Bleak House – Charles Dickens

[This is a journal in ten sections, each covering two of the twenty original instalments. I didn’t start reading a new section until I’d finished writing about the one before, so I didn’t know how any of it would turn out until I got to the end.]

1 July 2015
I and II – Chapters 1-7
The titles of the first two chapters, ‘In Chancery’ and ‘In Fashion’ are a signal: each is as English, as hidebound, and as pointless as the other. On the first page, famously, Dickens imagines a dinosaur making its way through the London fog, and… no further comment is needed, beyond the fact that the proceedings of the courts feel as antediluvian as that lumbering monster. But if those waiting for a final judgment – I’ll come back to a later riff on that idea – are trapped, they are no more so than Lady Dedlock is trapped in a loveless marriage to a man who seems as pointless as the English judiciary. Don’t get Dickens started on the aristocracy. Oh, too late. It isn’t fog that keeps her indoors, it’s incessant rain… and there are so many biblical references in these early chapters that we are bound to wonder what punishment it might represent. It’s mood music, of course, but not only that, surely?

There’s a stronger link: lawyers. One arrives at the Dedlocks’ pile in Lincolnshire – or is it after they move on, in their pointless way, to London en route for Paris? – and the only thing Lady D is interested in is the handwriting of a document he has brought. She wonders who wrote it…? File that one away for later. The lawyer, Tulkinghorn – file him away for later as well – is there to bring them up to date on the Jarndyce and Jarndyce case. We’ve already learnt in the first chapter about its legendary status as the longest-running case ever, so it’s no surprise that Lady Dedlock’s eyes are glazing over before she notices the handwriting.

The other story, in the chapters containing Esther’s first-person narrative, is also full of lawyers. She immediately becomes linked to the same case: Richard and Ada, the two young people she joins up with, are ‘wards in Jarndyce’, and they go to stay with one John Jarndyce, who tries to avoid any contact with the case. He’s one of the characters that Dickens presents as habitually delightful, but even Dickens is alerting us to the possibility that you can’t turn your back on every difficulty through sheer warm-heartedness. For example he is appalled when he finds out that Skimpole, the supposedly innocent guest, has borrowed money from both Esther and Richard. So he gives it back to them, yes? Not at all. After his usual references to the hostile ‘east wind’, he lets them calm him, so he never actually asks how much they have lost. £10 (Richard) and £15 (Esther’s life savings) would be worth over 100 times as much in today’s values.

I mention John Jarndyce’s kindness and generosity because Dickens does, all the time. But one of the themes running through the novel already is the importance of looking beneath the surface presentation. John Jarndyce is no hypocrite – his generosity is definitely real – but, well, perhaps his behaviour won’t quite do. We’ve seen ‘Conversation’ Kenge, the lawyer charged to get the young people to Bleak House, and the way he relies on carefully constructed rhetorical ‘periods’ to give an undeserved sense of weightiness. (The whole of ‘Chancery’ is like this in Dickens’ presentation of it.) Skimpole himself definitely won’t do: for page after page, Esther follows John Jarndyce’s lead in regarding him as a harmless child, unable to cope with the trials of the world. But it’s been let drop that he has a wife and perhaps twelve children – how would he know how many? – and, following the loans, we hear that this is what he always does. He turns his indebtedness into a gift to the donor, enabled to feel warmly generous. As for the Dedlocks… they are all surface with, it seems, nothing beneath.

Our judgment of these people, or some of them, is made slightly more complicated by Esther’s own style. Dickens signals from the very beginning that we should take her descriptions with a pinch of salt – she always sees the best in others while ignoring all her own good qualities. So we see that her guardian, whom she presents as simply ‘good’, is really a shrewish, sanctimonious harridan who won’t even let the girl celebrate the birthdays she makes her feel ashamed of. Esther genuinely seems to believe it’s her fault. I quickly grew tired of her self-deprecation – which never, somehow, prevents her from letting us know how loved she is at the school where she becomes a de facto teacher, how Ada and Richard love her from the start for the way she treats the Jellyby children… and so on. If this were a novel by a different author we’d be looking out for these inconsistencies and seeing them as signs of vanity. With Dickens I don’t think that’s expected at all. But I might change my mind.

Esther has a bird in a cage with her when she moves to the school after her guardian’s death, and cages become a theme. Lady Dedlock might have escaped, but not for good, and only as far as another citadel of pointless fashion. But Miss Flyte, the madwoman who has grown old waiting for the resolution of her case that she expects daily, also keeps birds in a cage. She vows to free them on the day of judgment. How we laughed. And at the Jellybys’ chaotic house there’s a structure that accidentally resembles, among other things, a birdcage. I can’t believe that’s accidental – all the Jellybys are trapped in a pointless round of whatever it is that they do. (It isn’t as clunky as I’m making it sound.)

So, what’s happened? The Dedlocks’ departure has left the question of the handwriting up in the air. Except that handwriting comes up again: a man lodging in the same house as Miss Flyte advertises his services as a copyist – and Esther recognises the handwriting from legal documents she has received. The copyist gives his name as ‘Nemo’, and you can’t get much more evasive than that. He’s another one to file away for later. Esther, after six cloyingly blissful years in the school, has been told – by Kenge, who brought those legal papers with him – that she is to become the housekeeper of a Mr Jarndyce at Bleak House, where she will be a companion to Ada, who is… etc.

On the way there’s an overnight stay at the Jellybys’, and even Esther can’t help but see that Mrs J is not doing a very good job either as a parent or wife, spending all her time on a project for improving the lives of Africans. Esther is right, although I’m always uneasy when Dickens presents either an ideal of family behaviour or its opposite, as here. When John J later asks her what she thinks, she tells him, very uneasily. ‘“We rather thought,” said I, glancing at Richard and Ada, who entreated me with their eyes to speak, “that perhaps she was a little unmindful of her home.”’ Which is exactly what John J wants to hear. ‘I may have sent you there on purpose.’ So he is hoping that she will make some sort of judgment – and learn to speak her mind. The other episode that takes place on the morning after their stay at the Jellybys’ is their introduction to Miss Flyte, thrilled to meet such celebrities as ‘the wards in Jarndyce’, and her landlord Krook. He runs a shop where he only buys, never sells….

So, all are safely installed at Bleak House, where everything is lovely and even the quirks of the house are endearing. Skimpole is endlessly, if troublingly, entertaining and John J is able to avoid the east wind almost entirely. He, like Esther, is almost pathologically self-effacing. If anyone even tries to thank him for anything, he literally runs away. And Esther is established as the housekeeper, a role which, despite her inevitable and predictable misgivings, she seems to have been born to play. It will not impinge on her other role, to be an uncomplaining support for her ‘darling’, Ada. Not a great one for breaking down gender roles, Dickens.

Other characters. Guppy is the keen young legal clerk at Kenge and Carboy, and we meet him again in a chapter set in the closed-up Chesney Wold, the stately Dedlock pile. Following one of Dickens’ set-piece descriptions of its moribund state in the rain – even the animals seem lost in torpor, and the pictures look bored enough for it to seem that they are aware of every tedious moment – we meet the housekeeper Mrs Rouncewell and her grandson. He is down for a visit from the industrial North where her lively and inventive son, disgracefully in the eyes of both his mother and Sir Leicester, has established himself in trade. Guppy arrives for a look around, quoting Tulkinghorn as a reference, and the grandson does the tour with him so that he can be in the company of Rosa, the new maid. That’s all – but in a Dickens novel it’s only a question of when exactly the grandson will marry her.

And there’s another question: where on earth has Guppy seen the beautiful woman before, the one in the portrait – Lady Dedlock? There have been no engravings made of it, so he must have seen her in the flesh… but where? One last thing at Chesney Wold: the story of ‘the Ghost’s Walk’. Guppy isn’t told this sordid little tale of perceived betrayal and recriminations in the Dedlocks’ ancestral past. It’s another secret to go with the others – like why is Esther’s birth so shameful? And why was her guardian her ‘Aunt in fact, though not in law’? We can begin to guess, but Esther doesn’t even try to understand.

3 July
III and IV – Chapters 8-13
The plot advances hardly at all. Some things do happen, but Dickens often slows the pace to a standstill to concentrate on character, or mise-en-scene, or so that he can turn his eye on some aspect, usually ghastly, of life in England. The aristocracy, marriage, the institutions of the law, attitudes to the poor…. I can’t ever remember him revelling so gleefully in his own status as an outsider. He invites the reader to stand apart from these people and mock. He does it to some extent in the chapters narrated by Esther, as he has done with Mrs Jellyby, but in the chapters that don’t continue ‘Esther’s narrative’ he’s happy to editorialise shamelessly.

Chapter 8 is Esther, mainly at Bleak House. Dickens can offer us another Jellyby-style horror of a woman, but aggressively do-gooder rather than constantly distracted by her ‘telescopic philanthropy’. For Mrs Pardiggle charity begins at home, but not her own. She thrusts her way into the hovels of the working poor whose lives she only tries to improve by forcing unreadable pamphlets into their hands. She uses her five unpleasant children, trailing around behind her, as models of charity: she makes them give all their allowances to good causes, and you can just imagine their speechless rage. In the house of a bricklayer a baby dies, and only Esther and Ada notice. And so on.

A character Esther meets in a later chapter is, like Skimpole, a comic turn. He is all aggressive (but genuine) generosity and hyperbolic threats of what he will do to those who cross him or any of his friends. He is full of noise, which his pet canary ignores as it perches on his head. I suppose Dickens is making a point about empty rhetoric – Kenge and Mrs Pardiggle come to mind. And Dickens has Boythorne locked into a pointless boundary dispute with… Sir Leicester Dedlock. Later we get Sir Leicester’s version of the affair. Watch this space.

Esther’s chapters are mainly to do with life at Bleak House. There are almost always some relationships in a Dickens novel that I find problematic and Esther’s, particularly (but not only) with John Jarndyce, is one of them. She considers herself an ‘old-maidish sort of foolish little person’ – the joke being, of course, that she is the most open and capable person in the novel – and the others in the house quickly become affectionately patronising. Based on a rhyme, she becomes ‘Old Woman, and Little Old Woman, and Cobweb’…. Jarndyce’s default mode with her is fatherly, and to her he is ‘Guardian’. (Sigh.) He obliquely offers to tell her something of the circumstances of her own birth, but only if she wants to hear. She doesn’t want to hear, so no surprise there, then.

While Ada remains one kind of archetypal Dickens heroine – pretty, blonde, always ‘my darling’ to Esther – there is something slightly unresolved about Richard’s character. He isn’t good with money, so that when Jarndyce pays him back the £10 it’s suddenly a windfall he can use as he chooses after making fantastical calculations in his head. It’s comic, kind of, but money is never a laughing matter in this novel. Later, he can’t settle his mind on any one career. When he chooses one, medicine, it seems arbitrary – and the doctor that Kenge finds to be his mentor is not promising. The meeting of the Bleak House four with ‘Mr Bayham Badger’ is not auspicious. He is Mrs Badger’s third husband, and complacently (and absurdly) willing to let her turn the house into a shrine to the first two to the exclusion of himself. Marriage, eh? And all this comes after Ada decides to tell Esther – who has known for weeks if not months, of course – that she and Richard are in love and would like to marry one day. One day, Jarndyce agrees, but not until Richard is established. Hmm.

One other thing in Esther’s narrative. Guppy arrives at Bleak House, ostensibly on business. Really he’s there to offer Esther his hand in marriage, to which she offers a point-blank refusal. But he isn’t going quietly. When they are all up in London to get Richard’s placement sorted out and to have a holiday, every time they go to the theatre he is there, hair flattened, looking as pathetic as he can manage. I’m not sure why yet why Dickens has placed this comedy courtship parallel to Richard and Ada’s. Maybe, in some ways, neither is based on more solid foundations than the other.

The chapters not narrated by Esther are better. Dickens doesn’t have to keep within her limits of expression or politeness, so he can say what he likes. He often does. After the Dedlocks’ return from Paris – where, unsurprisingly, she was ‘bored to death’ – there’s a long riff on the pointlessness of the aristocracy in general and the Dedlocks in particular. The ‘elite of the Beau Monde (the fashionable intelligence is weak in English, but a giant refreshed in French)’ arrive at Chesney Wold, and Dickens attacks the new ‘Dandyism… in religion, for instance. Who in mere lackadaisical want of an emotion have agreed upon a little dandy talk about the vulgar wanting faith in things in general, meaning in the things that have been tried and found wanting….’ It’s the new cant, related to Mrs Pardiggle’s love of judging others and finding them wanting.

This comes after the Dedlocks’ seemingly endless journey home, during which the loving couple are noted for their scrupulous consideration of each other’s needs. Everything about their relationship, in other words, is on the surface. Sir Leicester remembers an addendum to one of Tulkinghorn’s interminable reports, asking him to tell his wife that he has found the man who copied the document she was interested in. She is so disturbed by this that she has to stop the carriage and walk a little. What we know, but Lady Dedlock does not, is that the man is dead. We were there when the lawyer found him some chapters earlier, and wonder at Tulkinghorn’s incomplete version. He tells her of the death many days, perhaps even weeks later – and, of course, she feigns near-indifference. It’s something else to file away, along with the feeling that nobody in this world ever tells anybody anything.

Tulkinghorn’s discovery begins a section of the novel straddling these two instalments, set in the miserable streets near the law courts. What happens can be summed up in a sentence: he attempts to visit the man at Krook’s, discovers his body, and a brief inquest follows. But, aside from the death of ‘Nemo’ and the jury’s decision that his opium overdose was accidental, these two long chapters aren’t about plot. We get pages about the legal stationer Snagsby, mainly so that we can learn about another comedy marriage. They speak with one voice, Mrs Snagsby’s. There’s the sordid hole at Krook’s where Nemo is living, or was living, keeping himself – this being the novel it is – to himself. There are the women, neighbours who aren’t speaking since that incident when – whatever – who are now brought together by the tragedy on their doorstep. One or other of them offers to stand as a witness at the inquest, and uses a lot of words to say, this being the novel that it is, absolutely nothing. Meanwhile Jo, the crossing-sweeper, isn’t allowed to speak. The coroner decides he doesn’t know his own mind – but he later tells Tulkinghorn and Snagsby about the dead man. If he had a coin in his pocket – he didn’t always – he would give it to Jo. ‘He was wery good to me.’ It isn’t Tulkinghorn who offers the boy half-a-crown now.

All human life. There’s the ridiculous beadle, the would-be comedian working the inquest up into a routine in which he imitates the participants so badly they are unrecognisable…. It’s mocking, affectionate – and there’s something genuinely touching about Jo. We won’t have seen the last of him.

8 July
V and VI – Chapters 14-19
Richard is beginning to be a worry. At the beginning of Chapter 14, something he says about the Jarndyce case causes a ‘shade’ to pass over Ada’s expression. Ok. Meanwhile, most of the Dedlock thread is taken up with Lady D, particularly her visit to London, poorly disguised as a servant, to find Nemo’s grave. Jo the crossing-sweeper is the one who points out the grave to Lady Dedlock, in one of several intertwinings of the novel’s threads in these instalments – and it turns out he isn’t the only under-age victim of poverty. Dickens introduces a young family without a parent in order to highlight, again, the inadequate provision for the poor. And he introduces some new minor characters. There’s another victim of the slowness of legal proceedings, to go with Miss Flyte and all the others. And there are two more useless men. Though appearing in different parts of the novel, they both seem to personify a favourite idea in this novel – empty form over anything at all that might be useful.

Gradually, Dickens is beginning to sound alarm-bells concerning Richard. We remember his cavalier attitude to money from earlier chapters, and it seems to get worse. When he is buying what he thinks he needs for London he thinks that by spending £8 on an unnecessary purchase he has saved money – because he didn’t spend the £12 he was going to spend on something even more extravagant. But there’s something else, possibly connected: he has begun to refer to the money that might come to them from the Jarndyce case. It seems to hover on the edge of his consciousness, and it’s when he mentions it in passing – ‘if the case should make us rich – which it may, you know’ – that the ‘shade’ passes over Ada’s face.

It gets worse. This isn’t the only time that a ‘shade’ falls over Ada, and John Jarndyce is clearly worried. After a few weeks or months – the chronology is vague, but spring is turning into summer – Richard is finding it hard to settle to his medical studies. It’s the preposterous Mrs Badger, attended by her husband, who tells Jarndyce about it during another stay in London. Richard tries to make light of it when Esther talks to him about it, calling her by at least three different nicknames (Mother Hubbard, Mrs Shipton, Minerva) as he stalls. If, as she tells him, most careers involve the kind of repetitiveness he doesn’t like in medicine, he might as well carry on. ‘Let us talk about something else.’ But she won’t let him off the hook, and eventually he tells her ‘I have been thinking that the law is the boy for me.’ Why? So he can come to understand the Jarndyce case, of course. Aargh. By the time the summer vacation is under way, he is installed at Kenge and Carboys, ‘making most energetic attempts to unravel the mysteries of the fatal suit.’ Strong word, fatal.

Meanwhile… Lady Dedlock briefly appears in Jo’s story. He has more sense than he gives himself credit for, finds it impossible to believe that this really is a servant asking searching questions about the life of the man who died. At the horrible little graveyard she is concerned enough to ask him whether it is consecrated ground, but he has no idea what she’s talking about. I’ll come back to Jo. His isn’t the only story Lady D pops up in. Having left Richard poring over the Jarndyce papers, the others visit Boythorn at his place next to the Dedlocks and there she is, at church. It is, for no reason Esther can fathom, an electrifying encounter. ‘Shall I ever forget the rapid beating at my heart, occasioned by the look I met as I stood up! Shall I ever forget the manner in which those handsome proud eyes seemed to spring out of their languor and to hold mine! … And, very strangely, there was something quickened within me, associated with the lonely days at my godmother’s … although I had never seen this lady’s face before in all my life—I was quite sure of it—absolutely certain.’

Absolutely certain. Got that? Whatever, they meet again in a lodge on the Dedlock estate when they are all caught in the rain. And Esther finds out about the affection Lady D has for her new maid. This is Rosa, of course, now having reached a tentative understanding with Mrs Rouncewell’s son, who makes frequent visits now. The haughty French maid is ousted, it seems, and has to trudge through the sodden grounds because there is no room in the carriage she has brought from the house. She might have been given her notice, but I doubt that she’ll be going quietly.

Next. Other meetings that Esher has. Earlier, in London – it’s no surprise that Dickens, of all novelists, can’t help dragging the Bleak House crew back there – she has made proper friends with the eldest Jellyby daughter. This is Caddy, the one who spends her life writing out her mother’s pointless letters, and she’s going to make a getaway. Esther can see that the faults Caddy is so aware of in herself are down to her lack of any proper care in childhood, and is glad to go with her to meet the man she hopes to marry. She isn’t going to marry the useless man her mother seems to be lining up for her, Mr Quale. We’ve met him briefly before, and he is notable only for ‘his power of indiscriminate admiration. He would sit for any length of time, with the utmost enjoyment, bathing his temples in the light of any order of luminary.’

No, she is going to marry a dancing teacher. This would be Mr Turveydrop if there was any room on the sign for more than just his father’s name – he isn’t even ‘and Son’, because the old man is so full of empty vanity that he doesn’t acknowledge him beyond a patronising tolerance of his running their dancing classes selflessly and single-handedly. In a chapter entitled ‘Deportment’ the father is one of the useless men. ‘He had a cane, he had an eye-glass, he had a snuff-box, he had rings, he had wristbands, he had everything but any touch of nature; he was not like youth, he was not like age, he was not like anything in the world but a model of deportment.’

The other useless man we meet for the first time is Mr Chadband, Mrs Snagsby’s latest find. He has married the sanctimonious housekeeper of Esther’s godmother, the one who used to confirm all her mistress’s doleful pronouncements about the shame of the young girl’s birth. Chadband doesn’t go in for condemnation, but he does go in for pronouncements, filling the air with high-sounding words that mean precisely nothing. During grace before a meal: ‘And why do we need refreshment, my friends? Because we are but mortal, because we are but sinful, because we are but of the earth, because we are not of the air. Can we fly, my friends? We cannot. Why can we not fly, my friends…?’ And so on, and on. He doesn’t seem to be an actual clergyman, describing himself as a ‘vessel’. He’s definitely an empty one. When Jo, dragged to Snagsby’s by a policeman in the process of making sure he ‘moves on’ to another parish, he has nothing to say.

But Dickens does. ‘Do you hear, Jo? … The one grand recipe remains for you—the profound philosophical prescription—the be-all and the end-all of your strange existence upon earth. Move on! You are by no means to move off, Jo, for the great lights [of the parliamentary sky] can’t at all agree about that. Move on!’ Is this the first time Dickens has apostrophised Jo like this? It certainly isn’t the first time he’s turned his gaze fully upon him. ‘What connexion can there be between the place in Lincolnshire, the house in town … and the whereabout of Jo the outlaw with the broom…?’ This comes near the beginning of the chapter in which Lady Dedlock begins her search, and there are three full pages all about him. ‘Jo lives—that is to say, Jo has not yet died—in a ruinous place known to the like of him by the name of Tom-All-Alone’s.’ It’s all like this. Or, not quite. ‘It must be a strange state to be like Jo!’ he muses, then takes his musings further. There is a dog nearby, seemingly as conscious of the world as Jo himself, but ‘Turn that dog’s descendants wild, like Jo, and in a very few years they will so degenerate that they will lose even their bark—but not their bite.’

So it’s a warning to – to whom, exactly? The reader? Those men in parliament who do nothing about him? Windbags like Chandband who talk, and talk, and talk? Whoever it is he is addresses, there are other warnings. Esther, Ada, Jarndyce and Skimpole hear that ‘Coavinses’ (not his real name), the man who served Skimpole with notice to pay the £25, has died. They visit his rooms, where most of his little family remain locked in all day while their older sister goes out to work. There’s something disgusting about the way that Skimpole, having witnessed a scene of bravery in the face of unimaginable hardship, turns it all into praise of himself: ‘all that time, he had been giving employment to a most deserving man, that he had been a benefactor to Coavinses, that he had actually been enabling Coavinses to bring up these charming children.’ Esther’s response is not the reader’s: ‘There was something so captivating in his light way of touching these fantastic strings….’ Oh yeh? Dickens is turning Esther into a particular kind of unreliable narrator: he doesn’t expect us to agree with her judgments. (Or John Jarndyce’s, for that matter.) For the reader, Skimpole isn’t an entertaining diversion but another useless man.

What else? Court cases: Boythorn’s against Dedlock is ongoing, furnishing him with plenty of scope for his trademark hyperbole; ‘the man from Shropshire’ is going quietly mad over a case against him that has cost far more than the disputed sum; Krook lists the names of Miss Flyte’s caged birds for those who don’t know them: ‘Hope, Joy, Youth, Peace, Rest, Life, Dust, Ashes, Waste…’ and the rest. And of course there’s Richard wasting his life in Kenge’s office. And there’s one other character, not useless – so he’s leaving the country to live in China. This is Mr Allan Woodcourt, the kind doctor we’ve met before. He has no money, and his mother appears to be warning Esther off him, although of course Esther has no idea why she might be doing such a thing. (Certain Dickens characters are always like this, as though sexual attraction is something they’ve never heard of, let alone considered.) Woodcourt is a model of what the professions should be like but, in this corrupt world, never are.

Other things? Bound to be, but it’s time to move on. As it were.

10 July
VII and VIII – Chapters 20-25
You can see why Dickens includes the word ‘Bleak’ in the title – there’s little comfort anywhere in these chapters. Richard, having become as tired of the law as he did of medicine, makes one last throw. This time it’s the army, and even the mild-mannered Jarndyce has to have some long and hard conversations with him. We’re introduced to nasty new characters, and people we know behave more badly than ever. Parents, if they exist – and a lot of the younger characters are orphans – are useless. We are introduced to a moneylender who would screw his victim to the wall if he could – and to the victim, one of Dickens’s good sorts. And we have our first on-stage death at the hands of Chancery. There’s been at least one suicide in the past – we’ve heard in the third instalment how ‘old Tom Jarndyce in despair blew his brains out in a coffee-house’– but now the man from Shropshire seems simply to give up the ghost. It comes on the same day that Esther is appalled by Richard’s excitement after he persuades her to visit the courts. And Jo is here, used in different ways by two self-serving men for their own ends. None of it is pretty. Even Inspector Bucket, another good sort, is compromised: he does what he is told to do by the law or, even worse, by lawyers.

Dissertations have probably been written about the way Dickens charts Richard’s gradual collapse (if that’s what it’s going to be) through that stealthy drip-feed approach. The latest crack often comes at the very beginning of an instalment – in VI his failure in medicine, in VIII his failure in the law – and other things are fed in alongside. We hear how his inability to manage money has led to £200 of debts in a few months. Earlier we’ve heard about his taste for billiards, never a good sign in a Victorian novel. And by VIII it’s taken as read that despite his ability to throw himself into something heart and soul, his enthusiasm never lasts for more than a few weeks. But he’ll be fine in the army, he thinks. He is about to sail for Ireland now, and it’s hard to be hopeful. John Jarndyce has more or less forced him and Ada to break off their engagement but that isn’t what makes him unable to settle to anything. (We learn all this through Esther, of course, so it’s tactfully handled. But it’s all plain enough.)

VII begins with one of those non-comic comedy scenes no other writer attempts. Guppy, pointlessly incarcerated in the office through the summer, fills his time as best he can. Which isn’t very well. We meet the office junior Smallweed, a stunted child apparently born an old man, and to Jobling, a law clerk who is lying low after being sacked for some unnamed misdemeanour. They have a comedy lunch, in which Guppy is generous to the penniless Jobling, and Smallweed is happy to eat for nothing. We see that Smallweed is a calculating machine as, to the entertainment of all, he adds up bill totalling what must be several days’ wages. After this, Jobling becomes the new lodger in Nemo’s old room. He makes the best of it.

Smallweed’s family are all calculating machines too, as we meet in the next chapter. They were all born old, too, and the head of the house has done nothing but grow even older in pursuit of money. He and his wife are ancient now, and the old woman’s dementia is a blackly comic malfunction of her mental software. If anybody mentions a number she throws out random money values – ‘Twenty thousand pounds, twenty twenty-pound notes in a money-box, twenty guineas, twenty million twenty per cent’ – until the old man throws a cushion at her head. There’s no humour in the comedy. The youngest Smallweed has a sister who has already learnt how to wring out every last ounce of effort from poor Charley, the eldest of the ‘Coavinses’ orphans. And, every other month, we see how the oldest squeezes out every penny of a particular debt. He uses the transparent pretence of a moneylender in the city who insists on this payment. (Dickens seems to have been taken with this idea. He uses it more effectively in both Little Dorrit and Our Mutual Friend.)

The victim of the old man is George, a military-looking man. He later proves to be an ex-trooper fallen on hard times, one of the poor characters in this novel whose first thought is to help others. He gives employment to a broken old man in his shooting-gallery, and he tries to hide the man from Shropshire from the law. But Bucket always gets his man, however friendly he might be while he does it. Bucket never uses George’s surname, and neither does Dickens. I don’t know why that might be.

Next. Terrible parents. Turveydrop, making out his condition for blessing his son’s marriage – that his son and new daughter-in-law will treat him like royalty – is a generous concession. Caddy and ‘Prince’ treat it as though that is exactly what it is. And then Mrs Jellyby speaks to Caddy as she always does. If only she had ‘any sympathy with the destinies of the human race…. But you have none. I have often told you, Caddy, you have no such sympathy.’ The philanthropists in this book are good at put-downs. Smallweed’s mother, who sounds as though she was ok, died in childbirth, and we see what the grandparents have done for him and his sister in her place.

And there’s the most desperate orphan of all. Jo, having been moved on, is hunted down by Inspector Bucket, on a mission for – guess – Tulkinghorn. The Tulk has begun to put two and two together, wants to know who the lady might have been that Jo took to the little graveyard. He’s told Bucket, one of Dickens’s jolliest creations in this novel (not that there’s much competition), that a crime involving property might have taken place. Bucket, who loves his job, tracks him down to the residential cesspit that is Tom-All-Alone’s. Jo recognises the outfit of the woman in Tulkinghorn’s office, but it isn’t his lady. The hands aren’t white enough (or be-ringed enough), the hair is wrong, the voice is wrong…. This is Hortense, the French maid, and it is confirmed for us that the woman Jo met had access to this maid’s clothes.(When did we first realise it was Lady Dedlock? Quite a long time back, I think.)

The other man who uses Jo for his own purposes is (spit) Chadband. His performance comes at the end of a long and ridiculous episode involving Snagsby, another hapless pawn in other people’s schemes. Bucket had chosen him to show him where Jo is living, and then to promise not to tell anyone, even his wife. The problems begin when Snagsby, taken a long way out of his comfort zone, spends nights either sleepless or having nightmares. ‘Mrs Snagsby sees all’, according to the title of Chapter 25. She sees that Snagsby has been unfaithful and that the poor boy he sympathises with is his love-child. She enlists Chadband to give him a moral going over – which he is deliriously happy to do, with Jo perched on a stool in the sitting-room as the principal exhibit. It’s absurd and, because that’s how Dickens wants it, far too bleak to be comic. But Snagsby, a good sort underneath the ridiculous exterior, secretly slips Jo his now customary half-crown.

And somewhere along the way Esther meets the woman who is now Mrs Chadband. It’s her childhood guardian’s former housekeeper, and it’s another bleak little encounter. But there’s also another tiny positive thing to sit alongside the kindness of Snagsby and Mr George: John Jarndyce employs Charley to be Esther’s maid. And another, now I think of it: there’s been no sign of Skimpole in either instalment.

4 August
IX and X – Chapters 26-32
First the focus is on Mr George, trying to deal with an unsavoury Smallweed/Tulkinghorn double-act, before he settles down into the comfortable world of the first properly functioning family we’ve encountered. There’s a twist, but that’s ok: Mrs Bagnet is the boss, but it’s all couched in a little game that she and her husband play, in which he asks her to tell any listener what his opinion is. Then we’re in Chesney Wold, for a skirmish or two in the class war that Dickens has got rumbling in the background. Then… I’ll get to the rest.

Mr George is bewildered by Smallweed and Tulkinghorn. Smallweed arrives unexpectedly – cue the usual round of grotesqueries as he and Mrs Dementia are carried in and poor Pete, George’s assistant, is suitably nonplussed. Smallweed gets to the point: he will offer money for the document in George’s possession that contains an example of somebody’s handwriting. It’s an ex-colleague of George’s, and… what? The handwriting is obviously Nemo’s, and there was once a relationship between him and Lady Dedlock before she married. Dickens never spells it out, but this is what he makes sure even the most obtuse reader will have pieced together by now. (I won’t go into how much more we might or might not have guessed at this point.) Smallweed’s methods, like everything about him, are almost farcically crude. And he goes into a fit of rage when George won’t agree. He doesn’t quite know why he won’t do it, but he won’t. Tulkinghorn, who is also creakily present, makes no fuss at all. If George won’t sell, that’s up to him. An observer might think he’s given up his pursuit of the link he’s trying to establish between Nemo and Lady Dedlock. Hah. Exeunt everybody…

…and George seeks comfort with the Bagnets after this brush with something so dark he doesn’t even want to think about it. There’s a lot of dark in this novel. But there are also the Bagnets, a hard-working family which, so far, has managed to stay together. We’ve met other hard workers, but not the tightly-knit unit that is the Bagnets. Charley and her siblings (the orphan children of ‘Coavinses’) and the women from the families of brick-makers do their best to survive in a world where everything is stacked against them. The Bagnets are managing to provide for their children, proudly listing achievements like the apprenticeship one of them is about to embark upon. Dickens shamelessly idealises people like these with their single-minded work ethic, and… and I don’t know whether to be revolted by it or to rejoice that at least he can present the efforts made by ordinary working people as heroic.

At Chesney Wold, following a thorough demolition of the fading aristocratic hinterland of the Dedlock cousins, there’s a set-piece scene between Sir Leicester and Rouncewell, ‘the Ironmaster’. The latter could, almost, be Thornton in Mrs Gaskell’s North and South – honest, forthright and not willing to suffer fools any more gladly than Sir Leicester is willing to suffer anything said by this man, the son of his housekeeper. Lady Dedlock hardly takes part in the scene except at the end, when there’s a little coda that prepares us for what is to come in the next chapter. Having persuaded Rosa that she doesn’t want to be taken away for the kind of probationary period that Rouncewell has proposed, she finds herself taking hold of the maid’s hand. It leads to Dickens’s longest, most drawn-out hint yet of what it is that she has lost, as the maid withdraws and Lady Dedlock stares into the fire. ‘In search of what? Of any hand that is no more, of any hand that never was, of any touch that might have magically changed her life? Or does she listen to the Ghost’s Walk and think what step does it most resemble? A man’s? A woman’s? The pattering of a little child’s feet, ever coming on—on—on?’

Dickens drops more than a hint in the next chapter, in another set-piece scene. You can see why he always regretted not being a playwright as Guppy, step by unwitting step, establishes in Lady Dedlock’s mind the truth of something she, naturally, had never even guessed at: Esther – pause for the gasps from the ladies to subside – is the daughter she thought had died shortly after being born. It’s beautifully done and involves, as so often with Lady Dedlock, a must-have personal accessory. It isn’t rings this time, but the hand-held firescreen she seems to be trying to use, unsuccessfully, as a barrier to the truth. ‘Is the dead colour on my Lady’s face reflected from the screen which has a green silk ground and which she holds in her raised hand as if she had forgotten it, or is it a dreadful paleness that has fallen on her?’ I think we know. And somebody else knows too. Tulkinghorn is in the Dedlock’s town house where all this is taking place, and he doesn’t tend to miss very much.

It’s my favourite chapter in the novel so far, because Guppy doesn’t actually know what he’s revealing to Lady Dedlock. All he is interested in – and he is gauche enough to tell the lady – is establishing a family connection in order to help Esther in the Jarndyce case. He has his own reasons, ‘having Miss Summerson’s image imprinted on my ‘eart—which I mention in confidence….’ And he has noticed a facial resemblance that would be enough, he asserts, to convince any jury. This is when Lady Dedlock begins to become agitated, and it doesn’t stop there. The name on Esther’s birth certificate is actually Hawden, and he wonders if she might have heard of it. Yes, she has…. Have you guessed yet? Hawden is Nemo’s real name. And… and might she be interested in a set of his letters, that he knows is now in the possession of Krook? When she feigns indifference he is nettled – Dickens is always keen to let us know that Guppy never has a clue what he’s dealing with – and makes her ask properly. ‘You may bring the letters … if you—please.’ We can imagine the tone of that strangled ‘—please.’ And the speech that ends the chapter after Guppy has left would be a showstopper in any stage melodrama:

‘O my child, my child! Not dead in the first hours of her life, as my cruel sister told me, but sternly nurtured by her, after she had renounced me and my name! O my child, O my child!’

And then (sigh) we’re back to Esther’s narrative. I’ve probably already made it clear how problematic I find her chapters. Dickens has set himself the task of having her reveal to the reader how modest, giving, loving, generous (etc. etc.) she is, whist somehow, and highly implausibly, she never recognises these qualities in herself. In a tortured scene of genteel embarrassment, Woodcourt’s mother politely warns her off her son. I’m not sure whether Esther really doesn’t understand what on earth she’s talking about, but it seems to be part of the super-idealised persona that Dickens has endowed her with. His somewhat laboured point is that, according to the judgmental mores of Victorian society represented by her aunt, this lovely and charming addition to the gene-pool should never have been born. And that having had the temerity not to die at birth, she must be hidden away from society like an embarrassing stain. And so on, and on.

Meanwhile Dickens also covers other territory in her chapters. The Jellyby/Pardiggle world of hobbyist philanthropy, only ever presented through Esther’s eyes, is revealed in all its pomp in the chapter in which Caddy’s wedding takes place. All the philanthropical hangers-on are there… and the theme of self-centred parenting gets another airing. This time we get not only Mrs Jellaby’s airy indifference to her daughter’s happiness; we also get the pantomime of Mr Turveydrop’s apparently sincere belief in his own fatherly generosity. Yep, got it.

But the big thing in Esther’s two chapters is the arrival of Jo at the brick-makers’ hovel near Bleak House. He had met them at Tom-All-Alone’s when the men were in London looking for work and, forced to move on and with nowhere else to go, he’s headed off in their direction. In the cottage we get one of Dickens’s idealised versions of mutual support in poverty and an image of what mother-love ought to look like. (Lady Dedlock knows all about mother-love, but its power over her has made itself felt too late. But that’s another story, for now. I’m sure it will impinge on Esther soon enough.)

Through Jo, Dickens can move things on in at least two directions. One is his constant theme of the inadequate provision made for the poor. He smuggles in a piece of shameless editorialising by putting it in the mouth of John Jarndyce when he hears of how none of the bodies set up to offer aid has been of any use: ‘is it not a horrible reflection … that if this wretched creature were a convicted prisoner, his hospital would be wide open to him, and he would be as well taken care of as any sick boy in the kingdom?’ Jo himself tells a pathetic story of moving on, so that all he comes to learn is that nobody wants him. The brick-makers’ wives would keep him, but daren’t go against their husbands, shadowy or absent men brutalised by years of unemployment or, at best, grindingly hard work for inadequate pay. When Esther moves to help him he tries to escape from the woman he thinks is the lady he took to the cemetery, and whom he now takes to be a messenger of Death. (We know what he’s talking about even if she doesn’t.) But he lets her and the others from Bleak House take him home, pathetically trying to make himself invisible as they find a room for him. He’ll need some looking after, because he is hot and cold with fever…

…and that leads to the second thing that Dickens needs from Jo: by way of that fever of his he is carrying, literally, the next twist in the plot. By the morning after his arrival at Bleak House he is gone, but the fever isn’t. The chapter title gives us the first clue – ‘Nurse and Patient’ – but there’s a tease. The patient is Charley, nursed by Esther – who assiduously keeps Amy, or her ‘darling’ as she always calls her, out of harm’s way. The fever can be a killer, and even survivors can be disfigured for life. File that way for later because, unsurprisingly, though Charley escapes with her looks intact, soon the nurse/patient roles are swapped. It’s no surprise because Esther has been warning us with portents and significant moments she tells us she has remembered for the rest of her life. I bet she won’t look like Lady Dedlock with this is all over.

One chapter left. Krook – always, before now, referred to by the satirical locals as ‘the Lord Chancellor’ – has the letter s Guppy wants. Dickens makes the chapter as stomach-churningly revolting as he can as Jobling, now always referred to as Weevle – what is it with names in this novel? – waits uncomfortably for ‘someone’ to turn up. Snagsby seems to want to talk, and they both comment on the uncomfortable closeness in the air… and so on, and on. Guppy only arrives after he’s seen Snagsby leave – you can never be too careful, and he loves to turn everything into a mystery plot – and they wait for the ‘Appointed Hour’ of the chapter’s title. It has to be midnight, obviously.

There are now oily smuts where they wait in Jobling’s room, and Guppy is revolted. When midnight finally arrives, they both go down to the parlour where they find the first victim (I think) of spontaneous combustion in serious fiction. The Lord Chancellor is nothing but ash – cue sardonic comments from Dickens – and the letters, seen in Krooks hands earlier in the evening by Jobling, are charred and indecipherable fragments. (I’ve recently finished re-reading Tom Jones, in which Henry Fielding gleefully gets not only his hero but also himself out an impossible-seeming predicament. I think Fielding would have applauded Dickens’s chutzpah.)

11 August
XI and XII – Chapters 33-38
The instalment begins where the previous one ended, with Guppy and Jobling/Weevle living through a night and morning of celebrity in the lane. It’s all as droll, and as seedy, as when we were here for the inquest into the death of ‘Nemo’. Then, Tulkinghorn was somehow able to rise above it all and sink out of sight at the same time. Now, Guppy and Jobling let people buy drinks for them, then more drinks, until they are completely befuddled. But Guppy knows he will have to face the excruciating embarrassment of going to see Lady Dedlock with the news that he can’t fulfil his promise after all. While she is pitiless in her disdain, lurking in the background and then appearing in the room is Tulkinghorn. Of course he is. (Dickens hasn’t finished with Guppy. He has more writhing embarrassment for him at the end of the next instalment. I’ll get to that.)

Tulkinghorn is becoming an ever more insidious presence. If he isn’t literally lurking in the shadows he is somehow in the background pulling invisible strings. Chapter 34 is entirely focused on Mr George – and there might be a clue at the end of the chapter about why we’ve never yet heard his surname – and on the ‘turn of the screw’ that Tulkinghorn has undoubtedly instigated. The letter that George has received, ostensibly from whoever is supervising his debt repayment, has Tulkinghorn’s fingerprints all over it. If George suspects this we never find out, because the whole chapter is presented in dramatic scenes in which he is entirely at a loss. The letter tells him that instead of simply servicing his debt in the usual way the next day, he must repay the entire sum he owes. This is an impossibility. Mr Bagnet, in some half-remembered past, agreed to stand in security for the debt, so he will now have the threat of debtor’s prison hanging over him. The scene in which George doesn’t actually spell it out, but has Mrs Bagnet put him through the exquisite torture of blaming him for it, is genuinely moving. By implication – and there’s a lot of this in these middle chapters – this is how the law divides friends and ruins lives.

Old Smallweed arrives – cue the usual pantomime of grotesque spitefulness – and he is able to respond to George’s appeal for common humanity by smashing the pipe he has always begrudged. It’s the last shattered symbol of what had remained of George’s pride, and he is mortified. He has only one last hope, and it resides in – Tulkinghorn. God help him. The Tulk makes him and Bagnet wait for hours, then seems to offer absolutely nothing. But, somehow, George has understood. He offers the sample of writing that Smallweed and Tulkinghorn wanted two instalments ago, and – and it’s enough. Tulkinghorn, as grudgingly as you would expect, agrees to rescind the content of the morning’s letter, and to free Bagnet from any further obligation.

As for George’s surname. Mrs Rouncewell, the Dedlocks’ housekeeper, is also at Tulkinghorn’s office. In the outer office she speaks admiringly to Bagnet while George, his back to them, studies something on the wall. She tells Bagnet – and reminds the reader – of the son she had who didn’t go into trade, but went into the army. ‘There is something very touching in the earnestness of the old lady’s voice and in the tremble that goes through her quaint old figure. But Mr. George is so occupied with the almanac over the fire-place (calculating the coming months by it perhaps) that he does not look round until she has gone away.’ For some reason, Bagnet is concerned about him: ‘Don’t be cast down! … Cheer up, my hearty!’ It’s as big a clue as we’re likely to get.

The rest of this instalment, and all of the next one, are Esther’s narrative. What was I saying about bleakness in this novel a while back? Chapter 35 is all about her illness and the aftermath. There’s a highly convincing description of her hallucinatory dreams: ‘it seemed one long night, but I believe there were both nights and days in it—when I laboured up colossal staircases, ever striving to reach the top, and ever turned … by some obstruction, and labouring again.’ Charley, a younger version of almost the same heroic female type as Esther, is as loving and caring as Esther had been for her in the previous instalment. (Sigh.) But Esther doesn’t get off so lightly. We remember those alarm bells about the potentially disfiguring effects of her illness as she notices, an implausibly long way into her recovery, that Charley has silently removed all the mirrors. But she’s Esther, the solid little woman, and she’s ok about it. Almost.

How convincing is this male author’s version of a female consciousness? I never quite believe in her. It’s like the moment some chapters later when, finally, she allows Ada to have contact with her. She and Charley have gone to Chesney Wold to put the finishing touches to Esther’s recovery – and to allow her to be fully reconciled to her new face – and Ada is finally on her way. Esther’s nervous thoughts ahead of the meeting read, as do so many of her descriptions of her relationship with Ada, like those of a lover. And then there she is: ‘Ah, my angel girl! The old dear look, all love, all fondness, all affection. Nothing else in it—no, nothing, nothing! / Oh, how happy I was, down upon the floor, with my sweet beautiful girl down upon the floor too, holding my scarred face to her lovely cheek, bathing it with tears and kisses….’ And so on, and on. My God.

But that comes later. Back at Bleak House there are new insights to be gained. Miss Flite arrives to visit the invalid – ‘The old conspiracy to make me happy! Everybody seemed to be in it!’ (Yawn) – and is surprisingly self-aware. She knows exactly what Chancery has done to her: ‘Very wearing to be always in expectation of what never comes, my dear Fitz Jarndyce! Wearing, I assure you, to the bone! … But, my dear… there’s a dreadful attraction … a cruel attraction in the place. You can’t leave it. And you must expect.’ File that away for later, because someone else re-enters Esther’s life, if indirectly. She hears that Mr Woodcourt was feared lost at sea, but that in fact he is safe. And he heroically saved others too. Yay. And how does she feel about this? ‘I must part with the little secret I have thus far tried to keep. I had thought, sometimes, that Mr. Woodcourt loved me and that if he had been richer he would perhaps have told me that he loved me before he went away. I had thought, sometimes, that if he had done so, I should have been glad of it. But how much better it was now that this had never happened!’ It’s that last sentence – not the end of her musings – that indicate the quiet, selfless heroism of Dickens’s quiet, selfless heroines. Pass me the sick bucket.

To Chesney Wold with Charley, being thoroughly groomed for a life of selfless service. Guess who they see, coming towards them near the big house. Lady Dedlock is keen to speak to Esther alone, and… she does exactly that, for three solid pages. She, and Dickens, have designed it as the lifting of a lid of affection and regret that both she and Esther know will immediately have to be sealed up again forever. For these pages Lady Dedlock is ‘mother’ to Esther who, with no regard to herself (sigh), wonders if their secret is safe. It isn’t. And the man the lady dreads is… ‘Sir Leicester Dedlock’s lawyer, mechanically faithful without attachment, and very jealous of the profit, privilege, and reputation of being master of the mysteries of great houses.’ She knows her enemy well enough, and she’s said all she can to Esther. But she gives her a letter – which confirms that her aunt took her away, but reveals that her mother never knew she was alive. The rest of it ‘needs not to be repeated here. It has its own times and places in my story.’ So be patient, as Esther fails to be while waiting for that gruesome meeting with Ada.

With Ada and Charley she returns to Bleak House – to see Richard for the first time since he went to Ireland. It’s all bad. So are Esther’s conversations with Skimpole, back in the frame as a kind of associate of Richard’s. Richard blithely tells Esther, when she asks him, that ‘of course’ he’s in debt. How could he not be? ‘My dear child, I can’t throw myself into an object so completely without expense.’ There’s something terribly grating about that little phrase, ‘My dear child.’ And it becomes ever clearer as the chapter goes on that Richard is lost in exactly the way that Miss Flite described herself. There’s a horrible moment when he reveals that his suspicions now fall on John Jarndyce. To him it’s clear that his supposed guardian, a kind of rival in the case, would wish him not to research his own interests, would wish to prohibit an engagement with Ada on condition that he spend his time far away from Chancery.

One of his ‘expenses’ is a new character, Vholes. He looks like an undertaker, speaks with an ‘inward’ voice and does whatever his client wishes. Like the man Skimpole used to call Coavinses, he has a family to look after and bills to pay – and eventually accompanies Richard on an excursion he admits to Esther will be of no use at all. The only available vehicle – every journey is urgent to Richard – is a hearse. Like Skimpole, whom Esther vainly encourages to act as a ‘responsible’ friend towards him, Richard has no thoughts about the money he is spending. He is ‘living in an unfinished house … you would find it hard to rest or settle. So do I.’ It’s a terribly bleak chapter, and even Ada realises, despite her love for Richard, that he is in a bad way. But there’s one consolation: Esther, at long last, is becoming forthright in her condemnation of Skimpole. At last she learns to have the same suspicion of his manner that the reader has always had: ‘I could not satisfy myself that it was as artless as it seemed or that it did not serve Mr. Skimpole’s idle turn quite as well as any other part, and with less trouble.’ Halleluiah.

Enough of Bleak House. Esther is back in London so Dickens can catch up with Caddy – yet another young woman quietly learning how to be the selfless, hardworking, uncomplaining Dickensian ideal. That makes three, by my count. She still persists in regarding her father-in-law’s luxurious lifestyle as somehow generous, and the reader is pleased to hear that his powers seem to be failing. There’s some comedy to be got from the dancing ‘apprentices’, including the solemnly contemptuous little girl who sees it all, somehow, as slightly beneath her. The title of this chapter is ‘A Struggle’, and it seems to refer to the life of Caddy and her husband, whose thankless life of toil seems to have exhausted him. But the set-piece struggle is Guppy’s. Esther goes to see him, with no object beyond wishing him to drop any further attempt to link her to Lady Dedlock. But, when he sees her changed face, he clearly assumes she is going to take him up on his proposal to her when she was better-looking. ‘I never saw such faltering, such confusion, such amazement and apprehension.’ It’s a delight – as is his insistence on framing absolutely everything he says in strictly legal terms. It’s another example of Dickens’s ongoing insistence that whenever the law intrudes, all humanity is lost. It’s also hilarious.

23 September
XIII and XIV – Chapters 39-46
Tulkinghorn is the dominant character in XIII as, finally, he confirms to Lady Dedlock not only that her suspicions about his motives are correct, but that she is utterly in his power. He isn’t interested in blackmail, although he could squeeze her dry if he wanted to. What he likes is to exercise control, particularly (and bizarrely) over women. We see it twice, with different women, in consecutive chapters. And in the next instalment… we have what Dickens would presumably like us to identify as healthier relations between the sexes. Most of XIV is Esther’s narrative, and… and my heart sinks as I see those words heading the first chapter of what, in this case, turns out to be three together. Healthy relations between the sexes in Dickens novels are often as bizarre as the Tulk’s misogyny… but I’ll deal with that when I come to it.

Instalment XIII is all about the law and, inevitably, none of it is good. There’s a sordid little interview between Richard and Vholes, in which Dickens makes it plainer than ever that the lawyer knows the pointlessness of any effort to resolve the case but carries on doing it for his ‘three girls’ and his ‘father in the Vale of Taunton’. Then we’re back to Chancery’s squalid little alter-ego, the ‘court’ where Krooks lived and Snagsby still does. Guppy and Jobling are there to pick up Jobling’s belongings, and… it gets worse. All the Smallweeds are there – the youngest one has left Kenge and Carboys to follow his own dark path – and they are turning the place upside-down trying, vainly, to find anything of value. Guppy is desperate in his own way, trying to force Jobling to remember where those letters might have been if they weren’t really incinerated. And Guppy sets out in his best courtroom manner how any interest he might have had in certain persons is now most definitely at an end. He will not be saying anything about his contact with ‘one of the members of a swan-like aristocracy … due alike to the oath I have taken, alike to the shattered idol, and alike to circumstances over which I have no control, that the whole should be buried in oblivion.’ Poor Jobling hasn’t a clue what he is talking about. And all the time, guess who is lurking upstairs…. ‘Guppy starts at seeing Mr. Tulkinghorn standing in the darkness.’ Who wouldn’t?

Time for some comic relief, of sorts, as in Chapter 40 Dickens carries on with his plodding satire of mid-19th Century politics. Half a novel back he was listing the activities of self-serving parliamentarians, starting with Boodle and progressing through the alphabet to Poodle and Quoodle. Now he focuses on the absurd fallings-out and public reconciliations between the big rivals, Coodle and Doodle and… it’s a relief when we get back to Sir Leicester. When he’s in Dickens’s sights we see the whole sorry business as a gravy-train disguised as public service. Bribery is out of the question, of course, but there are necessary ‘expenses’ and, eventually, a specific battle in the class war whose early skirmishes we’ve come across already. Rouncewell the Iron-master has been playing a significant part in the election of an opponent to Sir Leicester’s party, and this becomes further proof of the end of civilisation as the baronet knows it. A cousin of his, a clapped-out toff ‘in a state of extreme debility’ and with a comedy accent, offers helpful summaries: ‘it’s sort of thing that’s sure tapn slongs votes—giv’n—Mob.’ Absolutely. Poor Volumnia, the young cousin who actually hasn’t been young for a very long time, is the ingénue that Sir Leicester keeps having to put right when she doesn’t use the correct euphemisms about the conduct of elections even this long after the Reform Act. None of it is subtle.

The man who brings the news of Rouncewell is – guess. Tulkinghorn, according to the clapped-out cousin, had ‘gone down t’ that iron place’ for some reason, and now he’s back. And he revels not only in torturing them with the news of the Ironmaster’s perfidy – in which the son was a willing collaborator – but with a little story that he says has become the talk of the iron-fields. A ‘townsman of Mr Rouncewell’ has refused permission for his son to marry the maid of a great lady, because of a scandal in the lady’s past. And he tells, in detail, Lady Dedlock’s own story to the assembled company. It’s doubly or trebly mischievous. It follows her pronouncement that she will not give Rosa up, and he wants to show her that he is the one with the power to dictate terms, not her. By telling a version of the story in the most public way possible, he has allowed her to see, by way of the reactions of the assembled gentry, how the name of a long-established family can be ruined in a moment. So, while turning up the heat of the class antagonism that already exists, he has revealed to her how much power he has. He could trash them all.

She thinks there is a way out for her, and tells him in the chapter called ‘In Mr Tulkinghorn’s Room’ that she will leave. Oh no, she won’t, he says. And, step by drily explicated step, he makes her realise that she must stay exactly where she is, trapped in the same pointless charade of a marriage as she has been for years. And I’m wondering if Tulkinghorn might be one of my favourite ever villains in fiction. He has no interest in the so-called morality of the society he constantly deals with beyond the ways in which it might serve his purposes. He scrutinises it like the dried-up thing he is, and calculates what is needed to get the people in the big houses under his control. He knows precisely how society would ostracise not only Lady Dedlock but also Sir Leicester, and he makes her see it too. There is nowhere she can go.

The next chapter title is an echo: ‘In Mr Tulkinghorn’s Chambers’. The woman who has been making Snagsby’s life a misery is Hortense, still raging at her treatment and wanting to see Tulkinghorn. For Snagsby’s sake, it seems, or for his own reasons, he agrees to see her. And we see exactly what his reasons are. She thinks she can make him pay her more than the derisory two sovereigns she received for all her pains, and throws the money on the floor. He is as impressed by this as you would expect. Whilst telling her that she would do well to look for the money – ‘I think you will find it behind the clerk’s partition in the corner yonder’ – he explains exactly how unpleasant he could make things for her. If a lady troubles an Englishman the law – ah, the law – ‘“takes hold of the troublesome lady and shuts her up in prison under hard discipline. Turns the key upon her, mistress.” Illustrating with the cellar-key.’ She seems to sneer, but she is almost foaming at the mouth with rage. And Tulkinghorn, after she has left, is free to use the key to find himself one of the cobweb-covered bottles he likes so much.

The most important thing in Esther’s three chapters is that a tiny little idea that Esther hasn’t even allowed herself to have must have been lurking there all along. When John Jarndyce, in that hyper-tactful way of his that borders on psychosis, makes an offer of marriage, she accepts. He has to make the offer in writing, of course, despite living in the same house. And she waits days and days before she replies, observing precisely no change in his manner towards her while this peculiar little charade is going on. She expects him to mention the letter, but no. So, when the opportunity arises – that is, when their guest leaves Bleak House leaving only her, him and her ‘darling’, she does reply. ‘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.’ Of course she said nothing. And altogether, this has taken two chapters. There have been other things going on, but my God.

The guest who eventually leaves is Skimpole. Is he the most problematic character in the book for me? Here we are, in the fourteenth instalment of twenty, and still John Jarndyce is determined to see his behaviour as that of a charming child. He’s gone back to Bleak House after they’ve visited him in his chaotic little place in London, where his wife looks careworn and his daughters seem as ill-prepared for life as he is. At least one of them is married with children, living in some vaguely unspecified part of the house, with Skimpole’s blessing. Dickens never really attempts to offer a full explanation of how the bills eventually do get paid, but ‘somebody’ usually gets him out of a scrape, and it seems to be John Jarndyce himself. In his own house, Skimpole joins the novel’s sorry band of useless parents. But he isn’t exactly the same as them. He knows how useless he is, and his self-depreciation becomes a part of his charm. They are visiting because Esther has warned John Jarndyce that Skimpole is sponging off Richard – although she never calls it that, of course – and he needs to tell him to stop. But even she can’t help being charmed by his wide-eyed innocence. With her, it’s only up to a point. John Jarndyce seems never to falter in his regard, and Skimpole tells his family that it would be far better for them to face the impending visit from the creditors’ agents without him, and he gets his invitation to Bleak House.

It’s Vholes who alerts them to the direness of Richard’s plight. He’s become a more bleakly comic turn than ever, with his funereal appearance and inward, spectral manner. But he makes it clear that Richard hopelessly in debt, is about to leave the army. Esther visits him n Deal to see what she can do. She can’t do anything, but it gives Dickens the chance to drop a dark hint about Richard’s future, and it brings another character back onstage. The dark hint arrives when Esther sees him, looking ‘as wild as his room’ which is, as we’ve seen, in ‘a great confusion of clothes, tin cases, books, boots, brushes, and portmanteaus strewn all about the floor.’ He embraces her as he always has done, and, remembering it as she writes in the unspecified future, ‘Dear Richard! He was ever the same to me. Down to—ah, poor poor fellow!—to the end….’ The end. Ah. We aren’t yet three-quarters of the way through the novel, and already, it seems, one of the main characters is doomed.

Before Esther even meets Richard she has noticed the ‘Indiaman’ anchored offshore. We are not at all surprised when a gentleman she sees arriving by one of the little boats coming from the ship is – Woodcourt, of course. He has heard about Esther’s illness, and this convenient crossing of paths enables Dickens both to tie off a loose end and start up a new thread. The loose end is the tiny vestige of feeling for him that exists in Esther, finally cauterised in her repeated refrain that ‘he was very sorry for me.’ Three times we get this, right up to the last lines in the chapter: ‘in his last look as we drove away, I saw that he was very sorry for me. I was glad to see it. I felt for my old self as the dead may feel if they ever revisit these scenes. I was glad to be tenderly remembered, to be gently pitied, not to be quite forgotten.’ It’s a confirmation of a decision she’d made in the previous chapter – which had also contained, perhaps, a clue. After accepting John Jarndyce’s proposal, Esther had burned to ashes the dried posy of Woodcourt’s that she had kept until now. Fine. But before burning them, she had touched the flowers to Ada’s lips. It’s only a few pages later that we hear that Richard’s days are numbered, followed by the return to London of a highly interesting bachelor. And reader, he’s going to share lodgings with Richard. There can’t be a reader in the world who would bet against Woodcourt and Ada getting together.

Woodcourt is at the heart of the next chapter, which ends the instalment. He is wandering near Tom-All-Alone’s – he’s that sort of guy – and finds himself offering help to the kindly wife of the brick-maker we last saw helping Jo. And who should happen along, this being a Dickens novel, but Jo himself? She reproaches him not only for having left the house of the kind lady who had helped him, but – and this is the first he’s heard of it – for having left the fever behind him. She describes how the lady caught it, and how it ruined her beauty forever. Woodcourt realises who it is they are talking about, and Dickens draws a tactful veil over just how affected he is by the story: ‘He turns away and stands for a while looking out at the covered passage. When he comes back, he has recovered his composure….’

It’s an important chapter for keeping another thread running. Jo is terrified of an unnamed person who, he imagines, is perpetually stalking him. It sounds like Death himself at first: ‘Very apprehensive of being overheard, Jo looks about him and even glances up some ten feet at the top of the hoarding and through the cracks in it lest the object of his distrust should be looking over or hidden on the other side…. “I dustn’t name him,” says Jo. “I dustn’t do it, sir.”’ But no. This man took Jo to a hospital then gave him half a sovereign to stay away and never come ‘within forty mile of London….’ This isn’t Death stalking Jo. It can be nobody else but Tulkinghorn himself. Jo is convinced he’ll find him if he’s above ground. So ‘I’m a-moving on to the berryin ground—that’s the move as I’m up to.’ Yep, that’ll be Tulkinghorn, implacable to the end.

3 December
XV and XVI – Chapters 47-53
It turns out that Tulkinghorn isn’t the man stalking Jo like Death. It’s Bucket, just doing his job, he thinks – but really doing the lawyer’s dirty work for him. When we see him later in XV he’s charming and likeable… but again, he’s just doing his job, putting everybody at their ease so he can arrest Mr George for a murder that only the inspector believes he could have committed. We meet Bucket again in XVI, but by now he’s rooting around in the Dedlocks’ house in London. He’s piecing together a different scenario, innocently checking with one ‘Mercury’ or other about the lady’s movements on the night of the murder, and what she was wearing: ‘if I don’t deceive myself, my Lady was muffled in a loose black mantle, with a deep fringe to it?’ The Mercury answers that yes, she was.

I think Bucket might be my favourite character in the novel now that Tulkinghorn has been shot. Because yes, reader, that’s the murder that George is accused of, and a lot has happened both before and after it. And during it: on the night it happens, so many things come together it’s like a Dickens novel. It’s George himself who noticed a woman dressed in the way Bucket describes near Tulkinghorn’s chambers…. At the end of XVI Bucket is in the Dedlock’s London house thinking about what he might do next day with the information he’s just received about Lady Dedlock’s movements. The reader knows how desperate she was on the night of the murder. Tulkinghorn had just told her that she has broken their agreement and lets her believe he will soon reveal her past history to Sir Lester. Bucket doesn’t know this, but he seems to have another suspect. (The reader, of course, knows what he doesn’t. There is another woman who dresses in her cast-off clothes, one known for her almost hysterical passions and recently humiliated by Tulkinghorn. But, for now, Dickens isn’t mentioning Hortense. And that humiliation was way back in instalment XIII….) Like Bucket, the reader can suspect Lady Dedlock for a while – and we’ll have to wait a month before discovering what Bucket is planning to do next morning.

I need to rewind. XV is three set-piece chapters. The title of the first of them tells us most of what we need to know: ‘Jo’s Will’. Alan Woodcourt, whom Dickens now routinely refers to as Alan – I suppose that in being called by his Christian name he’s like all the trusted younger characters in this novel – offers Jo all the family experience he’s ever going to get from now on. Before now, the Bleak House crew have done what little they could for him, especially Esther. The bricklayer’s wife has helped him along the way, and we’ve seen Woodcourt taking over from her near Tom-All-Alone’s. He finds another family for Jo at Mr George’s place, home to waifs and strays like him and George’s supposed helper Phil. That’s where Dickens protracts Jo’s death just long enough to wring as much pathos as he can from it – which is a lot – and the end is genuinely moving. Jo asks for ‘Mr Sangsby’, who comes and lets fall half-crowns like tears. And he wants to be buried next to the man he remembers showing him kindness, the one who called himself Nemo. ‘He used fur to say to me, “I am as poor as you to-day, Jo,” he ses. I wants to tell him that I am as poor as him now and have come there to be laid along with him.’ But it’s Woodcourt, the living substitute father, who can attempt to teach him the Lord’s Prayer. Jo doesn’t reach the end of it, and there’s disgust in Dickens’s address to the imagined powers that be:
‘Dead, your Majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen. Dead, right reverends and wrong reverends of every order. Dead, men and women, born with heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us every day.’

Time for some comic relief. As if. At the Dedlocks’ London house the nearest we get to it are the fair Volumnia and the debilitated Cousin. But it’s bitter stuff, and soon there’s another parting of the ways. Lady Dedlock, who has gradually been learning how to do the right thing during this novel, decides to let Rosa go. She can see that Rosa should not be around when things become ugly – which they will, because it seems that the lady has had enough of Tulkinghorn’s games and she’s going to bring things to a head herself. There’s an opportunity for Sir Lester and the man he calls ‘the iron gentleman’ to rub each other up the wrong way as Rouncewell, called in for the purpose, agrees to take Rosa back with him. And then comes the next set piece.

We don’t know that this is the last time that we will witness Tulkinghorn at his worst. He’s always at his worst, but not for long now. After he has made his intentions clear to Lady Dedlock, and as she retreats ever further behind the impenetrable barrier of hauteur that Rouncewell had hated so much during his visit, he prepares to leave. She goes off into the night before he does, telling the Mercury that she may be gone some time, then Tulkinghorn makes his way out. And we get one of those riffs that only Dickens, among novelists who want to be taken seriously, would dare. The lawyer, doubting the accuracy of his watch, consults the Dedlocks’ big clock: ‘“What do you say?”
If it said now, “Don’t go home!” What a famous clock, hereafter, if it said to-night of all the nights … “Don’t go home!”’ Four more times we get this refrain in three short paragraphs… and when a shot is heard after he has gone for his last ever bottle from behind the locked door, Dickens doesn’t need to tell us who’s dead. He likes to let us pretend we’re working things out for ourselves.

XV ends with ‘Dutiful Friendship’, a chapter set mostly at the Bagnets’. It’s Dickens in approving mood, as this family of lovable clowns do lovably clownish things to celebrate Mrs B’s birthday. (The joke is… oh, never mind.) Punctual to the minute, Mr George arrives, and joy is unconfined. It’s no more plausible than Dickens’s presentation of happy family life ever is… and then Bucket arrives. He’s just passing, just wondering if Bagnet knows where he might find ‘a wiolinceller of a good tone’ – and he makes friends with everybody, starting with the children. They all love him, but we know this technique of his. It comes as no surprise when, after leaving with George, he steers him into a nearby inn and arrests him. At the Bagnets’ it had seemed that the childless Bucket had found himself a surrogate family, just as George has done for years, but apparently not. (How many other surrogate families are there in these instalments? File that idea away for later.)

XVI is three chapters of Esther’s narrative before that return to Inspector Bucket to provide the cliff-hanger ending at the Dedlocks’. Dickens needs Esther to take her eye off her ‘darling’ and her life for a while, and he needs them in London – tell you why later – so he has her nursing Caddy Jellaby (as she admits to still calling her despite her marriage, probably so we can remember who she is). It also means he can have a stroll around one of his favourite themes, good versus bad parenting. Old Turveydrop and Mrs Jellaby haven’t progressed in any way, whereas Caddy’s fondness for her ailing young daughter seems designed to bring a tear to the eye. Esther, of course, loves the child as though it were her own, and continues to love Caddy’s youngest brother whenever he is around. This surrogate parenting is becoming a theme of its own. Esther is like the brick-maker’s wife with Jo, and that thread reminds us of all the other people who offered Jo love in the last few months of his life. And if this all sounds a bit earnest, well, it is. And there’s no need at all for me to comment on Dickens’s near-idolisation of this kind of parental (and surrogate-parental) love in contrast to his treatment of some of his own children.

As Esther has been signalling for instalment after instalment, things are becoming worse with Richard. His obsession is neatly packaged for the reader in his having moved next-door to Vholes, who, like the useless parents we’ve briefly encountered again recently, is exactly the same as ever. Woodcourt is looking for Richard and Vholes, in his circumspect way, lets him understand that his client’s obsession continues to be very expensive. As ever, he mentions his own girls and his parent in Taunton – with Dickens’s comedy characters in this novel there’s always dark underside that obliquely sheds some light on his other favourite themes. Vholes looks after his family but, being a lawyer, he does it by draining other people dry: even more than with Tulkinghorn before his own death, there’s always something of the walking dead about him.

Woodcourt has a part in Esther’s narrative because – well, we know why. His credentials as a card-carrying good guy have been fully established since his return by his openness with the Bleak House crew, his loving care for Jo and, now, his professional care for Caddy. We know that Richard isn’t going to survive to the end of Esther’s narrative because she let us know a long time ago, and Dickens raises the stakes now. Marriage is in the air. There’s been some fairly cloying stuff from Esther about how the letter of acceptance she wrote to the man she still insists on calling her ‘guardian’ has changed almost nothing in their relationship. Beyond her now having an established place sitting beside him there’s nothing in her behaviour to let Ada know that she will soon be ‘mistress of Bleak House’. The obliquity is almost pathological… until she finally decides to stir the calm surface of the status quo by telling her. Ada, as we knew she would be despite Esther’s fears, is ecstatic. (Sigh.)

I need to cut to the chase. Richard retains just enough of his old charm to make Dicken’s next revelation plausible. When Esther and John Jarndyce plan to return to Bleak House, Ada plans to stay with Richard. While Esther was looking after Caddy, Ada was getting married to Richard – and Esther suddenly understands why her darling had got into the habit of hiding her left hand under her pillow as she slept. She was wearing a wedding ring at night! (Sigh, again.) For some reason, it’s around this point that I began to find the whole Richard/Ada/Woodcourt thing a little too schematic. Miss Flyte is never far away in this instalment, a constant reminder (as if we need one by this time) of what Chancery can do to a person. It feels as though things happen in this thread because Dickens needs them to happen… so it’s a relief whenever he gets back to a different thread.

Esther, John Jarndyce and Woodcourt visit Mr George, on remand in prison. He is resolute that he will have nothing to do with lawyers: if the simple truth doesn’t free him, he’s prepared for that whatever the circumstantial evidence against him. The Bagnets arrive – it’s the first time the Bleak House crew have met them, and Esther is suitably charmed – and Mrs B can’t persuade him either. But we do see a possibly happier future for George. Like the reader, Mrs Bagnet knows (don’t ask me how) that George knows his mother is alive – and, perhaps, that he has a successful brother. She, Mrs Bagnet, plans to go to Lincolnshire to see if George’s mother can be persuaded to come down to London to help him see reason. Which is how things stand at the end of XVI. Except, as we know, in the last chapter the Inspector is at the Dedlocks’, apparently following a line of inquiry concerning my lady….

It’s time to read on.

17 December
XVII and XVIII – Chapters 54-59
Those terrible things I was thinking about poor old Bucket. Even when I thought he was doing Tulkinghorn’s dirty work by keeping Jo in his sights, and that his suspicion of George and Lady Dedlock was obtuseness, I was still nevertheless thinking he might be my favourite character in the novel. In fact he was keeping Jo out of the lawyer’s clutches, and his arrest of George and show of suspicion regarding the lady were smokescreens. I’ve been getting him wrong, and the action of most of the chapters in these instalments shows him in an ever more sympathetic light. He hasn’t been able to prevent Lady Dedlock’s death, but this is a tribute to her determination and no slight on his powers of detection. I’m convinced that the public must have demanded a bigger role for him as the serial went on, and perhaps his greatest selling-point is that although he can spot the worst in people when it’s there, otherwise he always brings out the best. Even after he’s arrested Hortense – for yes, it was she – he gently rebukes her for the vehemence of her protestations.

The series of revelations that he stage-manages on the morning after the previous instalment’s cliff-hanger is a marvellous set piece. What can I say? Addressing the washed-up old aristocrat, politely and doggedly, as ‘Sir Leicester Dedlock, Baronet’ 40 times in total, he explains exactly how he’s caught the murderer and foiled everybody else’s attempts to profit from what they think they know. By the end of it, with Hortense in handcuffs, Smallweed deprived of the £500 he had been expecting to get for keeping quiet about the lady’s letter to ‘Nemo’ and Lady Dedlock’s reputation safe, I felt I’d just spent half an hour in the company of an author at the top of his game. Bucket offers a master-class, fifteen years before Sergeant Cuff in Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone gets to deliver what I had thought of as the pattern for all the explanations in all the detective novels that came after. Nothing remains unexplained, the guilty woman is under arrest, and the innocent parties – Lady Dedlock and Mr George – are both safe.

But this isn’t crime thriller, it’s a Dickens novel. As well-plotted as everything that has come before are the circumstances that lead to the sad overturning of Bucket’s triumph. By the end of XVIII Hortense is still in custody, George is free and reconciled not only with his mother but with Sir Leicester, who always loved him almost as a son… but Lady Dedlock is dead at the gate of the burial ground that has had a kind of mythic status since long before Jo’s dying wish to be placed there.

How did that happen? Bucket, as we know, thinks of everything – but he didn’t know that Mrs Bagnet was bringing Mrs Rouncewell to London for her reconciliation with George, nor that she would place information in Lady Dedlock’s hands that the inspector has been careful to keep from her. He needs her to be kept in the dark about everything – the suspicions about her, the would-be blackmailers and the danger to her reputation that he is doing his best to neutralise. Crucially, Dickens has fixed it that Mrs Rouncewell doesn’t know about Bucket’s big reveal, and that George is safe – and nor does Lady Dedlock. Bucket, with those mantra-like ‘Sir Leicester Dedlock, Baronets’ has mesmerised his boss into a complete acceptance of everything he suggests – including the idea not only that the family reputation can be saved but that Lady Dedlock is to be forgiven…

…but she knows none of this, and neither does Mrs Rouncewell. And one of Hortense’s poison pen notes, accusing the lady of murder, has got past Bucket because it went to Chesney Wold…. This is what Mrs R shows to Lady Dedlock now, pleading with her to tell Bucket whatever she knows about the murder. The lady is first mystified, then mortified by what the old housekeeper tells her next: Smallweed and his hangers-on have called around, and Sir Leicester knows everything. Both true – but neither woman knows that Bucket has rendered both facts irrelevant. Lady Dedlock assumes the worst, and writes a hasty note to Sir Leicester. She describes herself as a woman carrying ‘a deeper shame than that with which she hurries from herself.’ This is as ominous as it sounds, and there is a terrible sense of her wanting to leave the world when she takes off every single item of jewellery and quietly ‘flutters’ from the house. It’s a wonderful coup of plotting… and, I’ve just realised, we never see her alive again.

What we get, in the third chapter of XVII (‘Pursuit’) and the whole of XVIII, is Dickens implacably taking us, along two parallel story threads, to where we know it has to end. One of the threads is Bucket’s pursuit of Lady Dedlock. He has called for Esther to go with him, because he knows exactly why she would be the only person in the world who would be able to persuade her that her life is not worthless. (He doesn’t ever put it in these terms. He doesn’t have to.) Two chapters are Esther’s narrative, but that’s ok. Her attention is mainly on the inspector and, through her, Dickens is able to present him more favourably than ever. He is quietly competent, makes friends with anybody he meets on the way who might have a scrap of information, and is tirelessly considerate of the needs of a woman whose mother’s life is in terrible danger. ‘Don’t you fret and worry yourself no more than you can help’ isn’t exactly a mantra, but he says it more than once, and a lot of other things like it.

The other thread is the effect of this on Sir Leicester. Unlike his wife, he is still alive by the end of XVIII, but it can’t be for long. He suffers a stroke shortly after hearing of her disappearance and is bedridden from then on. It doesn’t stop him first painstakingly writing, then hoarsely insisting, that for him there is nothing to forgive in her conduct. When the first day comes to an end he pretends it is still early, that she hasn’t really been gone for long. Mrs Rouncewell – and George, now in the role of faithful retainer – try to hide from him how foul the weather is. The lady’s flight has been first through thick snow, and then through a thaw that is turning the roads to a freezing mire as night falls. We know this because, in the chapters not narrated by Esther, Dickens shifts back and forth from the road to St Albans and beyond to ‘the Dedlock town house [which] stares at the other houses in the street of dismal grandeur and gives no outward sign of anything going wrong within….’

In fact, this is the first description of the house after the lady’s flight, but little changes on the outside. The exterior of the house has always been identified with the façade that the Dedlocks present to the world, and until a few hours ago, the lady has always presented her own version of stone-faced coldness. This is the face that Rouncewell the iron-master hates so much, which Bucket can see right through although she has only ever dropped it completely in Esther’s presence. But things are changing now. In London, ‘Rumour … persists in flitting and chattering about town’ and the servants are finding it hard to keep up the fiction that Sir Leicester will enjoy a speedy recovery. Suddenly, instead of his proud hauteur we have the pathos of an old man desperate to cling on to a relationship that has only ever been presented to the reader as a bitter fiction.

Meanwhile, in the country, Lady Dedlock is undergoing a transformation of her own. She is on foot, and the inspector follows her as far as St Albans. Yes, she has been to Bleak House searching for Esther. Yes, she has been to the brickmaker’s house… which is where he is sent on a wild goose chase. The abused wife is desperate to tell him something which, he deduces, the lady has paid her husband to not to reveal. She has swapped clothes with the other woman we know, and for miles, the inspector and Esther follow the trail of the wrong woman. The time they waste is enough for what she wants. Despite the inspector’s suspicion from the start of the pursuit – ‘It looks like suicide’ – she has no intention of actually taking her own life. I think it’s the brickmaker’s wife who tells them this – but they know that all she needs is for the weather to do its worst. Which it does, as Esther reveals in the last two lines of the instalment:

‘I passed on to the gate and stooped down. I lifted the heavy head, put the long dank hair aside, and turned the face. And it was my mother, cold and dead.’

And that’s it. Esther’s narrative has been entirely subsumed into the story of the pursuit and, so far, she has told us nothing of the effect on her beyond a few dark hints about moments during the day and two nights that she will never forget. But along the way we have heard about Richard. Woodcourt has been fulfilling his promise to look out for him, and he tells Esther he is ‘not ill, but not quite well.’ Which sounds like a euphemism for Woodcourt’s serious concern about his mental health. With only two instalments left, we know where that one is going.

One last thing. The inspector tells Esther a story about Skimpole, how five pounds had been enough for him to betray Jo’s presence in Bleak House all that time ago. For some reason, this shocks her – and he comes up with a more robust version of her polite misgivings about him. ‘Whenever a person proclaims to you “In worldly matters I’m a child,” you consider that that person is only a-crying off from being held accountable and that you have got that person’s number, and it’s Number One.’ He gives her his rule: ‘Fast and loose in one thing, fast and loose in everything. I never knew it fail.’ We know he’s right. By now, Bucket has achieved a state of god-like omniscience when it comes to human nature, so it’s as though Dickens, tired of her obtuseness, has entered the story and told her himself. I’m not sure why he’s waited until the eighteenth instalment before doing it.

27 December
XIX-XX, Chapters 60-65 – the final double instalment
The main thing I got wrong has to do with John Jarndyce’s bizarre charade relating to the precise meaning of ‘mistress of Bleak House’. That’s what he promised for Esther, and that’s what he gives her. When he’d first offered it (it seems like centuries ago) he meant it literally: she will be his wife. But by the time he confirms the promise, he’s already decided to play a strange little mind-game with her. To the end, imagining that he will soon be her partner in marriage, she continues to call him ‘guardian’ and to treat him like a father. He carries on calling her ‘Dame Durden’ and the like, except when he calls her ‘my child’. But what she doesn’t know – and neither does the reader – is that he has recognised the person ‘with whom you would be happier.’ Up to the moment when he finally tells her this, he has allowed her to believe that the wedding now scheduled for next month will be to him. But no. He’s put her name down – and I’ll pause to let the preposterousness of it sink in – to marry Woodcourt.

The ‘mistress of Bleak House’ thing purports to be a trick that Jarndyce plays on his ‘little woman’, but is so clearly a case of Dickens brazenly wrong-footing the reader that I felt only mild annoyance. It was clever the last time he did it, with Bucket’s revelation that Hortense was the murderer. Then, as the inspector’s apparent pursuit of the two other suspects was lulling the real suspect into a false sense of security, Dickens was also proving to the reader that both he and the inspector are cleverer than we are. As for Esther’s happy ending… I’ll come back to it later, because a lot of things happen before we get there.

There are a lot of loose ends to be tied up in these six chapters, and we can see Dickens ticking off his to-do list. An appendix in my edition of the novel contains a transcription of his notes, and there they are, sixteen items checked off. At the top – although it comes even nearer to the end of the novel than the surprise reveal of the man who is to share Esther’s wedding-bed – is ‘Richard’s death’. When it comes, it seems phony to me. We’ve had ‘the end of the suit’ – check – brought about when costs have finally swallowed up the whole estate. How the lawyers laugh – and are still laughing as Woodcourt brings the news not only that Richard remains stone-faced in the emptying courtroom but that this is followed by him coughing up blood. He dies later in the same chapter, talking to the end of how he will be ‘beginning the world’ and becoming fully reconciled to absolutely everybody. Ada survives him, just, rallied in her grief by the new little life they’ve managed to produce between them against the odds. (She has another role as Esther’s final chapter takes us through seven blissfully happy years. Esther has a son – ‘I call him my Richard! But he says that he has two mamas, and I am one.’ Yep, got it.)

George, already perfectly reconciled with his mother and Sir Leicester – he now has a role as the companion of the old man, who survived after all – needs to sort things out with his successful iron-master brother. So he does, and is so impressive in his rueful, self-deprecating way that his brother offers him a job in management. No, says George, that’s not the life for him – but he’ll be happy to give away in marriage the girl his nephew met at Chesney Wold when the world was young.

Next. Sir Leicester and the Dedlock relatives. Check. Lady Dedlock, in the family mausoleum ‘without being found very much to disturb the deceased Dedlocks’ as the notes have it. Check. There are the useless parents, being less harmfully useless now, and others that Dickens dismisses with a comic flourish: Guppy changes his mind about proposing to Esther when he hears about the later will that might benefit her (which is all I’m going to say about it), and is roundly laughed out of the room. His smirking mother, now angry, tries to tell Jardyce to get out of his own house. Then there are the hard workers – tireless Caddy, tireless Charley and her tireless siblings – over whom Dickens pours approval like syrup.

For in the Bleak House universe, usually, your fate is in your own hands. Very occasionally, there may be ambiguities – I’ll come back to them – but usually there aren’t. We are reminded who the good and bad eggs are – as confirmed, for instance, when Bucket is given a final set-piece scene with Smallweed. Whilst Dickens has Bucket letting the clapped-out old miser know once and for all how mean-minded his money-grabbing schemes are, he creates a cosy world for the reader in which bad behaviour is never successful. What works, what allows you to attain an earthly – and by implication, not only earthly – heaven is generosity, hard work and all-round goodness. We know about the minor characters, and how their small-scale acts of kindness (or whatever) lead to small-scale rewards – even Sir Leicester is allowed a respite of a few years of harmless contentment following his forgiveness of Lady Dedlock. Dickens’s treatment of the surviving main characters is something else.

In two separate chapters, John Jarndyce is eulogised for his goodness. First Esther, after she has understood his selfless plan to take her happiness to a new level: ‘he was so dear, so good, so admirable.’ Then Richard, repeating to him as his own death approaches, ‘you are a good man, you are a good man!’ Got that? Well, Woodcourt – always Allan now – is just as good, loved by every patient he treats in the little Yorkshire practice where he lives now with Esther. And Esther? As ever, her attempts at self-effacement only result in her revealing how much she is loved by everybody from her guardian down to the humblest of Woodcourt’s patients. Even Woodcourt’s mother, the one who warned her off her boy before he sailed away, has been brought round. All Jarndyce had to do was get her to move in with both of them for a few weeks, as he tells Esther: ‘I believe [her] heart … beats no less warmly, no less admiringly, no less lovingly, towards Dame Durden than my own!’ So that’s all right. It’s no wonder that the little cottage, now wittily re-named Bleak House, is presented as a heaven on the English earth:

‘such a lovely place, so tranquil and so beautiful, with such a rich and smiling country spread around it; with water sparkling away into the distance, here all overhung with summer-growth, there turning a humming mill; at its nearest point glancing through a meadow by the cheerful town, where cricket-players were assembling in bright groups….’

Which leaves the reader… where, exactly? What can we say about this simplistic moral universe that Dickens’s critics enjoy mocking so much? If virtue isn’t always consistently rewarded, if an innocent, ignorant boy dies in poverty, then it’s the fault of ‘my lords and gentlemen… [the] right reverends and wrong reverends of every order:’ no death is unaccounted for in Dickens’s big Book of judgment. Nemo didn’t live right. Krook, well, we all know about Krook. And if the wicked do survive, it’s as grotesque or crazed scarecrows like the Smallweeds, or it isn’t for long. Skimpole, who is able to publish a memoir in which John Jarndyce is remembered for his ‘selfishness’, dies before the end of Esther’s final chapter. You can’t mess with the Book.

And what about Lady Dedlock? She has to die because she can’t be allowed to live. Esther grieves for her, but never mentions her again after a short and respectable period of (perfectly genuine) mourning. The lady didn’t only break one of the great taboos of Victorian society, she broke the rules of the Book. Her only strategy after (she thinks) losing her child was to use her looks and statuesque demeanour to camouflage herself as something she wasn’t. I’ve said enough already about the hauteur she uses as a mask – and, in one memorable scene, the portable fire-screen she unsuccessfully wields as a back-up when it begins to fail her – and it’s why she can’t be allowed to go on. In this universe, only openness and honesty will do. Dickens sponsored a home for unmarried mothers, from where they could be found a respectable role in society. But that’s reality. In the imaginary moral universe of this novel, other things come into play that make forgiveness impossible.

Except…. What about Bucket? He uses a great play of openness in order to deceive, and he gets away with it because – because what? He isn’t doing it for himself, but for truth, justice and the good of people who deserve all the help they can get. Dickens demonstrates that Bucket, as in his last skirmish with the devilish Smallweed, is always on the side of the angels.

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