Bleak House, my favourite Dickens novel (of the ones I’ve read), was a re-read. I’m not exactly sure what drew me back to it, but possibly, my return was generated as a result of all the Trollope I’ve read lately. In some ways, Bleak House was better than I remembered, but more of that later. While the book’s main plot concerns a long-running lawsuit, Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce, involving conflicting wills, the tale includes illegitimacy, murder, death by opium, blackmail, domestic violence, child abuse, skullduggery and even …. spontaneous combustion. The legendary lawsuit is known as Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce, and it has lasted for decades.
The heroine of the novel is gentle, kind Esther Summerson, a girl who is raised by the inflexible Miss Barbary, who makes reference to Esther’s mother’s ‘disgrace,’ which is, in the eyes of Miss Barbary, an inherited condition. After Miss Barbary’s death, Esther is sent to boarding school by her guardian, Mr. John Jarndyce of Bleak House. One day he sends for Esther and she learns that she is be the companion of another ward, Ada Clare. Mr. Jarndyce also is the guardian of Richard Carstone, and both Ada and Richard, as well as Mr. Jarndyce are all beneficiaries to the Jarndyce will–but that depends on which version will eventually be validated. Esther narrates part of the story and the rest is delivered by omniscient narrator.
The novel follows Esther’s life with Ada. Ada falls in love with her cousin Richard and Mr. Jarndyce encourages Richard to get a career so that he can support a wife. The novel has many mysteries: who is Esther’s mother? Who was her father? Several murders take place in the novel and those crimes of course generate their own mysteries: who is the killer (or killers?). What are the motives for these crimes?
The marvellous character, Lady Honoria Dedlock, appears early in the novel. Lord Dedlock is considerably older than Lady Dedlock, and this may explain her perpetual, languid boredom from which she is rarely aroused. Lord Dedlock married for love, and the marriage, though childless, is a success.
My Lady Dedlock, having conquered her world, fell not into the melting, but rather into the freezing, mood. An exhausted composure, a worn-out placidity an equanimity of fatigue not to be ruffled by interest or satisfaction, are the trophies of her victories. If she could be translated to heaven tomorrow, she might be expected to ascend without any rapture.
The impeccable Lady Dedlock is also a possible beneficiary in the Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce case, but she isn’t exactly waiting on the edge of her seat for an outcome. For one thing, she’s incredibly rich. The Deadlocks’ cunning lawyer, Mr. Tulkinghorn notes Lady Deadlock’s emotional reaction to some handwriting she sees on an affidavit from the Jarndyce vs Jarndyce case. Tulkinghorn decides to get to the bottom of this mystery and this decision opens up a world of unsavoury characters.
That’s about as much of the plot as I intend to uncover. For this reading, the idea of responsibility leapt out at me. Many characters can be divided into those who take responsibility for their actions and decisions and those who do not.
So on one side, there are the hyper-responsible: Mr John Jarndyce, for example, takes on responsibilities that are NOT his: Esther is one example, but then there’s also Ada Clare and Richard Carstone. Later, Jarndyce steps in when some children are orphaned. Jarndyce performs direct acts of charity. Some of these direct acts are admirable and produce good results, but one of the recipients of Jarndyce’s charity is most unworthy.
That takes me to the other end of the responsibility chain: Harold Skimpole is an amoral bloodsucker who sponges off everyone who will give him the time of day. Perhaps Jarndyce can afford to throw a few pounds Skimpole’s way, but Skimpole, who excuses himself as a “child” when it comes to money, is a parasite even on those who cannot afford it. Skimpole simply doesn’t care who he takes money from. He doesn’t work and has no income;
He was very fond of reading the papers, very fond of making fancy sketches a pencil, very fond of nature, very fond of art. All he asked of society was to let him live. That wasn’t much. His wants were few. Give him the papers, conversation, music, mutton, coffee, landscape, fruit in the season, a few sheets of Bristol-baord, and a little claret, and he asked no more.
Esther is naive and can’t quite grasp how weasley Skimpole is. She’s never met his sort before:
He was quite enchanting. If I felt at all confused at that early time in endeavouring to reconcile anything he said with anything I had thought about duties and accountabilities of life (which I am far from sure of), I was confused by not exactly understanding why he was free of them.
Skimpole refuses to be grateful, stating: “I don’t feel any vulgar gratitude to you. I almost feel as if you ought to be grateful to ME for giving you the opportunity of enjoying the luxury of generosity.” That’s an interesting observation as it burrows into the foundations of charity.
Another character who shirks responsibility is Mrs. Jellyby, a London based woman who, with “telescopic philanthropy” ignores her own family with her obsessive charitable interest in Africa. The Jellyby children are dirty, neglected and subject to the physical hazards of being completely unsupervised. Mrs Jellyby has the “curious habit of seeming to look a long way off, as if ” she could “see nothing nearer than Africa.” Another irresponsible character is Mr Turveydrop–a man who works his nearest and dearest to the bone “to maintain him in those expenses which were indispensable to his position.” And what is his ‘position; you many well ask? Well apparently, his position is to be “a model of deportment.” So in other words, he stands there, snuff box, rings, eye glass and lace, and looks pretty. Sadly… even Lady Dedlock has shifted responsibility onto another–no spoilers here but you know what I’m talking about if you’ve read the book. We see repeatedly how those who shirk responsibility must rely on the hyper responsible to pick up the slack–economically and socially. Some of the shirkers are completely amoral (Turveydrop, Skimpole) but Lady Dedlock is a dreadfully unhappy woman who feels the deep wounds of her past decisions.
The Jarndyce vs, Jarndyce lawsuit encourages Richard Carstone to avoid his adult responsibilities. Through this character (and a couple of others) we see how the promise of a legacy ruins lives. These characters are always waiting for the big win and not planning a life in the eventuality of not winning. Dickens shows that kindness, even seemingly small acts of kindness, go a long way. Mr. Jarndyce and Esther are both hyper responsible and very kind people. Open the pages of this marvellous book, and you step into an incredible world of unforgettable characters: some malicious and conniving, others prey to circumstance. For this reading, I admired how Dickens juxtaposed the tragic with the light. I laughed out loud when Mrs Guppy, the mother of Esther’s self-interested, would-be suitor, tries to throw Mr. Jarndyce out of his own house.
Finally, at the end of the novel, I asked myself if I would rather be in a Dickens or a Trollope novel? The winner, hands-down: Trollope. It’s not an entirely fair question. Bleak House contains some evil characters (and banal opportunists), and while these types do occasionally pop up in Trollope, Trollope defangs the bad. Dickens was concerned with social ills/evils, and he shows, brilliantly, how easy is it to fall from the narrow plank of subsistence living, and, then how once off that plank, various human piranha move in for the kill.