By Charles Matthews

Friday, June 17, 2011

8. Bleak House, by Charles Dickens, pp. 254-280

Chapter 16: Tom-all-Alone's through Chapter 17: Esther's Narrative

"My Lady Dedlock is restless, very restless." And her husband is laid up with gout, which runs in the family. So Lady Dedlock "has flitted away to town, with no intention of remaining there, and will soon flit hither again, to the confusion of the fashionable intelligence." Dickens's omniscient narrator now indicates that there is some connection between Lady Dedlock's restlessness and the crossing-sweeper Jo. But of course he's not going to tell us what it is, because that would make the novel a lot shorter. (But also a lot less rich in detail and mystery and incident. Such is fiction.) 

Jo is homeless, dwelling wherever he can find in the abandoned houses of a section of London called Tom-all-Alone's, in "a black, dilapidated street, avoided by all decent people." It is, "in Chancery, of course," and is so neglected that buildings in Tom-all-Alone's frequently collapse from decay. But it is inhabited by squatters like Jo, who are occasionally injured in these collapses. 

Jo is also profoundly ignorant, causing the narrator to observe, "It must be a strange state to be like Jo!" Wandering the streets of London, unable to read even the signs on the buildings, alienated from the people he meets, earning a few pennies at a time by clearing the sidewalks and street-crossings of mud and dung and filth. 
It must be a strange state, not merely to be told that I am scarcely human ... but to feel it of my own knowledge all my life! To see the horses, dogs, and cattle, go by me, and to know that in ignorance I belong to them, and not to the superior beings in my shape, whose delicacy I offend.... Jo, and the other lower animals, get on in the unintelligible mess as they can.... A band of music comes, and plays. Jo listens to it. So does a dog -- a drover's dog, waiting for his master outside a butcher's shop.... He and Jo listen to the music, probably with much the same amount of animal satisfaction; likewise, as to awakened association, aspiration or regret, melancholy or joyful reference to things beyond the senses, they are probably upon a par. But, otherwise, how far above the human listener is the brute! Turn that dog's descendants wild, like Jo, and in a very few years they will so degenerate that they will lose even their bark -- but not their bite. 
In this passage of sympathetic imagination, Dickens rises high above the facile sentimentality of which he is often accused. (And in which, admittedly, he too often indulges.)

Evening comes on, and Dickens does a brief but striking transition, giving us a glimpse of Tulkinghorn in his office, as the "foreshortened Allegory" painted on its ceiling, "in the person of one impossible Roman upside down, points with the arm of Samson (out of joint, and an odd one) obtrusively toward the window." But because the Roman is always pointing out the window, Tulkinghorn doesn't follow its instruction and look out the window to see a woman passing by. 
And if he did, what would it be to see a woman going by? There are women enough in the world, Mr Tulkinghorn thinks -- too many; they are at the bottom of all that goes wrong in it, though, for the matter of that, they created business for lawyers. What would it be to see a woman going by, even though she were going secretly? They are all secret. Mr Tulkinghorn knows that, very well.
Tulkinghorn's misogyny is a new note in his character, but not an unexpected one, especially in the Dickensian world where sexuality is either sentimentalized into cozy affection or else treated as a power dynamic: e.g., the Jellybys, the Pardiggles, the Badgers, and in a very different way, Caddy Jellyby and Prince Turveydrop, and more to the point here, Sir Leicester and Lady Dedlock.   

It's Lady Dedlock who is going by on the street, although the omniscient narrator isn't willing to tell us that: "Her face is veiled, and still she sufficiently betrays herself to make more than one of those who pass her look round sharply." She is in search of Jo, and she finds him, though when he calls her "my lady," she insists, "I am not a lady. I am a servant." She establishes, with some difficulty, that he was the boy at the inquest and asks him to show her the places mentioned in the newspaper report on the inquest: "The place he wrote for, the place he died at, the place where you were taken to, and the place where he was buried." And she promises him "more money than you ever had in your life." 

Jo agrees, of course, and they make the rounds until they wind up at the burial place, "a scene of horror!" 
Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz), Consecrated Ground (Source: David Perdue's Charles Dickens Page)
Through the gate, Jo points out the burial site -- "Among them piles of bones, and close to that there kitchin winder!" He could uncover the body with his broom, he says, if the gate were open. And he points out a rat scurrying away. The lady -- uh, servant is sickened and disgusted, but she asks if the burial site is "consecrated ground." Jo has no idea what she means, so she asks if it has been blessed.
"I'm blest if I know," says Jo, staring more than ever; "but I shouldn't think it warn't. Blest?" repeats Jo, something troubled in his mind. "It an't done it much good if it is. Blest? I should think it was t'othered myself. But I don't know nothink."
She removes her glove to give him money, and "Jo silently notices how white and small her hand is, and what a jolly servant she must be to wear such sparkling rings." She asks him to point out the spot again, and as he does so she disappears silently. Jo bites the gold coin she has given him to see if it is real and returns to Tom-all-Alone's. 

Back at Chesney Wold it is raining again and Sir Leicester complains to Mrs Rouncewell "that the rain makes such a monotonous pattering on the terrace, that he can't read the paper, even by the fireside in his own snug dressing room." Mrs Rouncewell observes later to Rosa that he should have moved to the other side of the house. "His dressing-room is on my Lady's side. And in all these years I never heard the step upon the Ghost's walk, more distinct than it is to-night!" 

We return to Esther, who is still in London, where they are visited often by Richard "(though he soon failed in his letter-writing)." She persists in feeling "more and more how much it was to be regretted that he had been educated in no habits of application and concentration." Her regrets are confirmed when Mr and Mrs Bayham Badger visit one afternoon, and Mrs Badger says, on Esther's asking them how Richard is getting along with his studies, "I am very much of the opinion, my dears, that he has not chosen his profession advisedly." And she elaborates with a comparison: 
"Young men, like Mr Allan Woodcourt, who take to it from a strong interest in all that it can do, will find some reward in it through a great deal of work for a very little money, and through years of considerable endurance and disappointment. But I am quite convinced that this would never be the case with Mr Carstone." 

Ada "timidly" asks Mr Badger to confirm his wife's opinion, and he does. 

Jarndyce isn't present for the Badgers' visit, so Esther and Ada decide not to tell him of their opinion until they've spoken to Richard, which they do. Richard's attitude is that "It's rather jog-trotty and humdrum. But it'll do as well as any thing else!" This isn't what Esther wants to hear, but Ada is satisfied with it. But Richard continues to hang himself: "After all, it may be only a kind of probation till our suit is -- I forgot though. I am not to mention the suit." Ada continues to be satisfied with this, but Esther persists in wanting to hear more of what he has to say, and tells him of the Badgers' opinion. He's surprised to hear of it, and admits, "The fact is, I don't care much about it.... it's monotonous, and to-day is too like yesterday, and to-morrow is too like to-day." Ada remains supportive, but Esther goes in for the kill: "life itself," she says, is like that, "except under some very uncommon circumstances." 

Richard tries to change the subject, but even Ada has begun to come around to Esther's point of view. And when Esther mentions that his decision affects not only him, but also Ada, he sees the point too. He admits, addressing Ada, "I was a little hasty, perhaps; or I misunderstood my own inclinations, perhaps. They don't seem to lie in that direction. I couldn't tell, till I tried." So now that medicine is out, he says, "I have been thinking that the law is the boy for me." The words "the law" shock Ada, "as if she were afraid of the name." But Richard has almost instantly come up with a new scheme: He will go to work in Kenge's office, where "I should have my eye on the -- hum! -- the forbidden ground -- and should be able to study it, and master it, and to satisfy myself that it was not neglected, and was being properly conducted." 

So the new proposal is presented to Jarndyce, who says that Richard can "retreat with honour" from his medical studies, but advises a "good trial" of the law before making a decision. After Richard leaves, however, Esther notices "a shadow on [Jarndyce's] benevolent expression ... and even the silent look of confidence in me  ... was not quite so hopeful and untroubled as it had originally been." 

Unable to sleep, Esther goes down to "the temporary Growlery" where she has left some thread for her embroidery, and finds Jarndyce there, staring into the ashes in the fireplace. He admits that he was thinking about her, and that it's time to tell her what he knows about her family history. She tells him, "One of my earliest remembrances, guardian, is of these words. 'Your mother, Esther, is your disgrace, and you were hers. The time will come, and soon enough, when you will understand this better, and will feel it too, as no one save a woman can.'"

He tells her that nine years ago he received a letter from her aunt. "It told me of a child, an orphan girl then twelve years old, in some such cruel words as those which live in your remembrance," and that it was "the distorted religion which clouded her mind with impressions of the need there was for the child to expiate an offence on which she was quite innocent." As a result of the letter, he decided to do what he could for Esther, so he commissioned Kenge as an agreed-on "confidential agent" to visit her aunt: "The lady said, of her own accord, and not of his seeking, that her name was an assumed one. That she was, if there were any ties of blood in such a case, the child's aunt. That more than this she would never ... for any human consideration, disclose." And that is as much as Jarndyce knows of the matter. Esther thanks him, but when she says he has been "a Father to her," she "saw his former trouble come into his face," as if her words "had given him a shock." 

The next day, Allan Woodcourt pays a visit to tell them that "He was going to China, and to India, as a surgeon on board ship. He was to be away a long, long time." In passing, Esther observes, "He was seven years older than I. Not that I need mention it, for it hardly seems to belong to anything." Before he leaves, he brings his mother to visit. "She was a pretty old lady, with bright black eyes, but she seemed proud." She tells them of her eminent ancestor in Wales and her hopes that "wherever her son Allan went, he would remember his pedigree, and on no account form an alliance below it.... She talked so much about birth that, for a moment, I half fancied, and with pain -- but, what an idle fancy to suppose that she could think or care what mine was!" 

The coyness about the relationship between Esther and Woodcourt continues after Mrs Woodcourt and her son leave. Caddy Jellyby shows up with a beautiful little bouquet of flowers. 

Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz), Caddy's Flowers (Source: David Perdue's Charles Dickens Page)
Esther assumes that the flowers must have been given to Caddy by Prince, but Caddy tells Esther they are for her: "They were left behind by Somebody.... At poor Miss Flite's.... Somebody who has been very good to her, was hurrying away an hour ago, to join a ship, and left these flowers behind.... I was present myself, and I shouldn't wonder if Somebody left them on purpose!" Ada agrees. 
The 2005 BBC/Masterpiece Theatre dramatization features Richard Griffiths as Bayham Badger, Patrick Kennedy as Richard Carstone,  Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock, Harry Eden as Jo, Denis Lawson as John Jarndyce, Carey Mulligan as Ada Clare, Anna Maxwell Martin as Esther Summerson, Richard Harrington as Allan Woodcourt, Alistair McGowan as Kenge, Burn Gorman as Guppy, Warren Clarke as Boythorn.

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