Are You Bored to Death?

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 “My Lady Dedlock (who is childless), looking out in the early twilight from her boudoir at a keeper’s lodge, and seeing the light of a fire upon the latticed panes, and smoke rising from the chimney, and a child, chased by a woman, running out into the rain to meet the shining figure of a wrapped-up man coming through the gate, has been put quite out of temper. My Lady Dedlock says she has been ‘bored to death.’” (9; ch. 2)

 

Lady Dedlock is bored with the rain, bored with Chesney Wold, bored with the fashionable society, and basically just bored with her entire existence. And so are we! If any Victorian author could manage to merge the attention span of a two year old with the disdainful elegance of a lady, Dickens is the man who could and who did. The life Lady Dedlock leads is full of nothing but the uninteresting and unimportant, and Dickens does not pass up any opportunity to highlight her dreary days: “Concert, assembly, opera, theatre, drive, nothing is new to my Lady, under the worn-out heavens” (161; ch. 12). In the world of Bleak House, Lady Dedlock’s lethargic life contrasts sharply with the care-worn days of those who are indefinitely caught in the unending cycle of appeals in the Court of Chancery, even though she too is involved in the infamous Jarndyce & Jarndyce case. Dickens clearly critiques the fashionable, upper-class through Lady Dedlock’s days of frivolity and selfishness.

 

But as Dickens depicts Lady Dedlock in all her vanity and carelessness, I wonder if Lady Dedlock could be anything more than just a spoiled social-lite? Does she serve any function in Bleak House beyond enabling Dickens to lower a social critique upon the life of the upper-class? As the fog over-saturates the streets of London and the rain over-saturates the grounds of Chesney Wold, Lady Dedlock is so over-saturated with lethargic boredom that Dickens reduces her to little more than a caricature. Crafting one female character, or even a few, as over-blown caricatures is not a crime, and certainly Dickens often creates caricatures in order to address larger issues through his work. However, can we as readers identify any woman in Bleak House who is a fully formed, three-dimensional character? Are Dickensian women merely reduced to either their foibles or their virtues in order to advance the social agenda of Bleak House?

 

So many of Dickens’s female characters are larger-than-life, but perhaps the two that rise to the foreground are Mrs. Jellyby and Mrs. Pardiggle. Like Lady Dedlock, they are defined by their idiosyncrasies. We are introduced to Mrs. Jellyby as the last reservoir of peace amidst her chaotic family and home: “Mrs. Jellyby whose face reflected none of the uneasiness which we could not help showing in our own faces . . . received us with perfect equanimity. She was a pretty, very diminutive, plump woman, of from forty to fifty, with handsome eyes, though they had a curious habit of seeming to look a long way off. As if – I am quoting Richard again – they could see nothing nearer than Africa!” (38; ch. 4). Mrs. Jellyby is so consumed by her pet-project of charity to African people that she grossly neglects her home and children. In her negligence, Dickens critiques the kind of missionary fervor that supersedes the duties and calls of a woman in her household. Mrs. Pardiggle appears in the story as another means for Dickens to make the same critique but through a contrasting angle.

 

Mrs. Pardiggle’s charitable projects do not prevent her from shirking her familial duties, but instead they engulf her children into the inexorable perseverance which she applies to her work. Mrs. Pardiggle proudly declares to Esther and Ada, “But they [her children] are my companions everywhere; and by these means they acquire that knowledge of the poor, and that capacity of doing charitable business in general – in short, that taste for the sort of thing – which will render them in after life a service to their neighbours, and a satisfaction to themselves” (108; ch. 8). Although Mrs. Pardiggle spends her time far more actively than Lady Dedlock, Dickens critique is implicit in Esther’s observation that she, Ada, and Richard had never met such wretched children before as Mrs. Pardiggle’s children: “We had never seen such dissatisfied children. It was not merely that they were weazened and shriveled – though they were certainly that too – but they looked absolutely ferocious with discontent” (107; ch. 8). In Dickens’s following depiction of Mrs. Pardiggle’s trip to the brickmaker’s house, Mrs. Pardiggle’s over-zealous evangelicalism is exposed as an egregious flaw rather than a Christian virtue. Like Mrs. Jellyby, she is reduced to a comical tool for Dickens to condemn Christian charity which does more harm than good.

 

Mrs. Jellyby and Mrs. Pardiggle are plainly secondary characters to the story of Bleak House, and it would not be fair to judge Dickens’s portrayal of women solely through them. However, even the principle female characters – Esther Summerson and Ada Clare – are characterized as limited, feminine types. Esther is dubbed “Dame Durden” and becomes the trope of the maternal care-giver, while Ada is the young, golden-haired angel who is cast as the virtuous and demure bride for the dashing Richard. Esther and Ada have more dimensions than Mrs. Jellyby or Mrs. Pardiggle, but their world seems to be just as narrow as Lady Dedlock’s world, although perhaps less boring than hers. They lead a happy life at Bleak House, but is it only a happy life because Dickens did not give them the complexity to desire a life different than the one readily available to them?

 

The humor and variety of Bleak Houses’s characters make them memorable and justify the popularity of Dickens’s novel. However, if we look to Bleak House for depictions of female characters that push the boundaries of stereotypical nineteenth-century women, then we may simply be bored to death.

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