implied promise and rink the bell!" Guppy persists. Esther resists. Finally, she gets rid of him, but it's clear that Guppy is not one to take a firm no for anything but a maybe.
I sat there for another hour or more, finishing my books and payments, and getting through plenty of business. Then, I arranged my desk, and put everything away, and was so composed and cheerful that I thought I had quite dismissed this unexpected incident. But, when I went up-stairs to my own room, I surprised myself by beginning to laugh about it, and then surprised myself still more by beginning to cry about it.
Dickens is not always as psychologically shrewd as he is with Esther at this moment.

Back in London, the omniscient narrator introduces us to Mr Snagsby, who deals in paper, parchment, and other stationery supplies necessary in the legal business. "He is a mild, bald, timid man, with a shining head, and a scrubby clump of black hair sticking out at the back. He tends to meekness and obesity." He is, of course, as Dickens's "mild, bald, timid" men tend to be, thoroughly henpecked. He and his wife have a servant named Guster, "a lean young woman from a workhouse," who is subject to fits.

Today, Mr Snagsby receives a visit from Tulkinghorn, who interrupts the Snagsbys' tea. He has come to inquire about some affidavits that he recently commissioned Snagsby to have copied, and in particular one, "the handwriting of which is peculiar, and I rather like." It takes Snagsby some time to identify the copyist, but he tells Tulkinghorn that it "was given out, sir, to a Writer who lodges just over on the opposite side of the lane." His name, Snagsby says, is Nemo. Tulkinghorn repeats the name and says, "Nemo is Latin for no one." Snagsby assures him that "It must be English for some one, sir, I think." At least, "this may not be his name, but it's the name he goes by." He also tells Tulkinghorn, "The advantage of this particular man is, that he never wants sleep. He'll go at it right on end, if you want him to, as long as ever you like."

So at Tulkinghorn's request, Snagsby conducts him to where Nemo lives, then bids him good evening. Tulkinghorn walks on "a short way, turns back, comes again to the shop of Mr Krook, and enters it straight." Krook recognizes Tulkinghorn and offers to go up to Nemo's lodging and ask him to come down, but Tulkinghorn takes a candle and goes up the stairs to the second floor. "The lawyer looks down over the hand-rail. The cat expands her wicked mouth, and snarls at him." Krook scolds the cat and whispers up to Tulkinghorn, "You know what they say of my lodger? ... They say he has sold himself to the Enemy; but you and I know better -- he don't buy."

Tulkinghorn knocks on Nemo's door, and receiving no answer, he opens it. A gust of air blows out his candle. "The air of the room is almost bad enough to have extinguished it, if he had not. It is a small room, nearly black with soot, and grease, and dirt." On one of the chairs is "a ragged portmanteau," which is all the "cabinet or wardrobe" that the tenant needs. By the light of a guttering candle, Tulkinghorn sees a man lying on a low bed.
Foul and filthy as the room is, foul and filthy as the air, it is not easy to perceive what fumes those are which most oppress the senses in it; but through the general sickliness and faintness, and the odour of stale tobacco, there comes into the lawyer's mouth the bitter, vapid taste of opium.
The candle near the bed goes out, and in the darkness Tulkinghorn feels someone touch his hand. It is Krook, who has followed him into the room. As Krook goes back downstairs to fetch a candle, Tulkinghorn waits on the stairs rather than in the room. The cat follows Krook as he returns. Tulkinghorn re-enters the room with the light and looks at the man on the bed: "God save us!" exclaims Mr Tulkinghorn. "He is dead!"

Krook, "with his lean hands spread out above the body like a vampire's wings," tells Tulkinghorn to call Miss Flite and send her for a doctor. Tulkinghorn goes out onto the landing to call for her. "Krook follows him with his eyes, and, while he is calling, finds opportunity to steal to the old portmanteau, and steal back again."

Miss Flite runs out and "soon returns, accompanied by a testy medical man, brought from his dinner," who certifies that the man on the bed is indeed dead. Tulkinghorn, who is "standing by the old portmanteau" that has recently been the object of Krook's attentions, asks how long he has been dead, and the doctor estimates "about three hours." This estimate is corroborated by "a dark young man, on the other side of the bed," who has appeared seemingly out of nowhere. When the doctor learns that this young man is also a physician, he excuses himself and returns to his dinner. "The dark young surgeon passes the candle across and across the face, and carefully examines the law-writer, who has established his pretensions to the name by become indeed No one."

We'll eventually learn that this "dark young surgeon" is named Allan Woodcourt, but Dickens isn't ready to clue us in to that, or even to why he has made such a sudden appearance in the story. He tells Tulkinghorn and Krook that Nemo has been purchasing opium from him for a year and a half -- it was perfectly legal at the time -- and that he has died of an overdose. There's enough opium in the old teapot near the bed "to kill a dozen people." He doesn't believe it was an intentional overdose, however. "I recollect once thinking there was something in his manner, uncouth as it was, that denoted a fall in life." But Krook says the only thing he knows is that Nemo was his lodger for a year and a half, and that he was a law-writer.

Tulkinghorn suggests that since he was directed there by Snagsby, Miss Flight should go to fetch him. But when Snagsby arrives, he is no help: "'I know no more where he came from, than I know --' 'Where he has gone to, perhaps,' suggests the surgeon, to help him out." Snagsby says he came into the shop a year and a half ago and showed Mrs Snagsby a sample of his handwriting, and it was she who insisted that Snagsby give him some commissions. Tulkinghorn then suggests that they look for some papers that might give them a clue. Snagsby points out the portmanteau, which "Mr Tulkinghorn does not appear to have seen ... before." But aside from some "worthless articles of clothing," some pawnbrokers' tickets, and some memoranda which seemed to track the amount of opium he was taking for a while but were discontinued some time ago, there is nothing.

So Miss Flite is sent out once again, this time for the beadle. As they leave the room, the surgeon orders, "Don't leave the cat there! .... that won't do!" So Lady Jane is hustled down the stairs, "winding her lithe tail  and licking her lips."

Gossip about Nemo's death spreads through the neighborhood, which is excited when the coroner's inquest takes place the next day. The beadle is very officious about keeping order but also about seeing to it "that two gentlemen not very neat about the cuffs and buttons ... should see all that is to be seen." They are reporters, and the beadle "hopes to read in print what 'Mooney, the active and intelligent beadle of the district,' said and did." A Mrs Piper volunteers her testimony that she had seen Nemo "wexed and worrited" by the children in the street, but that she never saw him talk to anyone "excepting the boy that sweeps the crossing down the lane over the way round the corner which if he was here would tell you that he has been seen a speaking to him frequent."

So the coroner sends for the boy, who tells them that his name is Jo. "Nothing else that he knows on. Don't know that everybody has two names." He has "No father, no mother, no friends. Never been to school." The coroner rules Jo's testimony inadmissible and the jury hands down a verdict of "Accidental death."

Tulkinghorn, however, lingers to talk to Jo, and hears what he might have testified:
That one cold winter night, when he, the boy, was shivering in a doorway near his crossing, the man turned to look at him, and came back, and, having questioned him and found that he had not a friend in the world, said, "Neither have I. Not one!" and gave him the price of a supper and a night's lodging. That the man had often spoken to him since; and asked him whether he slept sound at night, and how he bore cold and hunger, and whether he ever wished to die; and similar strange questions. That when the man had no money, he would say in passing, "I am as poor as you to-day, Jo"; but that when he had any, he had always (as the boy most heartily believes) been glad to give him some.
As he leaves, Mr Snagsby gives Jo half a crown and warns him never to refer to it if he sees him in the company of Mrs Snagsby. When he gets back home, however, his account of Nemo's end and the inquest so upsets the servant, Guster, "that at supper-time she projected herself into the kitchen, preceded by a flying Dutch-cheese, and fell into a fit of unusual duration."

The beadle, who has been described in the papers as "active and intelligent," is charged with disposing of Nemo's body, which is taken "to a hemmed-in churchyard, pestiferous and obscene, whence malignant diseases are communicated to the bodies of our dear brothers and sisters who have not departed."
With houses looking on, on every side, save where a reeking little tunnel of a court gives access to the iron gate -- with every villainy of life in action close on death, and every poisonous element of death in action close on life -- here, they lower our dear brother down a foot or two: here, sow him in corruption, to be raised in corruption: an avenging ghost at many a sick-bedside: a shameful testimony to future ages, how civilisation and barbarism walked this boastful island together.
There, at night, Jo comes to sweep the little tunnel clean, and to mutter, "He wos wery good to me, he wos!"

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, Nathaniel Parker as Harold Skimpole,  Charles Dance as Tulkinghorn, Tom Georgeson as Clamb, Roberta Taylor as Mrs Pardiggle, John Lynch as Nemo, Harry Eden as Jo, Burn Gorman as Guppy, Sean McGinley as Snagsby, Johnny Vegas as Krook, Richard Harrington as Allan Woodcourt, Peter Guinness as the Coroner, Pauline Collins as Miss Flite. 

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