By Charles Matthews

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

6. Bleak House, by Charles Dickens, pp. 181-214

Chapter 12: On the Watch through Chapter 13: Esther's Narrative

The rain has stopped at Chesney Wold and the Dedlocks are returning from Paris, where Lady Dedlock has been as bored as ever. In the carriage she notices that Sir Leicester is reading some papers sent him by Tulkinghorn, which reminds him that the lawyer sent her a message in one of them:  "I have something to tell her on her return, in reference to the person who copied the affidavit in the Chancery suit, which so powerfully stimulated her curiosity. I have seen him." Although she betrays no special emotion to Sir Leicester, she asks him to stop the carriage so she can walk for a while. After a quarter of a mile, she returns to the carriage.

When they reach home and are greeted by Mrs Rouncewell, Lady Dedlock notices the new maid, Rosa, and comments on how pretty she is. She asks Rosa how old she is, and Rosa replies "Nineteen, my Lady." Lady Dedlock repeats the age, "thoughtfully."
That evening, in the housekeeper's room, Rosa can do nothing but murmur Lady Dedlock's praises. She is so affable, so graceful, so beautiful, so elegant.... Mrs Rouncewell confirms all this, not without personal pride, reserving only the one point of affability. Mrs. Rouncewell is not quite sure as to that. Heaven forbid that she should say a syllable in dispraise of any member of that excellent family; ... but if my lady would only be "a little more free," not quite so cold and distant, Mrs Rouncewell thinks she would be more affable.
Lady Dedlock's attentions to Rosa have drawn the notice of Hortense, Lady Dedlock's maid, "a Frenchwoman of two-and-thirty, from somewhere in the Southern country about Avignon and Marseilles -- a large-eyed brown woman with black hair; who would be handsome, but for a certain feline mouth, and general uncomfortable tightness of face, rendering the jaws too eager, and the skull too prominent.... she seems to go about like a very neat She-Wolf imperfectly tamed." Hortense is offended that she, who has been in Lady Dedlock's service for five years, has never been fussed over by her mistress the way Rosa was.

The Dedlocks then entertain, "this January week, some ladies and gentlemen of the newest fashion," whom Dickens proceeds to ridicule for their vapidity and "dandyism." The house is full, except for one room set aside for Mr Tulkinghorn, after whom Lady Dedlock inquires every evening whether he has arrived yet. Finally one evening he appears in order to discuss with Sir Leicester his ongoing quarrel with Boythorn over rights-of-way. "A man of a very low character of mind," Sir Leicster says of Boythorn, "An exceedingly ill-conditioned, levelling person. A person who, fifty years ago, would probably have been tried at the Old Bailey for some demagogue proceeding, and severely punished -- if not ... if not hanged, drawn, and quartered."

Lady Dedlock intervenes in the aristocrat's denunciation of the upstart Boythorn and suggests that they go inside. She also takes the opportunity to ask Tulkinghorn about his discovery of the person whose handwriting she recognized. Yes, Tulkinghorn says, he identified the man and went to his lodgings where "I found him dead." Sir Leicester speaks first, worrying about Lady Dedlock's reaction and suggesting "the less said --." But she interrupts and asks Tulkinghorn to go on: "It is quite a story for twilight. How very shocking! Dead?" Tulkinghorn continues, "Whether by his own hand --" and again Sir Leicester protests and is overruled by his wife, "though he still feels that to bring this sort of squalor among the upper classes is really -- really --."

Apparently Lady Dedlock finds it really interesting, for she continues to draw Tulkinghorn out. He tells her that the coroner's inquest brought back a verdict of accidental death.
"He had lived so wretchedly, and was so neglected, with his gipsy colour, and his wild black hair and beard, that I should have considered him the commonest of the common. The surgeon had a notion that he had once been something better, both in appearance and condition."
Lady Dedlock asks what he was called, but Tulkinghorn reports that no one knew his name. And when she asks if he left any clues to his identity, Tulkinghorn says that there was only "an old portmanteau; but -- No, there were no papers."

Considering that Lady Dedlock nearly fainted when she first recognized the handwriting, she behaves with remarkable calm during this narration. In fact, Sir Leicester seems far more upset by the news and wants "to hear no more about a subject so far removed from my Lady's station." She refers to it as "a collection of horrors," as she gathers "up her mantles and furs" and asks Tulkinghorn to open the door for her. Tulkinghorn remains at Chesney Wold for several days, during which "Lady Dedlock is always the same exhausted deity, surrounded by worshippers, and terribly liable to be bored to death, even while presiding at her own shrine." She and Tulkinghorn
appear to take as little note of one another, as any two people, enclosed within the same walls, could. But, whether each evermore watches and suspects the other, evermore mistrustful of some great reservation; whether each is evermore prepared at all points for the other, and never to be taken unawares; what each would give to know how much the other knows -- all this is hidden, for the time, in their own hearts.

So we go back to Bleak House, where the discussion of what profession Richard is to follow continues. To Esther, Jarndyce acknowledges Richard's "indecision of character" and wonders how much of it "is chargeable on that incomprehensible heap of uncertainty and procrastination on which he has been thrown from his birth" -- i.e., the Jarndyce and Jarndyce case. Esther has her own diagnosis of the cause of Richard's character flaws, which is his traditional English public school education, in which he "had learnt, I understood, to make Latin Verses of several sorts, in the most admirable manner. But I never heard that it had been anybody's business to find out what his natural bent was, or where his failings lay, or to adapt any kind of knowledge to him."

When Jarndyce asks if Richard has any inclination toward the law, Richard replies, "I am fond of boating. Articled clerks go a good deal on the water. It's a capital profession!" Jarndyce then suggests medicine, and Richard immediately imagines himself as a Member of the Royal College of Surgeons. And "the more he thought of it, the more he felt that his destiny was clear; the art of healing was the art of all others for him." Because as a ward of chancery the decision can't be Richard's alone, they decide to consult the attorney Kenge, who endorses it as "a very good profession." Jarndyce clearly has some reservations: "'The course of study and preparation requires to be diligently pursued,' observed my Guardian, with a glance at Richard." But the matter seems to have been settled and now there's the question, as Kenge puts it, of "placing Mr Richard with some sufficiently eminent practitioner" for training. Kenge, as it turns out, has "a cousin in the medical profession."

So Jarndyce, Richard, Ada and Esther decide to spend a few weeks in London while Richard makes the acquaintance of Kenge's cousin. And it is at a theater in London that Esther once again encounters Mr Guppy.
Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz), Mr Guppy's Desolation (Source: David Perdue's Charles Dickens Page)
Esther is in a box at the theater when she looks down and beholds "Mr Guppy, with his hair flattened down upon his head, and woe depicted in his face, looking up at me." And "from that time forth, we never went to the play, without my seeing Mr Guppy in the pit -- always with his hair straight and flat, his shirt-collar turned down, and a general feebleness about him." His gaze "put such a constraint upon me that I did not like to laugh at the play, or cry at it, or to move, or to speak. I seemed able to do nothing naturally." She thinks about telling Jarndyce, but she's afraid he'll report it and Guppy will get fired. "Sometimes, I thought, should I frown at him, or shake my head. then I felt I could not do it." She thinks of writing to his mother, but she's afraid "that to open a correspondence would be to make the matter worse."

But they have come to town to get Richard started on his medical training, and that includes a visit to Kenge's cousin, Mr Bayham Badger, "who had a good practice at Chelsea." Mr Badger is "a pink, fresh-faced, crisp-looking gentleman, with a weak voice, white teeth, light hair, and surprised eyes." And like so many of the men in Bleak House, he has a wife who predominates over him. Mrs Bayham Badger is several years older, and has been married twice before to "most remarkable men!" as her husband proclaims: "Captain Swosser of the Royal Navy, who was Mrs Badger's first husband, was a very distinguished officer indeed. The name of Professor Dingo, my immediate predecessor, is one of European reputation." Moreover, Mrs Badger proclaims, she married Mr Badger on the same day of the year that she married the first two: "'So that Mrs Badger has been married to three husbands -- two of them highly distinguished men,' said Mr Badger, summing up the facts; 'and, each time, upon the twenty-first of March at Eleven in the forenoon!'"

Mr Badger then proceeds to display the portraits of his wife's late husbands with considerable pride.
Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz), The Family Portraits at Mr Bayham Badger's (Source: David Perdue's Charles Dickens Page)
And during dinner, they are urged to use "the Professor's goblet" and to drink "a wine that was imported by the Captain" and to listen to the life stories of the captain and the professor.

That evening, when they have returned to their rooms, Ada tells Esther her "secret" -- that she and Richard are in love. She also gives Esther permission to break the news to Jarndyce, though Esther assures her it will be no surprise to him either. In the morning, Esther visits him "in the room that was our town-substitute for the Growlery, and gives him the news. He has her fetch Richard and Ada to give them his blessing. It is not unmixed with a little foreshadowing, however:
"Constancy in love is a good thing; but it means nothing, and is nothing, without constancy in every effort. If you had the abilities of all the great men, past and present, you could do nothing well, without sincerely meaning it, and setting about it. If you entertain the supposition that any real success, in great things or in small, ever was or could be, ever will or can be, wrested from Fortune by fits and starts, leave that wrong idea here, or leave your cousin Ada here." 
This is not just a bit of Victorian moralizing, but an ironic glance at the future. But for now, Richard and Ada are, as Esther sees them, "So young, so beautiful, so full of promise" as they walk away from her and Jarndyce through a sun-filled room. And then, "they passed away into the shadow, and were gone. It was only a burst of light that had been so radiant. The room darkened as they went out, and the sun was clouded over."

Then Esther remembers something she had forgotten to mention about the dinner at the Badgers': There was another guest, "a gentleman of dark complexion -- a young surgeon. He was rather reserved, but I thought him very sensible and agreeable. At least, Ada asked me if I did not, and I said yes."
The 2005 BBC/Masterpiece Theatre dramatization features Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock, Timothy West as Sir Leicester Dedlock, Charles Dance as Tulkinghorn, Tom Georgeson as Clamb, Anna Maxwell Martin as Esther Summerson, Carey Mulligan as Ada Clare, Patrick Kennedy as Richard Carstone,  Alistair McGowan as Kenge, Denis Lawson as John Jarndyce, Anne Reid as Mrs Rouncewell, Emma Williams as Rosa, Lilo Baur as Hortense, Burn Gorman as Guppy, Warren Clarke as Boythorn, Richard Griffiths as Bayham Badger, Joanna David as Mrs Bayham Badger, Richard Harrington as Allan Woodcourt, Johnny Vegas as Krook

No comments:

Post a Comment