Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Bleak House Week 7 (and Week the Last): Now who's gonna help me clean up this mess?

Well I finished Bleak House this morning. And then my husband walked in and wanted to know why I was sitting in the corner pulling a Mr. Jellyby.

For a book that's almost 900 pages long and has been monopolizing most of my reading time since January, I am the opposite of relieved that it's over. I understand now why Alice has read it more than once. And if you have the Signet Classic 150th anniversary edition with an afterword by Elizabeth McCracken, I urge you to read those extra few pages. She completely justifies the sorrow that descends on you after you read the last sentence of Esther's narrative.
Reading Bleak House . . . is like spending time at a long and complicated party full of strangers. People are perhaps not at their most natural when you are first introduced, especially during cocktail hour, and when you meet up with a friend between courses and compare notes, you will surprise each other with your assessments. . . . Course by course and hour by hour your opinions about the strangers change. That's the thing about meeting so many people in such a short time: making snap judgments is irresistible; indeed, in their banter and choice of clothing and posture and eye contact, they demand it. They want to impress you. Only later can they win you over, confide in you, break your heart.

It would take far too long to go through every character and explain the ways my relationships with them changed from first introduction to final farewell, but there are very few who didn't surprise me in some way, for better and for worse. Even in a side character as trivial as Guppy, there are so many variations. Essentially, he isn't an admirable character, but he certainly does admirable things. When he's bantering back and forth with Jobling, he's likable. But when he's getting turned down again by Esther (through Jarndyce), it's satisfying to see him humiliated in front of his friend and mother because he had to drop a hint that Esther shouldn't complain about any of his shortcomings since he's willing to marry her despite her face. (This is so beautifully contrasted on the final page, when Woodcourt tells Esther that she is prettier now than ever she was.)

What Dickens did with Ada and Richard was interesting. I can't decide what kind of message he was trying to send with their union, because Ada's behavior makes her an example of both feminine weakness and strength. She married Richard because she thought being his wife would spark a change in him. When that didn't work, she hoped that having a baby would improve their situation.

But her strength even in the midst of these unwise choices is clear. She wasn't blind to the fact that Richard was likely beyond hope. And even though she knew this, she said she would have married him anyway. And then she stuck by him as he faded away and, importantly, did not follow him out of the world. Her life did not end when his did.

Overall, I'm content with where the characters settled, even the ones who ended up in mausoleums. Because while I am not glad Esther had to discover her mother's corpse gripping the rails of the graveyard where her first love lay buried in anonymity, it seemed as though Lady Dedlock was determined to punish herself and wouldn't ever have been convinced that Sir Leicester accepted her as she was. I only wish she could have heard those words from him before she died, even if she didn't let herself believe them. My primary consolation is that Sir Leicester was able to recover somewhat from that whole ordeal. We know from the dismal description of Chesney Wold that he isn't living a fairy tale life, but he is well enough to ride his horse and carry on the adorable feud with Boythorn, and he has the steady companionship of Mr. George.

It seems appropriate that George came into Leicester's life just as Lady D left it, because George is a lot like her. He was so sure that he had disappointed his family that he had to be convinced that his mother and then his brother were actually happy to see him and held no ill will for anything he had done or failed to do. His story is much happier than Lady D's because he got to hear in his lifetime that he was loved and accepted by his family, and he even grew to believe it. But it's also sad, because think of all those years he lost.

Esther got the ending she deserved, as the wife of Allen Woodcourt and the mistress of Bleak House (Jarndyce, you tricky devil). This is such an odd situation, because it's wonderful and just super weird at the same time. As lovely as the thought behind it was and how well it turned out in the end, whom a woman is going to marry and where she is going to live really shouldn't be planned for her like a surprise birthday party. And also this, what McCracken said about it in the afterword:
I am brokenhearted by Jarndyce's selflessness at giving Esther to Allen Woodcourt, even as I am constitutionally appalled at the notion that she is his to give.
Except that he kind of does.

And, Jarndyce, you cannot say this. This is a creepy thing to say: "I sometimes dreamed when you were very young, of making you my wife one day." No.

One last point before I go: My thirst for justice is not appeased on the matter of one Harold Skimpole. I do not believe that estrangement from Jarndyce and a leisurely death 5 years hence are punishment enough for being the WORST. I will begin saving for a plane ticket to England and a very large carton of eggs.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Bleak House Week 6: I'll be there for you (when you're wrongfully imprisoned for a murder you didn't commit)

This week, all my most favorite people got together and shared scenes, and it was like the emotional but slightly comedic lead-up to a sitcom series finale.

Mr. and Mrs. Bagnet (whom I did not think I could enjoy any more than I already did, but then there was Mrs. Bagnet’s traditional birthday celebration with her family preparing dinner and doing the housework badly while she sat in her best gown and provided direction by way of secret winks and twitches) and George all together are something. But add Detective Bucket to the mix, and you have a birthday party I would very much like to attend.

Granted, Bucket was there to arrest George on suspicion of Tulkinghorn’s murder (I told him not to call him a rusty carbine loudly in public), but he arrested him so considerately, and you could tell he didn’t really want to. So no hard feelings, I’m sure.

And George is being ever brave and stalwart through this whole being-wrongfully-imprisoned thing. I tend to agree with his admittedly na├»ve view of the matter, which is that if he can’t be set free according to the whole truth, he would rather not be set free at all. But knowing the limits of the justice system, I also tend to agree with his friends, who are urging him to hire a fleet of lawyers. Thanks to Bucket and his expert detectiving though, none of that matters at all, and we are free to discuss the way I've decided to imagine that arrest scene playing out:

No WONDER he's his mother's favorite son.

But going back to Mrs. Bagnet (and forever and always with hearts in our eyes), this is definitely in my Top 10 favorite moments of the whole book or maybe any book:
“Instantly Mrs. Bagnet put some pins into her mouth and began pinning up her skirts all round a little higher than the level of her gray cloak, which she accomplished with surpassing dispatch and dexterity.
‘Lignum,’ said Mrs. Bagnet, ‘you take care of the children, old man, and give me the umbrella! I’m away to Lincolnshire to bring that old lady here.’ . . .
And she actually set off while we three stood looking at one another lost in amazement. She actually trudged away in her grey cloak at a sturdy pace, and turned the corner, and was gone.”
Imma just handle this business.

And do you know, I don’t think Mr. and Mrs. Bagnet are the only functional, healthy married couple in this story after all. Mr. and Mrs. Bucket are quite on the same level of marital success, by all appearances. Aside from the part where he shoves a sheet in her mouth so she won’t exclaim and then leaves it there for the entire conversation. But even that fits nicely with my image of Detective Bucket as Columbo.

The way he puts it to Mr. Smallweed (“Now, don’t open your mouth too wide, because you don’t look handsome when you do it”) and then makes Hortense link arms with him on the couch when she so clearly wants to rip his throat out with her teeth, and the way he is a blue-collar detective investigating the lives of the rich and powerful and saying things like, “I am damned if I am a-going to have my case spoilt, or interfered with, or anticipated by so much as half a second of time by any human being in creation.”

"When Mr. Bucket has a matter of this pressing interest
under his consideration, the fat forefinger seems to rise
to the dignity of a familiar demon."

At first, when Ada was being all gloomy around Esther, I was afraid that she had secretly gotten engaged to Woodcourt, which would absolutely break The Girl Code. But it’s all good because it turns out Ada just ran off and tied her tugboat to the Titanic. So phew.

But really, if Ada were a smart girl, she would be flouncing around Woodcourt and trawling for a proposal as though her life depended on it, Girl Code be damned. Because he saved shipwrecked people and doctored Jo and said this right to Vholes’s weasely, pale face:
“You seem to forget that I ask you to say nothing and have no interest in anything you say.”
Everybody else talk about how sweet and heartbreaking Sir Leicester’s reaction to the Awful Truth About His Wife was. I have some Gerard Butler Google image search results to attend to.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Bleak House Week 5: Romance and orphans are not welcome to sit at Dickens's table

Jumping right in on the subject of Esther and Jarndyce, in some ways, it seems right that she should marry him. She has been happy at Bleak House, he is a kind man, he does really seem to love her, and he has been her sole confidante in matters of her past. But . . . he's basically her father? Even though they aren't biologically related, there's a particular dynamic that's been set up here, and that dynamic is that HE'S HER FATHER.

Plus, as much as she loves him, she doesn't L-O-V-E him. She's talking herself into believing that she wants this match, but she's struggling with a mysterious sense of loss. And we know, even if she doesn't, that it's because her romantic affections lie elsewhere. But if you were to ask me where her affections lie, whether with Ada or with Woodcourt . . . I believe I would be forced to answer that they lie with both.

When Esther pulled out the dried flowers that Woodcourt left for her and that she saved all this time, she took them into Ada's room and touched them to her lips as she slept, and then she burned them over a candle. And in that one ritual, I think she said goodbye to Ada and Woodcourt together. Her chance at a sweeping, all-consuming romance existed with one of those two individuals, and now she has this instead:
I put my two arms round his neck and kissed him, and he said was this the mistress of Bleak House and I said yes; and it made no difference presently, and we all went out together, and I said nothing to my precious pet about it. 
It's just what every little girl dreams of.

And, because I can't resist gaying up Bleak House just a little more, I could be easily convinced that Woodcourt has more than a friendly interest in Richard. He met the shock of Esther's changed face with admirable composure, and really I don't think it bothered him much at all past the sadness he felt for her personal loss. But he was very bothered indeed by Richard's face.
Mr. Woodcourt had a perception that all was not going well with him. He frequently glanced at his face as if there were something in it that gave him pain, and more than once he looked towards me as though he sought to ascertain whether I knew what the truth was.
And then when Esther asked him to take Richard under his wing as a friend in London, he earnestly accepted this calling as a sacred trust. And, yeah, maybe he's throwing himself into this with such gusto because he loves Esther and wants to ease her worries in any little way he can, but isn't it funner if we look at it the other way?

Who do we think shot Skulkingscorn? I know we're supposed to believe it was Lady D, since she went for a "walk" in the "garden" that night. But it could be any number of people. George probably wouldn't kill him, but that impassioned speech in which he compared him to a rusty carbine and said he would take him down on a fair field, and then had to self-soothe by whistling the national anthem and rocking himself gently, will certainly make him a suspect.

My money, though, is on Hortense. She came to Tulkinghorn justifiably upset. He had coerced her into selling out her employer, and then she lost her placement. She may be a little unbalanced, but her request was reasonable. All she wanted was help finding another job. But could Tulkinghorn meet this logical request with a logical response?

Niiiiiice knowing you, buddy.

As for people who are wonderful and deserve to live forever, every single moment in Chapters 46 and 47 was both the best and the saddest moment in the whole book for me. I know that Woodcourt has done great things for the shipwrecked people of India, but when he chased Jo in a "grimly ridiculous pursuit" just because Jenny asked him to, and then made sure Jo was safe at George's and cared for him personally, that's the point when I thought, "This is the one man on Earth who actually deserves Esther."

And Phil took particular interest in Jo's care and then cried on his hammer when Jo's cart was getting its heaviest. . . probably because he saw himself in this grimy, dejected boy walking up against the buildings, touching every filthy brick as he went. And George opened his home to him for the same reason, I think. And Snagsby risked, not to put too fine a point on it, the wrath of his little woman to come visit Jo on his deathbed. And when even three half-crowns weren't enough to fix this problem, he vowed to record Jo's apology so that he would finally be able to access the secret power of the written word that had always been so far out of his reach. Snagsby helped Jo feel more human.

Basically, the image of this group of men finally filling the role of nurturer for a boy who has never known anything but moving on and moving on and forever moving on, that image did me right in.

And you know what else did me in?
He also descries promise in the figure of Mr. George himself, striding towards them in his morning exercise with his pipe in his mouth, no stock on, and his muscular arms, developed by broadsword and dumbbell, weightily asserting themselves through his light shirt-sleeves.