By Charles Matthews

Monday, July 4, 2011

25. Bleak House, by Charles Dickens, pp. 916-989

Chapter 60: Perspective through Chapter 67: The Close of Esther's Narrative

As one might expect from the shock and the exposure to the elements she has endured, Esther becomes ill, though not for a long time. When Esther recovers he tells her that he plans to stay on in London for as much as six months, because "Ada stands much in need of you." Jarndyce is concerned that, because of his estrangement from Richard, he has little contact with the wards in Jarndyce, so he cautions Esther, as he says he cautioned Woodcourt, not to bring up the subject of the case with Ada and Richard, lest she alienate herself from them: "She cannot afford, and he cannot afford, the remotest chance of another separation from a friend."

Then he mentions Mrs Woodcourt, who has been a guest at his house in London for some time. Esther admits that she finds her "more agreeable than she used to be," and that she hasn't harped on the Woodcourt pedigree as much as she used to. So he proposes to ask Mrs Woodcourt to stay a while longer. Esther has some mixed feelings about this that she can't articulate to herself, given that she doesn't want to admit that she is still in love with Woodcourt, but she agrees. She asks Jarndyce if Woodcourt still has plans to try his profession in another country, and he tells her that in about half a year there is to be an opening for "a medical attendant for the poor" in Yorkshire, and that Woodcourt is a strong candidate for it.

So Esther resumes regular visits to Ada and Richard, and on one of them meets Miss Flite, who has just been to see Ada. She tells Esther that Richard hasn't returned from the court yet, and that when she left he was in conference with Mr Vholes. She urges Esther, "Don't like Vholes. Dan-gerous man!" She has named Richard her executor, she says, "if I should wear out, he will be able to watch that judgment." Her previous executor was Gridley, "But he wore out." And then she mentions that she has added two birds to her collection and named them "the Wards in Jarndyce." Esther recalls, "Her manner of running over the names of her birds, as if she were afraid of hearing them even from her own lips, quite chilled me."

Richard brings Vholes to dinner with him, and the lawyer takes Esther aside to sound her out on how ill Richard is looking. But his manner is "So slow, so eager, so bloodless and gaunt, I felt as if Richard were wasting away beneath the eyes of this adviser, and there were something of the Vampire in him." Vholes also comments that he thinks the marriage of Richard and Ada is "very ill-advised," to which Esther retorts that it would be much better "if Richard were persuaded to turn his back on the fatal pursuit in which you are engaged with him." Vholes "inclined his head as if he did not wholly dispute even that." His defense is that Richard "had laid down the principle of watching his own interests; and that when a client of mine laid down a principle which was not of an immoral (that is to say, unlawful) nature, it devolved upon me to carry it out. I have carried it out; I do carry it out." Esther can only reflect that she "well understood Mr Vholes's scrupulous way of saving himself and his respectability."

She observes of Richard, "There is a ruin of youth which is not like age; and into such a ruin, Richard's youth and youthful beauty had all fallen away." Richard sees Mr Vholes out. "On his return he told us, more than once, that Vholes was a good fellow, a safe fellow, a man who did what he pretended to do, a very good fellow indeed! He was so defiant about it, that it struck me he had begun to doubt Mr Vholes."

Woodcourt arrives, and takes Richard out for a walk, leaving Esther alone with Ada, who tells her she is perfectly aware of Richard's condition and their financial plight. "But when I married Richard I as quite determined, Esther, if Heaven would help me, never to show him that I grieved for what he did, and so to make him unhappy." And then she adds, "And something else supports me, Esther." She is pregnant. (Dickens doesn't say so in those words, of course, and the way in which Ada delivers the news is curiously oblique, as if designed to avoid shocking the most squeamish of Victorian readers.) But she can't help feeling dread when she looks at Richard: "That he may not live to see his child."

On one of Esther's visits Skimpole is there, and realizing what a potential drain on Richard and Ada's meager resources he can be, Esther decides to pay him a visit. She informs him that Richard is "in very embarrassed circumstance," which only delights Skimpole because he is, too. She hesitates to ask him outright not to go there anymore, but Skimpole anticipates the request: "Not go there? Certainly not, my dear Miss Summerson, most assuredly not. Why should I go there? When I go anywhere, I go for pleasure. I don't go anywhere for pain, because I was made for pleasure." Esther is "disconcerted" by Skimpole's backward logic, and then emboldened to bring up the matter of his ratting on Jo. He blithely falls back into the old "I'm just a child" routine, cheerfully admitting his irresponsibility. So Esther says "that it was not right to betray my guardian's confidence for a bribe." Skimpole retorts, "I can't be bribed." He doesn't understand money, so he has no idea of its value, therefore, he argues, bribing him is impossible. And he weaves an airy justification for turning Jo over to Bucket that is perfectly logical if based on the premise that Skimpole is a child and therefore by nature incapable of responsibility.

After Skimpole accompanies her home, Esther says, she never saw him again. Jarndyce broke with him, and he died five years later, leaving a diary and letters from which a biography was constructed. "It was considered very pleasant reading, but I never read more of it myself than the sentence on which I chanced to light on opening the book. It was this. 'Jarndyce, in common with most other men I have known, is the Incarnation of Selfishness.'"

The months pass, and one day after visiting Richard and Ada, Esther goes to the place where she usually meets Jarndyce for the return home. She is accompanied by Woodcourt, but Jarndyce is late, and after half an hour Woodcourt walks her home. When they get there, both Jarndyce and Mrs Woodcourt are out. Woodcourt takes the opportunity of being alone with Esther to declare his love for her. She reflects, "O, too late to know it now, too late, too late. That was the first ungrateful thought I had. Too late." She tells him that she is not free to accept him, but "never believe ... that while my heart beats, it can be insensible to the pride and joy of having been beloved by you." Esther also learns that he has accepted the position in Yorkshire, which Jarndyce helped him obtain. When she wishes him "Good night" and "good-bye," he understands her meaning: "The first, until we meet to-morrow; the second, as a farewell to this theme between us for ever."

Yeah, well, we'll see about that. Again, having locked himself into Esther's point of view, Dickens shows his uncertainty about how to handle the Woodcourt-Esther-Jarndyce triangle. The omniscient narrator could have presented the irony of Esther's situation -- love vs. respect, duty vs. passion -- without some of the mawkishness attendant on Esther's self-consciousness, as well as the awkwardness of her withholding an outcome she knows too well. We feel a genuine sympathy for Elizabeth when she thinks she has lost Darcy or Emma when she thinks she has lost Mr Knightley, but that's because Jane Austen has been able to view the situation with some measure of objectivity. Esther's emotion here seems false and sentimental by contrast.

So of course what Esther does is go to her room and cry and then take out Jarndyce's proposal letter, which, she says, she knows by heart. And then the next day to keep "as busy as possible," repressing her emotions. (Though still crabbing about Charley's inability to learn grammar.) Jarndyce congratulates her on how well she handles the household finances: In fact, he does it twice, repeating the sentence "There never was such a Dame Durden ... for making money last." His praise reminds us that Esther is not marrying Jarndyce so much as she is marrying Bleak House -- which becomes a key point later. Finally, she announces, "I will be the mistress of Bleak House when you please." She leaves the decision up to him, and when he proposes "Next month?" she agrees.

They are interrupted by the appearance of Mr Bucket, who brings with him "an old man in a black skull-cap, unable to walk" and therefore carried in a chair. They are introduced to Smallweed, and are informed that in rummaging through the papers at Krook's Smallweed has discovered another Jarndyce will. Jarndyce refuses to examine it, however, holding to his refusal to become involved in the case, but promises Smallweed that he will be remunerated for discovering it. Jarndyce and Esther go to Kenge's office, where the lawyer tells them that "it is a Will of later date than any in the suit. It appears to be all in the Testator's handwriting. It is duly executed and attested." It is "a perfect instrument!" Its effect would be to reduce Jarndyce's share of the estate in the favor of Richard and Ada. Vholes is summoned, and he agrees that it is "a very remarkable document" and "a very important document," and that it should be introduced in court when the term begins next month.

Meanwhile, Mr George, who has been at Chesney Wold tending to the recuperating Sir Leicester, goes to "the iron country farther north" to see his brother, and learns how prominent a name Rouncewell is there, which almost makes him back off from the encounter. But at the factory, which is "a place to make a man's head ache," in his opinion, he encounters his nephew, who is "devilish like me!" George thinks. He asks his nephew to take him to see Mr Rouncewell, and when the nephew asks what name he should tell his father, "George, full of the idea of iron, in desperation answers, 'Steel.'"

Presented to Rouncewell, George claims to have been in the army with Rouncewell's brother, but the ironmaster recognizes him and embraces him. Rouncewell tells George that he has come on an auspicious day: He is about to announce Watt's engagement to Rosa, who is leaving for Germany as part of her education tomorrow: The wedding will be in a year. George is astonished by his swift acceptance into the family, but balks when Rouncewell proposes to find a job for him in the business. He is also concerned that his return will disadvantage Rouncewell's children: He wants their mother to "scratch" him out of her will. Rouncewell assures him that their mother would never do such a thing, but if he feels so strongly about it, he can dispose of any inheritance however he sees fit, which George accepts. As for a job in the business, "I am a kind of a Weed, and it's too late to plant me in a regular garden.... But I shall get on best at Chesney Wold -- where there's more room for a Weed than there is here; and the dear old lady will be made happy besides."

George also asks his brother to send a letter he has written to Esther, but didn't want to mail to her from Chesney Wold because he was afraid the associations with the place would pain her. In it he apologizes for turning over to Tulkinghorn the paper in Hawdon's handwriting. Finally, the brothers part, "the ironmaster turning his face to the smoke and fires, and the trooper to the green country."

Jarndyce has given Esther two hundred pounds for the wedding preparations, with the understanding that the wedding would not take place until after the court hearing on the new will. Jarndyce goes to Yorkshire "on Mr Woodcourt's business," and sends for Esther. When she arrives, he tells her that he had wanted to do something to thank Woodcourt for "his humanity to poor unfortunate Jo, his inestimable service to my young cousins, and his value to us all," so he has found a house for him and he wants Esther to look it over, since she is so experienced as a housekeeper. Esther is so touched by the generosity, she tells us, that she starts to cry. Jarndyce tells her "I meant it as a pleasant surprise for the little mistress of Bleak House."

She cries again that night, she tells us, "but I hope it was with pleasure, though I am not quite sure it was with pleasure," and she repeats the words of Jarndyce's proposal letter twice, as a reminder of her duty. In the morning they tour the house, which is a perfect replica of "all the pretty objects, my little tastes and fancies, my little methods and inventions which they used to laugh at while they praised them, my odd ways everywhere." She is a little disturbed, she says, at the thought that it might remind Woodcourt of her, and "what he believed he had lost." Finally, Jarndyce tells her, there's the name of the house: "We went out of the porch; and he showed me written over it, BLEAK HOUSE."

He tells her, "I had no doubt of your being contented and happy with me, being so dutiful and so devoted; but I saw with whom you would be happier." Woodcourt had confided in him, but he hadn't confided in Woodcourt until yesterday. He had also taken Mrs Woodcourt "into a separate confidence," and had invited her to stay with them so she would get to know and appreciate Esther. And when Woodcourt made his declaration of love to Esther, "he spoke with my knowledge and consent -- but I gave him no encouragement, not I, for these surprises were my great reward, and I was too miserly to part with a scrap of it." So now Woodcourt enters. "My husband -- I have called him by that name full seven happy years now -- stood at my side."

Jarndyce's renunciation is barely credible, and only because we have never really known Jarndyce: We have seen him only through Esther's eyes. It exists as a plot device, and what satisfactions we may derive from it are from the outcome of a story, the resolution of a prickly dilemma.

From here on out, the novel largely consists of tying up loose ends. Guppy is one of those loose ends: a character so prominent in the narrative that he needs to be disposed of one way or another. So when Esther returns to London, she finds that he has called on her during her absence. She agrees to receive him, and he arrives with his mother and his "particular friend, Mr Weevle. that is to say, my friend has gone by the name of Weevle, but his name is really and truly Jobling." Guppy informs them that his apprenticeship is over and he is now "admitted ... on the roll of attorneys," and that he is setting up housekeeping in Lambeth, where Jobling, his clerk, and his mother will also reside. And so now he wants to renew his proposal to Esther.
Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz), Magnanimous Conduct of Mr Guppy (Source: David Perdue's Charles Dickens Page)

Jarndyce has been listening and responding to all of this on Esther's behalf.
"I take it upon myself, sir," said my guardian, laughing as he rang the bell, "to reply to your proposals on the part of Miss Summerson. She is very sensible of your handsome intentions, and wishes you good evening, and wishes you well." 
Guppy is uncertain whether this signifies "acceptance, or rejection, or consideration," and Jarndyce says, "decided rejection." Whereupon Mrs Guppy indignantly orders Jarndyce out of his own house, and has to be bodily ushered out by Guppy and Jobling.

Court resumes, and Esther and Woodcourt decide to be present at the hearing on the new will. "Richard was extremely agitated, and was so weak and low, though his illness was still of the mind, that my dear girl indeed had sore occasion to be supported." But on the way, Esther and Woodcourt are stopped by Caddy Jellyby, who is on her way to one of her dancing classes, so they are late arriving at the court. They find, to their amazement, that there is a great crowd that seems to be amused at something. They find that Jarndyce and Jarndyce is "over for good." They assume that this means there has been a ruling in favor of the new will, but then they meet Kenge and Vholes, who tell them that the will hasn't even been discussed. Finally Woodcourt figures out what they're saying: the estate has been found to be entirely absorbed by the costs of litigating it, and "thus the suit lapses and melts away."

Woodcourt realizes, too, what this will mean to Richard. Vholes tells them that he left Richard still in the courtroom, and then "gave one gasp as if he had swallowed the last morsel of this client, and his black buttoned-up unwholesome figure glided away." Woodcourt sends Esther to Jarndyce with the news, and then goes to find Richard. In the afternoon, Jarndyce accompanies Esther to Richard and Ada's, where Ada tells her that Woodcourt had found Richard "sitting in a corner of the court ... like a stone figure. On being roused, he had broken away, and made as if he would have spoken in a fierce voice to the judge. He was stopped by his mouth being full of blood, and Allan had brought him home."

Richard is week but looks "handsomer than I had seen him look for many a day." He welcomes Esther, and promises to be at her wedding if he can stand. He dozes for a while, and then notices Jarndyce waiting in the hall and asks who it is. Richard admits him and Jarndyce comes in and puts his hand on Richard's. "'O sir,' said Richard, 'you are a good man, you are good man!' and burst into tears for the first time." He tells Jarndyce that he would like to see Esther and Woodcourt's house. "If I could be moved there when I begin to recover my strength, I feel as if I should get well there, sooner than anywhere." He talks of visiting the old Bleak House as well, and then of starting a new life: "'I will begin the world!' said Richard, with a light in his eyes." Esther notices that Woodcourt "drew a little nearer towards Ada, and I saw him solemnly life up his hand to warn my guardian." He speaks of being "a guide to my unborn child," and asks Ada to forgive him. She kisses him and he dies.
When all was still, at a late hour, poor crazed Miss Flite came weeping to me, and told me that she had given her birds their liberty.
Hablot Knight Browne (Phiz), The Mausoleum at Chesney Wold (Source: David Perdue's Charles Dickens Page)
At Chesney Wold, Sir Leicester is "invalided, bent, and almost blind, but of a worthy presence yet -- riding with a stalwart man beside him, constant to his bridle-rein." He still carries on his feud with Boythorn, but Boythorn is really humoring the old baronet, who doesn't know "how near together he and his antagonist have suffered, in the fortunes of two sisters; and his antagonist, who knows it now, is not the man to tell him."

Mr George has taken up lodging in the keeper's house where Esther took shelter from the rain and had her first encounter with her mother, and Phil Squod stays busy polishing "anything in the way of a stable-yard that will take a polish." The house is mostly shut up, and is not open to visitors anymore. "Volumnia, growing with the flight of time pinker as to the red in her face and yellower as to the white, reads to Sir Leicester in the long evenings," fighting off yawns; "passion and pride, even to the stranger's eye, have died away from the place in Lincolnshire, and yielded it to dull repose."

Ada gives birth to a boy who is named Richard, and goes to live at the old Bleak House. Esther and Woodcourt have two daughters. Charley marries a miller, and her little sister, Emma, takes over as Esther's maid. Their brother, Tom, is apprenticed to the miller. Caddy gives the dancing lessons now, because Prince is lame. Their daughter is deaf and dumb. Mrs Jellyby has turned against Africa because the King of Borrioboola tried "to sell everybody -- who survived the climate -- for Rum; but she has taken up with the rights of women to sit in Parliament."

Esther is still in love with Ada: Richard, Ada's son, "says that he has two mamas, and I am one."

The 2005 BBC/Masterpiece Theatre dramatization features Carey Mulligan as Ada Clare, Anna Maxwell Martin as Esther Summerson, Richard Harrington as Allan Woodcourt, Patrick Kennedy as Richard Carstone, Denis Lawson as John Jarndyce, Phil Davis as Smallweed, Loo Brealey as Judy Smallweed, Alun Armstrong as Mr Bucket, Burn Gorman as Guppy, Alistair McGowan as Kenge, Dermot Crowley as Mr Vholes, Katie Angelou as Charley Neckett, Sheila Hancock as Mrs Guppy, Ian Richardson as the Lord Chancellor, Pauline Collins as Miss Flite.

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