A Face to Love: The Problem of Female Relationships in Bleak House

Victorian woman sketch 3

“My God!”

Mr. Guppy stares. My Lady Dedlock sits before him, looking him through, with the same dark shade upon her face, in the same attitude even to the holding of the screen, with her lips a little apart, her brow a little contracted, but, for the moment dead. (430; ch. 29)

 

If readers had been bored to death with Lady Dedlock’s character before this scene, we are not yawning during our visits to Chesney Wold any longer! After over 400 pages of Lady Dedlock’s boredom, my lady’s uncharacteristically sudden exclamation jolts us out of the mental dead-lock we were trapped in whenever she deigned to make an appearance on the page. Readers knew several pages before this moment that Lady Dedlock is not as two-dimensional as she at first appears. But until this scene, my lady had not publicly broken rank and disturbed the perfect ladylike placidity befitting her aristocratic station:

 

He sees her consciousness return, sees a tremor pass across her frame like a ripped over water, sees her lips shake, sees her compose them by a great effort, sees her force herself back to the knowledge of his presence, and of what he has said. All this, so quickly, that her exclamation and her dead condition seem to have passed away like the features of those long-preserved dead bodies sometimes opened up in tombs, which struck by the air like lightning, vanish in a breath. (430; ch. 29)

 

Mr. Guppy’s speculations about a distant connection between Esther Summerson (actually Esther Hawdon) and the illustrious Dedlock family tree have exhumed my lady from her grave existence. Dickens illustrates the shock she feels primarily through the change in her typically expressionless face. She has lost her grip on the immovable, marbleized expression usually locked onto her face, the same face that first pricked Mr. Guppy’s suspicions. In fact, it is only by the resemblance between the face of Lady Dedlock and the face of Esther Summerson that Mr. Guppy suspects a connection. There seems little else to link the two of them – their social classes are far apart and Dickens does not merge their daily worlds – and we as readers are left to wonder if their connection is only skin-deep.

 

Are Lady Dedlock and Esther Summerson only linked by their similar physical features? Does their potential reconnection depend solely on the appearance of their face? Throughout Bleak House Lady Dedlock’s refined beauty recurs in the story as a representative of her fashionable life, while Esther Summerson is plain Dame Durden next to the golden Ada. Nevertheless, Mr. Guppy has recognized the similarity between the two, but their similarity cannot reunite them in a happy future. As the only link between this ill-fated mother and daughter pair, their faces become a danger to them and expose the deeper problem facing women in Bleak House who struggle to form more than surface-level relationships.

 

When Esther and Lady Dedlock encounter one another for the first time as mother and daughter, it is something in Lady Dedlock’s face that resonates with Esther: “I was rendered motionless. Not so much by her hurried gesture of entreaty . . . as by a something in her face that I had pined for and dreamed of when I was a little child” (536; ch. 36). In this moment as in so many others, it is Lady Dedlock’s face that speaks with a louder voice than any words she says. Esther is overcome with her emotions and the disconcerting display of turmoil from Lady Dedlock, but once Lady Dedlock falls to the ground, entreating Esther to forgive her, Esther’s thoughts turn from Lady Dedlock’s face to her own:

 

. . . when I saw her at my feet on the bare earth in her great agony of mind, I felt, through all my tumult of emotion, a burst of gratitude to the providence of God that I was so changed as that I never could disgrace her by any trace of likeness; as that nobody could ever now look at me, and look at her, and remotely think any near tie between us. (537; ch. 36)

 

Esther has already passed through her battle with smallpox, but has not emerged unscathed. Her face is drastically altered, so much so that when Mr. Guppy sees her after her illness, he hastily and insultingly insists that she recognize he cannot ever renew his proposal of marriage to her. Esther does not express any indignation or pain towards Mr. Guppy’s indecent behavior, and in this encounter with Lady Dedlock, she characteristically finds the silver lining, thanking God that her scars will prevent her mother from experiencing any future shame on her account. As Lady Dedlock tells Esther of her pain and despair, she covers her face with her hands and mourns the miserable bonds of her position that make any public reunion between them impossible. In this scene, Dickens’s narrative emphasizes the cruel reality that bonds between mothers and daughters are only as strong as the circumstances surrounding them.

 

Throughout her narrative, Dickens continually describes Lady Dedlock as a woman behind a veil; in this encounter with Esther, Lady Dedlock discards her veil of “proud indifference” for a brief moment but cannot linger in exposed freedom from her past sins. Even Esther must don a veil to hide her marked visage from the gaze of the world. Esther’s literal veil and Lady Dedlock’s figurative veil indicate a larger problem of establishing relationships and connections for women. In Dickens’s world, where propriety required the proper dress, the proper manners, and the proper expressions, communication for women becomes closely tied to the nonverbal, to the appearance of faces. If faces become obscured, then the means of connection are lost in the fogs of circumstance and secrecy. Through the women of Bleak House, Dickens asks us as readers to consider the inaudible power of faces and the grave injustices that arise when women are both voiceless and faceless.

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