By Charles Matthews

Saturday, July 2, 2011

24. Bleak House, by Charles Dickens, pp. 866-915

Chapter 57: Esther's Narrative through Chapter 59: Esther's Narrative

Jarndyce wakes Esther to tell her that Bucket wants her to accompany him in the search for her mother. Bucket reads her the letter Lady Dedlock left behind, and she agrees to go with him.

She watches as Bucket makes inquiries of various policemen on the street, including a harrowing moment when he stops near the river where she sees on the wall a posted notice with "the words 'FOUND DROWNED'; and this, and an inscription about Drags, possessed me with the awful suspicion shadowed forth in our visit to that place." Bucket assures her that he is only being thorough in his investigation. And so they set out again into the night, following a lead that takes them on the road to Saint Albans and Bleak House.
Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz), The Night (Source: David Perdue's Charles Dickens Page)
Near Saint Albans, Bucket makes more inquiries and when he brings Esther a cup of tea he tells her that Lady Dedlock had been seen there, going on foot, at eight or nine that night. At Bleak House he tells her that she should ask if anyone has stopped there to ask for her or Jarndyce. As they climb the hill to the house, he "reminded me that I had come down it one night, as I had reason for remembering, with my little servant and poor Jo: whom he called Toughey." She is surprised that he should know this, until Bucket explains that she had passed him on the road. Bucket had come there to look for Jo, on commission from Tulkinghorn to prevent Jo from talking any more about the veiled lady. His task was to make sure that Jo stayed his distance from London. "I was regularly turned on my back when I found him taken up by your establishment."

At the house, Bucket asks her, "Do you generally put that elderly young gentleman in the same room, when he's on a visit here, Miss Summerson?" Esther realizes that he's talking about Skimpole. It was Skimpole, he tells her, who told him that Jo was staying at Bleak House, and who accepted five pounds for showing Bucket where Jo was sleeping. Esther observes, "I regarded this as very treacherous on the part of Mr Skimpole towards my guardian, and as passing the usual bounds of his childish innocence." Bucket advises her, "Whenever a person says to you that they are as innocent as can be in all concerning money, look well after you own money, for they are dead certain to collar it, if they can.... Fast and loose in one thing, Fast and loose in everything. I never knew it fail."

None of the staff at Bleak House recalls anyone asking for Esther, so they proceed to the brickmakers' cottage. They are greeted with the usual suspicion, though Jenny, the mother of the dead child, is not there. Esther "became conscious of being hurried and giddy. It was very difficult to begin, and I could not help bursting in tears." She begins to ask the other woman about Lady Dedlock, but Bucket interrupts to say that he knows she has been there, intimidating them into the truth. Esther asks where Jenny has gone, and the other woman's husband silences her with threats, but Jenny's husband tells them that Jenny has gone to London. The lady was there, and rested for a while. "Then she went -- it might be at twenty minutes past eleven, and it might be at twenty minutes past twelve; we ain't got no watches here to know the time by, nor yet clocks." Then Jenny went to London, and the lady went in the opposite direction: "Nor'ard by the high road. Ask on the road if you doubt me, and see if it warn't so."

As they leave, Bucket tells Esther that the men in the cottage have Lady Dedlock's watch: "Else why should he talk about his 'twenty minutes past,' and about his having no watch to tell the time by? Twenty minutes! He don't usually cut his time so fine as that. If he comes to half hours, it's as much as he does." But he wonders why Lady Dedlock would give him her watch. He suspects that Lady Dedlock sent Jenny to London with a message, and decides that they should continue in the northward direction the brickmaker indicated.

It begins snowing hard, and the roads are difficult. Bucket stops frequently to make inquiries, and is able to say that a woman, dressed like Lady Dedlock, has been spotted on the road, still on foot. But eventually he is surprised that he has lost track of the woman. They stop at an inn, and when Esther faints she is taken to a room to recover. Then they continue until Bucket realizes something and reverses course, to Esther's astonishment. He intends to follow Jenny's path back to London. He urges Esther to trust him, though she is distressed at the thought of abandoning the search for her mother.

In London rumors are already flying about Lady Dedlock's disappearance, though "It is given out that my Lady has gone down into Lincolnshire, but is expected to return presently." Sir Leicester "can speak a little, though with difficulty and indistinctness," and although he has been advised to rest, he can't sleep, constantly asking if there is any news from Bucket.

Mrs Rouncewell stays by him, but she confides her fears to her son George: "When I saw my Lady yesterday, George, she looked to me -- and I may say at me too -- as if the step on the Ghost's Walk had almost walked her down." George scoffs at the old legend, but Mrs Rouncewell is convinced that "it's breaking up, my dear; the great old Dedlock family is breaking up."

When Mrs Rouncewell goes to take care of things, such as keeping the fires lit in Lady Dedlock's room, Volumnia sits with Sir Leiceseter. It's a calculated move: "Women will talk, and Volumnia, though a Dedlock, is no exceptional case. He keeps her there, there is little doubt, to prevent her talking somewhere else." When Mrs Rouncewell returns, Volumnia compliments her on the military bearing of her son, which confuses Sir Leicester until Mrs Rouncewell explains that Volumnia is referring to her son George. This causes Sir Leicester to break his silence: "George? You son George come home, Mrs Rouncewell?" He asks to see him, and is moved to tears when he enters. George helps Sir Leicester sit up straighter in the bed, and the baronet asks him to stay by his side. Under Sir Leicester's questioning, George expressed his desire to "remain unknown in general" because "I am not much to boast of." But when Sir Leicester comments that George has been a soldier "and a faithful one," George says, "I have done my duty under discipline, and it was the least I could do."

Now Sir Leicester wants to make it known that there has been only "a slight misunderstanding between my Lady and myself" and that the circumstances of it are "important only to ourselves." So he calls Mrs Rouncewell, George, and Volumnia to witness a statement, "that I am on unaltered terms with Lady Dedlock. That I assert no cause whatever of complaint against her." And, particularly directing himself at Volumnia, "If you ever say less than this, you will be guilty of deliberate falsehood to me." He continues to insist, "I revoke no disposition I have made in her favour." It is a "formal array of words" that "might have have at any other time, as it has often had, something ludicrous in it; but at this time it is serious and affecting." (Dickens knows that he has gone much too stagey here.)

As night comes on, Sir Leicester becomes "worse; restless, uneasy, and in great pain." But he refuses to let them light candles, and Mrs realizes "that he is striving to uphold the fiction with himself that it is not growing late." Through the night, Mrs Rouncewell and George keep vigil, having sent the servants to bed, though Volumnia makes her maid stay up with her as she busies herself doing nothing. "The day comes like a phantom. Cold, colourless, and vague; it sends a warning streak before it of a deathlike hue, as if it cried out, 'Look what I am bringing you, who watch there! Who will tell him!'"

Esther and Bucket reach the outskirts of London about three a.m. and transfer to a hackney coach. Esther is soaked through, but Bucket praises her effusively. She notes that Bucket seems "to seek out the narrowest and worst streets in London," and he stops frequently to consult with police officers. At about five-thirty they reach Chancery Lane where they proceed on foot through the icy streets. Along the way they encounter Woodcourt, who is astonished to find Esther "out at this hour, and in such weather!" Woodcourt puts his cloak around Esther, and tells her that he has been sitting up with Richard since about ten last night. Richard is "not ill, but not quite well," but he was feeling "depressed and faint," so Ada sent for Woodcourt, who helped revive his spirits and get him to sleep some.

Bucket tells them that they are going to Snagsby's, where the servant, Guster, seems to have some new information that will help them. Unfortunately, Guster has also gone into one of her fits. Bucket asks Woodcourt, "Would you look to this girl and see if anything can be done to bring her round. She has a letter somewhere that I particularly want." Mr Snagsby leads them to the sitting room where Mrs Snagsby is waiting, "with very red eyes and a very severe expression of face." Bucket has Esther sit by the fire and puts her wet shoes to dry on the fender, then tries to smooth-talk Mrs Snagsby into cooperation, telling her, "Go and see Othello acted. That's the tragedy for you."

Mrs Snagsby doesn't get the reference to her jealousy, but Bucket persists, "you're what I call an intellectual woman -- with your soul too large for your body," and reminding her that they had seen each other earlier at the Dedlocks, informs Mrs Snagsby that Esther is the young lady who "was talked of in that circle." Esther observes, "Mrs Snagsby appeared to understand the reference better than I did at the time." He tells Mrs Snagsby that Jo "was mixed up in the same business, and no other," and that she formed some mistaken impressions because of it.
"Another person mixed up in that business and no other, a person in a wretched state, comes her to-night, and is seen a speaking ot your maid-servant; and between her and your maid-servant there passes a paper that I would give a hundred pound for, down. What do you do? You hide and you watch 'em, and you pounce upon that maid-servant -- knowing what she's subject to, and what a little thing will bring 'em on -- in that surprising manner, and with that severity, that, by the Lord, she goes off and keeps off, when a Life may be hanging upon that girl's words!"
Woodcourt enters, having found the paper in question, which he gives to Bucket, who sends Mrs Snagsby in with Woodcourt to tend to Guster. Bucket hands the paper to Esther, who identifies the handwriting as her mother's. In it, Lady Dedlock explains that she went to Saint Albans on the hope of seeing Esther once more, though "not to speak to her, or let her know that I was near," and "to elude pursuit, and to be lost." She asks Esther not to blame Jenny for the part she played in the deception. Then there is a later addition to the letter, in which she says she knows she is going to die and that it is right "that I should die of terror and my conscience." In a final section, she adds, "The place where I shall lie down, if I can yet get so far, has been often in my mind. Farewell. Forgive."

Bucket tells Esther to get her shoes on and be ready to go out again, but first they need to find out how the letter came into Guster's hands. Guster, constantly appealing to Mrs Snagsby not to be angry, explains that she had been out on an errand and when she came back she found "a common-looking person, all wet and muddy, looking up at our house." The woman told Guster that she had lost her way and wanted directions to "the poor burying-ground ... where there was an archway, and a step, and an iron gate." Esther notices the look of alarm on Bucket's face when he hears that. Guster realized, "She meant the burying-ground where the man was buried that took the sleeping stuff -- that you came home and told us of, Mr Snagsby." And then the woman gave her the letter and asked her to deliver it to Esther at Mr Jarndyce's. But when Guster came inside, "Mrs Snagsby came behind me from somewhere, and laid hold of me, and I was frightened."

They hurry out, and Esther recalls the hallucinatory character of their walk to the burying-ground, "and that the unreal things were more substantial than the real." When they reach their destination, "On the step at the gate, drenched in the fearful wet of such a place, which oozed and splashed down everywhere, I saw, with a cry of pity and horror, a woman lying -- Jenny, the mother of the dead child." Woodcourt and Bucket stop Esther from rushing forward, and Bucket asks her to "think a moment. They changed clothes at the cottage." Esther listens as he explains that Jenny and Lady Dedlock exchanged clothes, and that Lady Dedlock had returned to the city while Jenny "only went on a certain way agreed upon to deceive, and then turned across country, and went home."

But Esther is not ready to process the truth of what Bucket is telling her, so they let her go on by herself, hearing one of them say, "Her hands should be the first to touch her. They have a higher right than ours." And Esther discovers that the body is that of her mother.
Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz), The Morning (Source: David Perdue's Charles Dickens Page)


The 2005 BBC/Masterpiece Theatre dramatization features Phil Davis as Smallweed, Burn Gorman as Guppy, Richard Cant as Mercury, Nathaniel Parker as Harold Skimpole, Anna Maxwell Martin as Esther Summerson, Denis Lawson as John Jarndyce, Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock, Timothy West as Sir Leicester Dedlock, Loo Brealey as Judy Smallweed, Anne Reid as Mrs Rouncewell, Hugo Speer as Mr George, Alun Armstrong as Mr Bucket, Richard Harrington as Allan Woodcourt, Charlie Brooks as Jenny, Katie Angelou as Charley Neckett, Pauline Collins as Miss Flite, Carey Mulligan as Ada Clare.

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