Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Charles Dickens: Bleak House (1852-53)


November fog, Miss Flite, Esther, Ada, Richard and Chancery





London. Michaelmas Term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets, as if....

Bleak House is I suppose universally acknowledged to be one of the great masterpieces of a great genre. When such reputation overtakes a large-scale work of art, it sometimes gets in the way, not of reading it, but of talking about it. We begin to interpret the intense power of the opening pages as being about the announcement of a great work of art – just like we do when we hear the opening notes of the 5th, or the 9th. 

But Bleak House lives most securely in its manifold details. 

Innumerable children have been born into the cause; innumerable young people have married into it; innumerable old people have died out of it.

Esther’s narrative exists to put meaning into that sentence. The other narrator, with his universal present tense, gives us something that occasionally suggests film noir both in its predilection for chiaroscuro and in its dramatic presentation. Esther by contrast gives us time and memory, grief and meditation. The two together give a span of life from infancy to senility, and a span of society from the brickmakers’ women to Lord Boodle and Sir Thomas Doodle.

The chapters titled “Esther’s Narrative” appear to describe a smooth tenor of life, but this hides chasms. The pseudo-family life that is idealistically and eagerly constructed by John Jarndyce is provisional; it has to be maintained by means of a strict code of forbidden subjects, and relieved by certain licensed euphemisms about Growleries and east winds.

Take Chapter XVII as an example. The first sentence tells us that Richard “very often came to see us while we remained in London” and “was always delightful”. The following sentence begins with “But”.  Esther diverts her uneasiness into sensible ideas about the defects of Richard’s education; but I think it's always rather comforting to be critical only of what lies in the past. Then the Bayham Badgers visit. We are sufficiently prepared for the failure of Richard’s career as a surgeon to know exactly what Mrs Bayham Badger is going to tell us, though it’s prefixed by a hilarious parade of Swossers and Dingos (her audience growing more and more uneasy in the mean while..). The couple’s ridiculousness is offered to us as a possible means of avoiding the serious problem about Richard that they eventually expose. Esther doesn’t accept the invitation to avoid it: “we resolved to have a very serious talk with him”. (I think this sentence really means “Esther resolved...”.) Ada, when the subsequent conversation is reported, is half-inclined to fall in with Richard’s evasions, but eventually even she puts him on the spot. He mustn’t go on with his studies in such a lackadaisical manner. It’s high-minded, but probably unfortunate, because Richard is thus persuaded into articulating the very thing that no-one wants to hear: “I have been thinking that the law is the boy for me.” And now they have to help him – even John Jarndyce. After the matter is broached, a tension waits in the room. Ada says: “Cousin John, I hope you don’t think the worse of Richard?” – and he says “No, my love”. But Jarndyce is capable of concealing things from those he loves. He turns the awkward moment into praise of Ada. Like Esther, he adores her (he calls her “my rosebud”; Esther calls her “my pet”). But there is not much to support the view that she really possesses any useful virtues – her constancy is helpless, a child’s. The evening ends and Esther is alone, “wakeful and rather low-spirited”. She is coy about this; we might think it has something to do with Richard’s fateful decision, though it’s in fact because of Allen Woodcourt’s imminent departure, which we don’t yet know about. Late at night she goes in search of a piece of silk for her “ornamental work”, and finds Jarndyce with his hair ruffled and his book cast aside. “You have no trouble, I hope, to keep you waking?” Esther asks. He replies: “None, little woman, that you would readily understand.” The implication of her later comment (“Not for many and many a day”) is that it concerns his feelings for her, though again the thought of Richard nags at us. In the mean time he decides to tell Esther (who has been prepared to avoid the subject) what he knows of her history. Characteristically, her response to this intensely serious material is not as we might anticipate: “I opened my grateful heart to Heaven in thankfulness for its Providence to me...” We begin to understand that Esther’s religiosity is a way of smothering feelings that are too powerful to admit. The chapter ends with the visit of Allen Woodcourt and his mother, who looks meaningfully at Esther and talks of “birth”. The lightness of the comedy, like that of the Bayham Badgers, does not conceal its disturbing subject. Finally Caddy brings a bouquet, which turns out to be a tacit message of love from Woodcourt. Caddy puts the flowers in Esther’s hair – Esther automatically tries to take them out. It’s safer to belittle herself – she is Dame Durden, she does not have lovers or bouquets.

Everyone knows that Esther’s narrative is evasive in certain respects; principally, her coyness about Allen Woodcourt and her refusal to accept that there is any sense in the glowing tributes she reports. Both features have proved highly annoying to readers, but Dickens didn't intend them purely as charming mannerisms. In fact her whole narrative is in code, like Jarndyce’s eccentric likes and dislikes. Indeed every member of the Jarndyce “family” is busy with a certain amount of day-to-day evasion; but Jarndyce and Esther are the most continuously engaged in it. That the book ends well enough for them suggests that their evasiveness may, after all, be a sane and sensible way of proceeding. The work-basket and the cast-aside book are props; they do not need to labour, but can attempt something more delicate; they can try to defend an island of quietness.    

I once compiled a list of all the food mentioned in Bleak House (the clerks’ luncheon – Guppy, Jobling and Small – took on an unexpected significance). The extraordinary range of the novel could just as well be shown from – say, bodily afflictions. Esther is temporarily blind; Sir Leicester is nearly blind at the end, and has a speech impediment. Caddy’s baby is deaf and dumb; Mrs Smallweed is deaf and deranged; Esther and Phil Squod disfigured, Jenny’s face bruised from a husbandly beating. Mr Jellyby is more or less dumb; Prince Turveydrop goes lame, Sir Leicester suffers from gout; and so on. The problem with lists like this is that they flatten the novel, which changes its character as it proceeds. Consider, for instance, the high profile given to Mrs Jellyby and the Bayham Badgers in the early chapters; the prominence of Bucket towards the end; the importance of certain catastrophes in the book such as Esther’s illness, the combustion of Krook
or the pursuit of Lady Dedlock. Dickens goes to considerable pains to conceal the changes that these decisive steps produce; and not just because he doesn’t want to lose any readers along the way.

But even now I am generalising. Here is a memorandum of some sentences and passages that, on a fourth or fifth reading, provoke something more substantial than wonder.

“I found him dead.”

“Oh dear me!” remonstrated Sir Leicester. Not so much shocked by the fact, as by the fact of the fact being mentioned.

[This is Sir Leicester being stiff, self-centred, complacent and stupid. None of which characteristics is inconsistent with being, as we shall see, passionately in love. Boythorn, with that happy knack of getting all the right ingredients and putting them together just wrong – which is the essence of a good insult – calls him “Sir Arrogant Numbskull”.]


“Look at the rat!” cries Jo, excited. “Hi! Look! There he goes! Ho! Into the ground!”  .... 

[Jo’s horrible innocence comes up hard against our participation in Lady Dedlock’s emotions. The clash forces us into an exceedingly complex response. Lady Dedlock’s love is both more precious than, and less than, the love that might comprehend Jo, or the rat.]


(Jo not understanding the term, “consecrated ground”...)

“Is it blessed?”

“WHICH?” says Jo, in the last degree amazed.

“Is it 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...”

The chapter (XXXIII) set in and around the Sol’s Arms after Krook’s sensational death:

Mr. Weevle and his friend Mr. Guppy are within the bar at the Sol, and are worth anything to the Sol that the bar contains if they will only stay there. “This is not a time,” says Mr. Bogsby, “to haggle about money,” though he looks something sharply after it, over the counter; “give your orders, you two gentlemen, and you’re welcome to whatever you put a name to.”

Thus entreated, the two gentlemen (Mr. Weevle especially) put names to so many things that in course of time they find it difficult to put a name to anything quite distinctly...

[This would be funny in any circumstances, but is somehow more so because we understand that they do really need a drink, and are somewhat ruffled young gentlemen at this moment.]


The chapter (LVIII), A Wintry Day and Night, in which Sir Leicester waits for news of his wife, which painfully arrives at this:

“Not so very long, Sir Leicester. Not twenty-four hours yet.”

“But that is a long time! O it is a long time!”

[Sir Leicester’s stroke stuns him into eloquence. We are perfectly sure that he has never spoken these words before; that he discovers the loss of his wife and his happiness, and that the simplicity of his words registers a dreadful breakthrough into the admission of agony and helplessness. Despite the breakthrough, he remains completely in character, dignified even in childishness.]

[When Dickens was sent a copy of Scenes of Clerical Life in 1858, he acutely commented (re the apparently male author George Eliot), "I believe that no man ever before had the art of making himself, mentally, so like a woman, since the world began."

However, Mr. Guppy and Mr. Jobling together closed on Mr. Guppy’s mother (who began to be quite abusive), and took her, very much against her will, downstairs; her voice rising a stair higher every time her figure got a stair lower...

Dickens’ achievement in persuading us of Esther’s voice, through so many hundred pages, is really remarkable though we are at first more prone to notice the occasional failures. Esther's most impressive sentences, like the one above, give play to sharp intelligence without the exclusivity of satire. Everyone speaks louder as they go downstairs angry. Another example: “...it had been quite a fine house once, when it was anybody’s business to keep it clean and fresh, and nobody’s business to smoke in it all day...”]




Burn Gorman as Mr Guppy in the 2005 BBC production



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