Bleak House by Charles Dickens is written with an interesting alternation of present tense and first person narrative. Following on the heels of David Copperfield, most of Bleak House is narrated by the central character — a young woman in this case. The story centers around the Chancery suit Jarndyce and Jarndyce and Esther’s story.
Esther Summerson is raised by an austere woman whom she later learns was her aunt. Upon the death of this aunt, a gentleman whom Esther has never met, the charitable Mr. John Jarndyce, undertakes to provide for her. She is placed at a boarding school where she remains until she is nineteen or twenty and then goes to live with Mr. Jarndyce as a companion for his ward, Miss Ada Clare. Ada, her cousin Richard Carstone (another ward of Mr. Jarndyce’s), and Esther all arrive at Mr. Jarndyce’s home (the titular Bleak House) together. They live happily there for some time thanks to Mr. Jarndyce’s generosity. Eventually, however, Richard (or Rick, as he is usually called) falls under the spell of “the family curse”, the Chancery case Jarndyce and Jarndyce, which Mr. Jarndyce had sought to protect him from. Rick, like many of the family before him, destroys himself by pinning his hopes on receiving a fortune from the settlement of the case and justice from Chancery.
Another part of the story follows the discovery of Esther’s parentage. Mr. Guppy, an admirer of Esther, in an effort to recommend himself to her, begins to sleuth out her past. He falls short of discovering anything certain himself, but manages to reveal to Lady Dedlock that Esther is her daughter. Before her marriage to Sir Leicester Dedlock, Honoria Dedlock had had an affair with a Captain Hawdon. Her sister, Miss Barbary, felt irretrievably disgraced by this. When Honoria gave birth to Captain Hawdon’s child, Miss Barbary took the little girl and told Honoria that she had died. She then parted from her sister and raised the child in secrecy, trying to make the child atone for her mother’s sins. “For yourself, unfortunate girl, orphaned and degraded from the first of these evil anniversaries, pray daily that the sins of others be not visited upon your head, according to what is written. … Submission, self-denial, diligent work, are the preparations for a life begun with such a shadow on it. You are different from other children, Esther, because you were not born, like them, in common sinfulness and wrath. You are set apart.” (Ch. 3). Bit by bit, the whole history is uncovered by various people, and ends in tragedy.
Lady Dedlock and Miss Barbary were neither of them good women. There were very similar in character — proud, haughty, obstinate, passionate, stern, selfish. What a pair! Esther erroneously believed her aunt to be a good woman — “She was so very good herself, I thought, that the badness of other people made her frown all her life. I felt so different from her … I felt so poor, so trifling, and so far off that I never could be unrestrained with her—no, could never even love her as I wished. It made me very sorry to consider how good she was and how unworthy of her I was” (Ch. 3). It is suggested that Lady Dedlock has hidden depths of tenderness, “[b]ut she had beauty, pride, ambition, insolent resolve, and sense enough to portion out a legion of fine ladies” before she became Sir Leicester’s wife, and though she might have been more loving to her child than her sister was, I don’t think that she would ever have been a devoted mother. She was a selfish woman. She had plenty of opportunities to do good, she had a husband who was devoted to her, yet she chose to be constantly bored, as if nothing was good enough for her.
Esther herself narrates the bulk of Bleak House. She is a kind, industrious, sensible, dutiful, loving, and, despite her protestations to the contrary, perceptive young woman. Her narration suffers unfortunately from her over-modesty. Despite her other virtues, Esther is not forthright, and is lacking in self-knowledge. As a child, Esther realized that her aunt did not want her. Esther does her best to be good, to earn the affection of those around her, which, after her aunt’s death, she consistently does. She still feels at a disadvantage, however — a circumstance exacerbated by her face becoming scarred after a serious illness later in the story. It is through Esther’s eyes that we view Mr. Jarndyce’s generosity, Rick and Ada’s love story, and the duplicity of various characters (such as Harold Skimpole and old Mr. Turveydrop).
Esther is obsessed by her looks, and believes others so superficial as to be as much affected by them as she is. After her illness, she is reluctant to see Ada — “When she first saw me, might she not be a little shocked and disappointed? Might it not prove a little worse than she expected? Might she not look for her old Esther and not find her? Might she not have to grow used to me and to begin all over again?” (Ch. 36). It also causes her to mistake Mr. Woodcourt’s affection for her as only pity — though she had recognized it as love before her looks were altered. Her avoidance of self-knowledge leads to exaggerated claims of not being clever and thinking that it is only the generosity of those around her that allows her to be valued by them. A bit of honesty with herself and us, would be more becoming. Instead she comes across as obsessed with herself without even knowing it, and parading modesty. To those reading her story, however, it is apparent that she has earned the love and gratitude of those around her.
She is a good friend to Caddy Jellyby, Ada, and others — always ready with sensible advise and practical help. She does her best to keep Mr. Jarndyce’s friend and an object of his charity, Harold Skimpole, from taking advantage of Rick and Ada — even going to his house to remonstrate with him (not an easy task, as Mr. Skimpole boasts of his “childishness” and inability to comprehend business of any kind). She has a strong sense of duty, believing “it is right to begin with the obligations of home, … while those are overlooked and neglected, no other duties can possibly be substituted for them” (Ch. 6). She is very grateful to Mr. Jarndyce for his care of her. She is a cheerful, contented companion to him, and an excellent housekeeper. She is generous and compassionate, as shown by her conduct toward the mad Chancery suitor Miss Flite, the brickmaker’s wife Jenny (contrasted by the false charity given Jenny and her husband by Mrs. Pardiggle, another of Mr. Jarndyce’s mistaken charities), and the young crossing-sweeper Jo (from whom she and her maid Charley catch a serious illness).
Next to Esther, Mr. John Jarndyce is probably the most important and central character of the book. Unlike Esther, I did not find him a likable character. He is unfortunately obtuse and unperceptive. He is a generous old gentleman (he was “nearer sixty than fifty” when Esther was nineteen or twenty), but, despite the experience necessarily attaching to his age, he has not discernment enough to know an undeserving charity when he comes face to face with its unworthiness. This blindness to the true motivations of many around him becomes harmful when he supports such people as Harold Skimpole, who then continues on to leech off from others, such as Rick. Mr. Jarndyce also has an unfortunate liking for planning other people’s lives — though with the most benevolent intentions, of course. He amuses himself by anticipating a romance between his young cousins Rick and Ada — a romance he is obliged to frown upon later, as Rick proves himself too unsteady to support a wife. He plans to marry Esther (who is at least thirty-six years younger than he!), a plan which ultimately causes her some distress, as she falls in love with the physician Allan Woodcourt, who returns her affection. Mr. Jarndyce discovers this, and releases Esther from her engagement eventually, but cannot resist masterminding her engagement to Mr. Woodcourt, among other things.
Mr. Jarndyce should not have consented to an engagement between Rick and Ada until Rick was able to support a wife. Having done so, he was wise to break it off when Richard showed that he had no intention of settling down and earning a living, but it is obvious that he was not prepared for the responsibility of guiding young adults. This is hardly surprising considering his position as an old bachelor. It would have been better and wiser not to have taken the charge of three previously unacquainted young people (ages seventeen and nineteen) of both genders under one roof. Still, though flighty and eccentric, Mr. Jarndyce is a generous man who does his best to keep Esther from feeling at a disadvantage because of her birth, and does many other kind and generous actions.
Of all the characters in this book, Richard Carstone was the one I most disliked. He is selfish, unreasonable, irresponsible, and dishonorable. Too many excuses are made for him. Even though he is wrapped up in the Jarndyce case, he could still have been honorable enough to not allow it to affect others’ lives. He was flighty and irresponsible even before he became obsessed with the Jarndyce case — and it can’t just all be chalked up to his making Latin verses in school, as Esther tries to do, or to the draw of the Chancery case, as Mr. Jarndyce tries to do. He ungenerously suspects Mr. Jarndyce of wanting to cheat him out of his rights in the case. He refuses to analyze the likelihood of these suspicions, or to make amends for the pain they cause — declaring that if he has done wrong, he will make reparation only after the case is settled. He finds himself unable to settle to any occupation or profession — until the case is settled, he says. This would be bad enough if it only affected himself, but he wins the love of his cousin Ada, and marries her — marries her to trouble and poverty. Sad to say, the best thing he does for Ada is to die, which he promptly does when the court case ends due to the entire estate having been absorbed in costs.
Ada Clare is a sweet, beautiful, loving girl. She is wise in her knowledge of Richard and her behaviour as a wife and yet imprudent, for she marries him despite this knowledge. She makes an excellent wife to her husband (“I want him, when he comes home, to find no trouble in my face. I want him, when he looks at me, to see what he loved in me.” — Ch. 60), but she ought never to have married him. She married him, despite being well aware that he was not reliable. She should have considered that he would be the father of her children, but instead she decided that the job of any children they might have would be to reclaim him (instead of him taking care of them). This was very wrong.
My favorite character of the book was the doctor, Allan Woodcourt. He is a strong, good man, consistently portraying humility, humanity, compassion, generosity, gentleness, sense, bravery, and uprightness. He is kind to the poor, never being patronizing or condescending. He is a good friend to Rick, always encouraging him to do right and taking care of him, and being a comfort to Ada. He doesn’t propose to Esther until he knows he will be able to support her — a process which takes some time as he begins very poor. Esther at first refuses him, as she is engaged to Mr. Jarndyce. In the end however, he deservedly gets the girl and lives happily ever after.
Two other characters I particularly liked were Caddy Jellyby and Charlotte (called Charley) Neckett. Caddy is the daughter of Mrs. Jellyby who is one of the unworthy philanthropists Mr. Jarndyce helps support. Caddy becomes Esther’s friend and looks up to her. Caddy’s mother completely ignores her family, and Caddy tries to compensate for her mother’s neglect (and her father’s —he is practically a nonentity in his family). She is not blind to her mother’s faults and determines not to repeat them. In an attempt to improve herself, she begins taking dancing lessons. She falls in love with the teacher, Prince Turveydrop (named by his father for the Prince Regent). She marries him, works hard, and is dedicated to her husband and children. One thing I didn’t like about her characterization was her blindness to the true character of her father-in-law. Her love for her husband should have enlightened her to the fact that old Mr. Turveydrop was taking advantage of him. It doesn’t make sense that she can see so clearly the harm that her mother does, but not the harm in old Mr. Turveydrop.
Charley Neckett is the daughter of “Coavinses” — a man who calls in debts, and is accordingly disliked. Charley is hard-working, uncomplaining, loving, and dedicated to her family. After her mother’s death, she does her best to mother her little brother and baby sister. After her father’s death, when she is thirteen years old, she goes out to work, supporting her siblings and herself. Mr. Jarndyce befriends them. He puts her brother to school, and gives her work as Esther’s maid. Charley works hard in gratitude for these kindnesses. When Esther becomes dangerously ill, Charley nurses her devotedly. And yet, despite these virtues, Charley is still an adorable child, with her dimples and her enjoyment of anything mysterious or confidential! Esther says of her, “Charley verified the adage about little pitchers, I am sure, for she heard of more sayings and doings in a day than would have come to my ears in a month.” (Ch. 37).
I liked Dickens’s use of present-tense in the portions of Bleak House that were not narrated by Esther. He had a good idea in making Esther narrate, but was hindered by his preference for simple, saintly women, to which the flaws in the narrative can largely be attributed. Often during Esther’s account, the phrase “the lady doth protest too much, methinks” came to my mind. Take this example from chapter 3: “I have a great deal of difficulty in beginning to write my portion of these pages, for I know I am not clever. I always knew that. … I had always rather a noticing way—not a quick way, oh, no!—a silent way of noticing what passed before me and thinking I should like to understand it better. I have not by any means a quick understanding. When I love a person very tenderly indeed, it seems to brighten. But even that may be my vanity.” And then, “I have mentioned that unless my vanity should deceive me (as I know it may, for I may be very vain without suspecting it, though indeed I don’t), my comprehension is quickened when my affection is.” And was Esther really so stupid as to not understand the difference between indifference and goodness? She says, “Mrs. Rachael was too good to feel any emotion at parting, but I was not so good, and wept bitterly.” (Ch. 3) And then when Ada notices how thoughtful and cheerful Esther is, and how she so unpretendingly makes such a difference even in the Jellybys’ house, Esther remarks, “My simple darling! She was quite unconscious that she only praised herself and that it was in the goodness of her own heart that she made so much of me!” (Ch. 3). Whenever someone shows affection or appreciation for her, Esther chalks it up to only being their own goodness to her, calling it “[t]he old conspiracy to make me happy!” and declaring, “Everybody seemed to be in it!” (Ch. 35) .
Like Dickens’s other novels, Bleak House contains a large number of characters (many of them completely unnecessary to the story, such as Mr. Jobling, Mrs. Smallweed, Mr. Chadband, &c.). The lawyer Mr. Tulkinghorn is a suppressed but cruel man, who plays a large part in the uncovering of Lady Dedlock’s guilt. When he is murdered, three people come under suspicion, allowing great scope for the talent of Inspector Bucket, a sociable, clever man — very amusing to read about, but with a respectful, serious side. The mad Chancery suitor Miss Flite is not a major character, but she foreshadows what Richard Carstone will become. The miserable crossing-sweeper Jo weaves his way in and out of the lives of all the major characters of the story, despite his not knowing “nothink about nothink at all.”
Bleak House is by no means my favorite of Dickens’s novels, but I can see why it is considered one of his greatest.
I read Bleak House April 16 – May 3, 2013.
Screencaps from the 2005 mini-series ‘Bleak House’ with Anna Maxwell Martin (Esther Summerson), Denis Lawson (John Jarndyce), Carey Mulligan (Ada Clare), Gillian Anderson (Lady Dedlock), Patrick Kennedy (Richard Carstone), Katie Angelou (Charley Neckett), Richard Harrington (Allan Woodcourt), and Natalie Press (Caddy Turveydrop).