Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Bleak House Week 1: PHENOMENAL CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT. Itty-bitty plot line.

**Declaration of Intent to Readalong: This post is part of a group read of Bleak House, hosted by Alice at Reading Rambo. If you are not currently or have not previously read this book, the words that follow will make no sense to you. I'm not giving you a synopsis. I'm not your mother. Alternatively, you can join the readalong and then we all win.**

Somehow, in 166 pages of book and very little in the way of actual plot, Dickens has said so VERY much. And I have taken several pages of scribbly notes.

Hosted by Alice, not Cecil Baldwin.
Let’s talk about Esther first, just in case I run out of time and space and will to live before I get to anything else.

She had a rough go of it in the beginning, with that godmother who kept reminding her it would be better if she were never born. (“Your mother, Esther, is your disgrace, and you were hers. . . . I have forgiven her the wrong she did to me, and I say no more of it, though it was greater than you will ever know—than any one will ever know but I, the sufferer.” I do not think forgiveness means what you think it means, m'lady.)

As a result of which Esther’s only friend is her doll, and we are made very sad by this (especially when she inexplicably decides to bury her only friend in the garden-earth).

When her godmother dies, her situation immeasurably improves in the capable hands of her benefactor, one John Jarndyce. But the damage to her psyche seems pretty well done, because she insists on being persistently self-deprecating.

A sampling of scenarios in which I fantasize about giving Esther firm guidance:
  • Rachael, a servant who essentially watched Esther grow up, shows no emotion when Esther is about to leave, never to return. And Esther blames herself for not being a better little girl so that Rachael would love her more and thus be sad to see her go. “I felt so miserable and self-reproachful that I clung to her and told her it was my fault, I knew, that she could say good-bye so easily!” NO, ESTHER. Rachael is dead inside.
And this is how mean Rachaels
should be dealt with.
  •  Esther leaves the school where, for 6 quiet years, she has been teaching and learning and soaking up the never-before-experienced adoration and appreciation of others. And she cries about it. And she scolds herself for crying about it. LET YOURSELF CRY, ESTHER. Crying feels nice.
  • “I don’t know how it is that I seem to be always writing about myself. I mean all the time to write about other people, and I try to think about myself as little as possible, and I am sure, when I find myself coming into the story again, I am really vexed and say, ‘Dear, dear, you tiresome little creature, I wish you wouldn’t!’ but it is all of no use.” YOU ARE THE FIRST-PERSON NARRATOR, ESTHER. It's OK to first-person narrate.
  • When Harold Skimpole (effing Harold Skimpole) is ever so subtly asking Esther and Richard to pay his debt for him so he won't be carted away by the lawman: “It was a most singular thing that the arrest was our embarrassment and not Mr. Skimpole’s. He observed us with a genial interest, but there seemed, if I may venture on such a contradiction, nothing selfish in it. He had entirely washed his hands of the difficulty, and it had become ours.” BECAUSE HE IS PLAYING YOU LIKE A FIDDLE, ESTHER.
  • When she first meets Ada and Ada actually wants to talk to her: “What a load off my mind! It was so delightful to know that she could confide in me and like me! It was so good of her, and so encouraging to me!” MAYBE YOU ARE JUST A DESIRABLE CONVERSATIONAL PARTNER, ESTHER.

Speaking of Ada . . . we’re all in agreement that Esther is in love with her, yeah? Poor Richard. He and Walter Hartright from The Woman in White should form a support group for men who marry the women they love but also have to be OK with the women who also love their wives hanging around all the time. Because I get the sense that Richard and Ada will get married and Esther will go ahead and move in with them.

Or not? Depending on one's outlook.

There is TONS of subtext to support Esther's interest in Ada, but I’m relying on Alice to address it in depth, with evidence from scholarly sources. I will just say that when Esther is retelling the instance of her first meeting with Ada and Richard, it goes a little something like this:
There was a young lady whose hair shone like spun gold and the fire's glow fell upon her angelic face, which was innocent and trusting. And her blue eyes. OMG . . . her blue eyes. And she nestled with me in the window seat and captivated me completely, and I can’t believe my luck that she would deign to converse with such a lowly creature as I. And, oh yeah, Richard Carstone was there, too. He was handsome and nice.
And now a cursory discussion of Things That Are Not Esther.

This is the first Dickens I’ve read that was not one of those illustrated children’s editions (also how I read Moby Dick, which I realize possibly doesn’t count). So I’m realizing that he’s a ridiculously good writer? He knows how to use the words and put them together to make the nice sentences. I’m thoroughly impressed by the level of detail he packs into every page. And, yeah, not much of anything has really happened (there’s a never-ending lawsuit and Lady Dedlock recognized someone’s handwriting and was UPSET about it and a law-writer named Nemo has overdosed on opium the end), but his characters are an event in themselves.

There's Mrs. Jellyby and Mrs. Pardiggle (and their poor husbands and children—the Pardiggle children being much less sympathetic than the Jellyby children on the whole, I would say). And Harold Skimpole, who is essentially a freeloader who had a ton of children and then abandoned them and continues to get into debt and ask other people to get him out of it, but it’s OK because he’s no more than a child himself (NO IT IS NOT OK, although I do enjoy his opinions on bees).

And then there’s John Jarndyce, with his tendency to feel the effects of an east wind whenever someone brings up something he would rather not talk about. He seems perfectly lovely, but I’m not sure I agree with his being the source of Esther’s weirdly insulting nicknames (Old Woman, Little Old Woman, Cobweb, Mother Hubbard . . . the poor woman is, like, 20 years old and already has record-low self-esteem). And most recently, we met Mr. Boythorn, whom I’m inclined to like for many reasons, not least of which being his hilarious feud with Leicester Dedlock over who owns a dirt path. But that canary. The way he trained it and has it eating out of his hand . . . it reminds me of another large man who enjoyed tiny animals and ended up being the most dastardly of villains.

Remember Count Fosco and how he looked like this
when he was being a badger?


  1. I HOPE Esther gets to move in with Ada and Richard. Even if Esther is (so far at least) way less badass than our Marian. But then again, who can compete with Marian?

    I hope Boythorn is not our Fosco. Was this written before WoiW? Did Wilkie write that to be like "Dickens, look, I made Bleak House better."


    " but I’m relying on Alice to address it in depth, with evidence from scholarly sources"


    I know I read more about them and it's KILLING ME that I don't know where. Imma have to go to the library and see if Eve Sedgwick was all up on this.

    And Dickens kind of has to set up all the characters/foreshadowing before he can delve into actual plot. BE PATIENT, TINY SPARROW. (and I miss Fosco like whoa, but Mr Boythorn is more than welcome to try to replace him)

  3. BH was 1853, and TWiW was 1859. So YES, Wilkie was like, "birds on your head? I'll give YOU birds on your head, Dickens!"

    And then they fought with canes or something.

  4. Esther's hero-worship of Ada does seem a little misplaced, even though Ada was the first real person to be nice to her in... ever. Hmm. Perhaps not so misplaced after all? But I would be on board with not calling her "Old Woman" ever again because there is a CONTRAST being set up in this book about the new vs. the old and Esther is - as previously mentioned - only like 20 years old. She should not have to bridge that gap.

    MARIAAAAAN. We may need to read TWiW again this year...

  5. Mr. Skimpole is such a BUM. He's driving me nuts.
    And POOR POOR Esther. Even I feel sad for her. And I do wish she would stop being so down on herself, but I'm glad that at times she does show having a LITTLE TINY BIT of a backbone. I hope that she keeps on with that.

  6. Naturally they fought with canes. I assume that was a weekly ritual

  7. Oh Esther... I actually rolled my eyes at the 'oh man, I wish I didn't go on about myself so' bit, because COME ON, DUDE. Have some kind of... something, yeah?

    I enjoy your multiple Woman in White references because when is that ever not a good idea? NEVER, I say!


  9. NO ONE. No one can compete with Marian. Which means Wilkie can still rub it all up in Dickens's face that he's better at writing women. In the afterlife, I assume there is still MUCH cane-fighting.

  10. And I'll raise you teeeeny-tiny mice. En garde!

  11. YOU DO SPY AN ALADDIN REFERENCE. I'm gratified that you both got this, although I don't know why I ever doubted you.

    I'm feeling just fine about how long it's taking Dickens to get to his point, because he really does turn a damn good phrase.

  12. Well Ada is so very PRETTY. So she deserves all our adoration, I suppose. But I can't forgive her for joining in with this "little old woman" bullshit. Nope.

  13. It's WORSE because Jarndyce sets up Skimpole as being an utter delight. And then everyone loves him so much, and it's just like NO. WHAT. STOP. KICK THAT MAN INTO THE ROAD.

  14. It makes more sense to me now that Alice has explained that she's mothering herself. NOW I feel bad that I yelled at her in my head. But she could do with a bit of backbone, absolutely.

  15. It's a hard job, but someone really must do it.

  16. *signs the petition with her own blood on account of this is so necessary*

  17. I was SUPER upset with Esther for giving away all her savings to this freaking guy. Effing Skimpole, indeed.

    So glad to hear you all giving excellent reasons for liking or, at the very least, not being completely annoyed with Esther. This is why readalongs are important - so we don't miss characters that are hiding their awesomeness under low self esteem.

  18. Petition to make you Esther's mentor/tutor/psychologist/all of the above.
    Because she totally needs it.

    And thank God I'm not the only one who finds the nicknames vaguely insulting. I'd expect a little more sensitivity from a man who has a Growlery and is therefore clearly intimately familiar with mental problems.