By Charles Matthews

Thursday, June 16, 2011

7. Bleak House, by Charles Dickens, pp. 214-254

Chapter 14: Deportment through Chapter 15: Bell Yard

Richard goes off to his medical studies with Bayham Badger, vowing that when he is settled in his profession and he and Ada are married, Esther should come live with them and be their housekeeper. "I was to be made happy for ever and a day," Esther reports, not without, I suspect, a touch of irony. He adds, "And if the suit should make us rich, Esther -- which it may you know!" but is met with disapproval from Ada, who quite sensibly worries about the consequences of Richard's expectations of wealth -- "it may be better to forget all about it," she warns. He ignores the warning. 

One day, Caddy Jellyby comes to call, bringing Peepy with her, both of them dressed in such an odd assemblages of castoffs that Mr Jarndyce immediately feels the wind shift to the east and retires to "the temporary Growlery" as soon as he can. Things are still as chaotic as ever at the Jellybys: "Pa will be a bankrupt before long, and then I hope Ma will be satisfied.... His family is nothing but bills, dirt, waste, noise, tumbles down-stairs, confusion and wretchedness." Moreover, Mrs Jellyby still has hopes of marrying Caddy off to Mr Quale: "A pretty thing, indeed, to marry a Philanthropist. As if I hadn't had quite enough of that!" 

But Caddy has thwarted that expectation: "I am engaged." Her parents know nothing of it however. She tells Esther that her visits to the house made her determined to improve herself, so she started taking dancing lessons at Mr Turveydrop's Academy. There are two Mr Turveydrops, she explains, father and son, and it's the son, who gives the lessons, to whom she is engaged. And thanks to that, she proclaims, "I shall never hear of Africa after I am married. Young Mr Turveydrop hates it for my sake; and if old Mr Turveydrop knows there is such a place, it's as much as he does." 

Caddy also tells her that she has "improved her acquaintance with Miss Flite, the little crazy old lady; and that she frequently went there early in the morning, and met her lover for a few minutes before breakfast." The younger Turveydrop, she tells her, is named Prince -- "I wish it wasn't, because it sounds like a dog, but of course he didn't christen himself. Old Mr Turveydrop had him christened Prince, in remembrance of the Prince Regent." 

Esther has been planning to visit Miss Flite, so she suggests that she go with Caddy and Peepy to the Academy and meet Prince Turveydrop, then join up with Ada and Jarndyce at Miss Flite's later. 
Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz), The Dancing School (Source: David Perdue's Charles Dickens Page)
Prince turns out to be "a little blue-eyed fair man of youthful appearance, with flaxen hair parted in the middle, and curling at the ends all round his head.... His little dancing shoes were particularly diminutive, and he had a little innocent, feminine manner, which not only appealed to me in an amiable way, but made this singular effect upon me: that I received the impression that he was like his mother, and that his mother had not been much considered or well used." 

The elder Turveydrop is "a fat old gentleman with a false complexion, false teeth, false whiskers, and a wig.... He was pinched in, and swelled out, and got up, and strapped down, as much as he could possibly  bear.... He had a cane, he had an eye-glass, he had a snuff-box, he had rings, he had wristbands, he had everything but any touch of nature; he was not like youth, he was not like age, he was like nothing in the world but a model of Deportment." 

That Esther feels a sympathy for the effeminate fiancé of her friend, but none for the falsity and affectation of his father is significant. Prince Turveydrop is no sexual threat, of course, and so Esther regards him as "safe." As for the elder Turveydrop, Esther's opinions are influenced in part by those of "an old lady of censorious countenance," who sits next to her in the dancing school and expresses her distaste for him. She informs Esther that the senior Turveydrop "had married a meek little dancing-mistress, ... (having never in his life before done anything but deport himself), and had worked her to death." He is now doing the same to Prince, who "now, at thirty years of age, worked for his father twelve hours a-day, and looked up to him with veneration on the old imaginary pinnacle." Esther imbibes enough of this story to find Mr Turveydrop's salutation to "his sainted mother" as "a devoted creature" as filled with a "very disagreeable gallantry." 

As for Prince, "The few moments that were occupied by Prince in taking leave of us (and particularly of one of us, as I saw, being in the secret), enhanced my favourable impression of his almost childish character." Childishness in Bleak House is a double-edged characteristic. In Skimpole, it is irresponsible; in Prince Turveydrop, who is diligent and devoted, it becomes a virtue. Moreover, he is made for Caddy in the sense that she now has someone to whom she can devote herself: "You know what a house ours is. It's of no use my trying to learn anything that it would be useful for Prince's wife to know, in our house. We live in such a state of muddle that it's impossible, and I have only been more disheartened whenever I have tried." So she has taken Miss Flite as a project, helping clean her room and take care of her birds and learning to make coffee. "And since I have been engaged to Prince, and have been doing all this, I have felt better-tempered, I hope, and more forgiving to Ma." 

In Esther's world-view there are two cardinal virtues: diligence and selflessness. Esther herself is the perfect embodiment of them. And their opposites are the corresponding vices: negligence and selfishness. Her do-gooders, like Mrs Jellyby and Mrs Pardiggle, think themselves diligent, dutiful to the needs of others, but that is because they neglect the duties close at hand: their own families. And their pride in what they see as doing good is selfish. Skimpole, of course, is the epitome of negligence and selfishness, although his conduct is mitigated by the amusement he provides others -- until, of course, it begins to do harm. 

This simple Victorian morality prevails only in Esther's part of the narrative. The omniscient narrator's account of what lies outside of Esther's point of view is far more morally complex, and in the end it brings much of Esther's moral vision into question. That is the point, of course, the whole reason for the narrative schism at the heart of Bleak House

So now Esther and Caddy go to Krook's, which is a portal between Esther's world and the omniscient narrator's world. As they ascend the stairs, they notice that the room on the second floor is to let. Caddy tells Esther that there has been a death there, and they can't help looking in on the room as they pass by. "A sad and desolate place it was; a gloomy, sorrowful place, that gave me a strange sensation of mournfulness and even dread. 'You look pale,' said Caddy, when we came out, 'and cold!' I felt as if the room had chilled me." 

But Miss Flite greets them warmly. Ada and Jarndyce have already arrived, as has "a medical gentleman who was so good as to attend Miss Flite with much solicitude and compassion." And so Allan Woodcourt sidles into the narrative again. The obliqueness with which Dickens introduces, and reintroduces, Woodcourt is coy and somewhat gratuitous, but it is meant to suggest Esther's diffidence about the man who is to play an increasingly significant role in her life. He is introduced to them by Miss Flite, and we finally learn the reason for his initial mysterious appearance at the deathbed of Nemo: Miss Flite "brought me here, in the first hurry of the discovery, though too late for me to be of any use to the unfortunate man." Why it was necessary to summon the other physician as well -- and then to drop him almost immediately from the narrative -- remains one of those curious anomalies of Dickens's storytelling. 

Woodcourt tells them that Miss Flite has had a stroke of good fortune: Every Saturday, Kenge or his clerk Guppy brings her a sum of money. Miss Flite thinks it come from the Lord Chancellor himself, but Esther suspects that the benefactor is Jarndyce, who is studiously contemplating Miss Flite's birds. He asks if they have names, but at that moment they are interrupted by the appearance of Krook and his cat, whom Miss Flite anxiously asks him to remove. Krook says that the cat would never harm "the birds when I was here, unless I told her to it." Krook proceeds to name the birds: 
"Hope, Joy, Youth, Peace, Rest, Life, Dust, Ashes, Waste, Want, Ruin, Despair, Madness, Death, Cunning, Folly, Words, Wigs, Rags, Sheepskin, Plunder, Precedent, Jargon, Gammon, and Spinach." 
The recitation causes Jarndyce to feel the east wind. And when Krook proclaims that if Miss Flite were ever to receive her judgment and release the birds, "if that ever was to happen -- which it won't -- the birds that have never been caged would kill 'em." Jarndyce feels the wind more sharply.

As they begin to leave Krook's, he latches onto Jarndyce, who notices in the shop that there are several alphabets pasted on the wall. Krook explains that he is trying to teach himself to read and write, but is not getting very far with it. Jarndyce suggests that having someone teach him might be more efficient. "'Aye, but they might teach me wrong!' returned the old man, with a wonderfully suspicious flash of his eye." 

Finally, they escape from Krook's and send Caddy and Peepy home. And then Esther adds a coda: "I have forgotten to mention -- at least I have not mentioned -- that Mr Woodcourt was the same dark young surgeon whom we had met at Mr Badger's. Or, that Mr Jarndyce invited him to dinner that day. Or, that he came." And then there is a coy little bit suggesting, but not stating outright, that Ada made reference to an attachment between Esther and Woodcourt. 

During their stay, Jarndyce is beset by "the crowd of excitable ladies and gentlemen" seeking donations to their various causes. Mrs Pardiggle and Mr Quale provide an introduction to their friend Mr Gusher, "a flabby gentleman with a moist surface, and eyes so much too small for his moon of a face that they seemed to have been originally made for somebody else." Esther's voice is being overridden by Dickens's own here. Mr Gusher tells Jarndyce of his success in persuading the boys and girls of two charity schools to donate what little money they had to his causes. Esther notes, "I think the wind was in the east for three whole weeks." 

This kind of hypocrisy makes Jarndyce welcome the return of Skimpole, who, whatever else he may be, is no hypocrite. Skimpole has seen Boythorn, who Esther observes is almost Skimpole's antithesis: "Mr Boythorn attaching so much importance to many things, and Mr Skimpole caring so little for anything." Boythorn has told him that Jarndyce and Ada and Esther promised to visit him in Lincolnshire, and that he had invited Skimpole as well, even volunteering to pay Skimpole's way. 

And then Skimpole remembers to tell Esther something: "You remember our old friend Coavinses, Miss Summerson?" "Coavinses" was Skimpole's name for the debt collector who had pursued him to Bleak House. "Coavinses has been arrested by the great Bailiff," Skimpole says. Esther is a little shocked at the flippancy with which Skimpole delivers this news of the man's death, but she is more shocked when Skimpole tells them that the debt collector left three motherless children. 

Esther and Jarndyce decide to check on the condition in which the collector -- also known as a "follower" -- had left the children, so Skimpole directs them to his home. They find "a mite of a boy, some five or six years old, nursing and hushing a child of eighteen months." They have been left alone, locked in a room, while the oldest child, a girl named Charley (for Charlotte), goes out to find work to earn food for them. She turns up while they are there: "a very little girl, childish in figure but shrewd and older-looking in the face -- pretty-faced too -- wearing a womanly sort of bonnet much to large for her, and drying her bare arms on a womanly sort of apron." She has been working in a laundry and has come to check on the others. 

Jarndyce asks her age, and she replies "Over thirteen, sir." She tells him, "Since father died, sir, I've gone out to work. I'm out washing to-day." Their mother had died after the baby was born. The landlady, Mrs Blinder, and the downstairs neighbor, Mr Gridley, look in on them while Charley is at work. The other neighbors disapproved of what Neckett, the children's father, did for a living, but people have been kind to them, though, Mrs Blinder says, "certainly not so many as would have been, if their father's calling had been different." Some people won't hire Charley because of her father, and some "perhaps pay her less and put upon her more." 

Mr Gridley, the choleric downstairs neighbor, now enters to chide them for what he assumes to be idle curiosity, and stays to reveal that he, too, is a victim of Chancery, having been dragged into a lawsuit over an estate that has been eaten up by legal costs. When Jarndyce mentions that he was hardly the only one to be "unjustly treated by this monstrous system," Gridley angrily replies, "The system! I am told on all hands, it's the system. I mustn't look to individuals. It's the system." But he is so furious at having been victimized by it that he continues to appear at court to "shame them. To the last, I'll shew myself in that court to its shame." But for now, he is there only to take the boy, Tom, and the baby, Emma, down to his room for a while. 

Skimpole's reaction is a Candide-like optimism: "He said, Well, it was really very pleasant to see how things lazily adapted themselves to purposes. Here was this Mr Gridley, a man of a robust will, and surprising energy ... and he could easily imagine that there Gridley was, years ago, wandering about in life for something to expend his superfluous combativeness upon ... when the Court of Chancery came in his way, and accommodated him with the exact thing he wanted.... Otherwise he might have been a great general, blowing up all sorts of towns." And Skimpole observes of himself, "That, all that time, he had been giving employment to a most deserving man; that he had been a benefactor to Coavinses; that he had actually been enabling Coavinses to bring up these charming children in this agreeable way, developing these social virtues!" 
There was something so captivating in his light way of touching these fantastic strings, and he was such a mirthful child by the side of the graver childhood we had seen, that he made my Guardian smile even as he turned towards us from a little private talk with Mrs Blinder.  
They bid goodbye to Charley as she runs off to work again. 
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, Burn Gorman as Guppy, Charles Dance as Tulkinghorn, Tom Georgeson as Clamb, Natalie Press as Caddy Jellyby, Bryan Dick as Prince Turveydrop, Matthew Kelly as Mr Turveydrop, Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock, Timothy West as Sir Leicester Dedlock, Ian Richardson as the Chancellor, Tony Haygarth as Gridley, Pauline Collins as Miss Flite, Richard Harrington as Allan Woodcourt, Johnny Vegas as Krook, Nathaniel Parker as Harold Skimpole, Billy Hill as Tom Neckett, Katie Angelou as Charley Neckett, Harry Eden as Jo, Richard Griffiths as Bayham Badger, Joanna David as Mrs Bayham Badger

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