“It is such weary, weary work!”
He was leaning on his arm…and looking at the ground, when my darling rose, put off her bonnet, kneeled down beside him with her golden hair falling like sunlight on is head, clasped her two arms round his neck, and turned her face to me. O, what a loving and devoted face I saw!
‘Esther, dear,’ she said very quietly, ‘I am not going home again…Never any more.’
That’s right. Ada’s not going home anymore. At least, not until she has a baby and her husband dies. Because that is what Dickens sees for poor couples. Destitution and distress. Well, not entirely. Scenes such as the above, when Esther discovers Ada and Richard’s marriage, remind us that Dickens is not a total douche when it comes to depicting marriage. He gets it — sometimes, at least. Just like the bricklayer and his wife, Ada and Richard are in for difficult times. In both homes, Dickens seems desirous of portraying the Selfish Husband as a perpetrator of discontent. However, Dickens is also sensitive to the Victorian man’s drive to provide, and the subsequent stress, emotional abuse, and health issues resulting from a man’s inability to provide for wife and child.
What is fascinating in this portrayal is Richard’s complete apathy towards Ada. She drapes herself over him, she places his head on her chest, she comes to his apartments, and she remains with him…nowhere do we see Richard’s active involvement towards her, though perhaps we are to read his obsession with the Jarndyce case as a wish to provide for her. Unsurprisingly, he does not see Ada as a real person anymore than readers of Bleak House do. Ada remains a decoration and a beam of sunlight to all but Esther and her guardian, to whom she is a real person.
This is only one example of Dickens’ stunning portrayals of marriage, both cynical and uplifting. The Dedlocks, Jellybys, Ada and Richard, and the Buckets provide a wide and fairly nuanced idea of what marriages can be (though exaggerated for drama) and the very real problems faced by young couples overwhelmed by money problems and self-absorption, old couples wearied by time, middle-aged couples distracted by the outside world, and happy, energetic, and relaxed couples understanding one another’s vision and desirous of one another’s company. Unfortunately, youth does not seem a marital virtue in Dickens’ book, and from the first instance Ada tells Esther she is not returning “home,” we know that her and Rick are doomed. That staying with her emaciated and grungy husband in a place she does not consider “home,” to nurse him in his selfish obsessions, is to dim Dickens’ superficial little sunbeam. But the one who waits, the marred one, the childless, under-appreciated Esther? She is destined for happiness. Not the little sunbeam.
Take that, Victorian patriarchy, and kudos to you, Dick.