Chapter 41 of Bleak House shows what is certainly one of the novel’s key scenes: a riveting power struggle between Lady Dedlock and Mr. Tulkinghorn, after he has revealed that he know Lady Dedlock’s guilty past. Why is the tension between Lady Dedlock and Mr. Tulkinghorn so compelling? It has something to do with these two figures’ power and restraint, but also with their hidden vulnerability. Lady Dedlock is a powerful personality, who governs her small world by a distant grandeur that impresses her superiority upon those around her. Tulkinghorn is a powerful holder of secrets, who, like a spider quietly spinning a web, wields the secrets to entrap an increasing number of individuals into his control. Each shows a remarkable ability to restrain emotion—these two are unflappable, distant, reserved. Nothing can touch them; one can hardly imagine either one breaking down.
The pair’s evenly matched superiority and self-control raise the level of tension in this scene—raise it through the roof, so to speak. The interview’s rooftop location, with the balcony in view of the night sky, refers pointedly to the distant grandeur of both Lady Dedlock and Tulkinghorn: Lady Dedlock, the “star” of the aristocracy and, Tulkinghorn, the calculating observer (and downfall?) of such stars. But the emotionless Tulkinghorn, pacing on the balcony, may have met his match in Lady Dedlock: “As he paces the leads, with his eyes most probably as high above his thoughts as they are high above the earth, he is suddenly stopped in passing the window by two eyes that meet his own.” When he sees the lady’s eyes so suddenly, he—the immovable Tulkinghorn—has a visceral reaction:
The blood has not flushed into his face so suddenly and redly for many a long year, as when he recognises Lady Dedlock.
Lady Dedlock, by surprising him in this way, gains subtle but significant power over him; even in her hemmed-in situation, she is able to bring her force to bear upon her persecutor. Startled and intimidated by her gaze, this imperturbable man flushes uncontrollably, revealing vulnerability for the first time in the novel.
Tulkinghorn fears Lady Dedlock.
He, who knows her secret, cannot yet wield its power because he cannot read the lady herself:
There is a wild disturbance—is it fear or anger?—in her eyes. In her carriage and all else, she looks as she looked down-stairs two hours ago. Is it fear, or is it anger, now? He cannot be sure.
The two study one another, mentally circling each other like wild animals. Move and countermove. They fight with words, while each maintaining an almost perfect self-control, a cool reserve and immoveable carriage.
As the lady turns to leave, intending to have her way and leave Chesney Wold, Tulkinghorn quietly and politely deals the final blow:
‘Lady Dedlock, have the goodness to stop and hear me, or before you reach the staircase I shall ring the alarm-bell and raise the house. And then I must speak out, before every guest and servant, every man and woman, in it.’ He has conquered her. She falters trembles, and puts her hand confusedly to her head.
By threatening to tell her guilt to her husband’s household, he has exposed Lady Dedlock’s own vulnerability: her loyalty to her husband Sir Leicester.
As Tulkinghorn assures her, “the fall of the moon out of the sky, would not amaze him more than your fall from your high position as his wife.” Tulkinghorn’s power prevails: he compels Lady Dedlock to stay…for now. By causing her downfall, though, Tulkinghorn prepares his own fall. He also has met his match: this lady, when caught in his web, dissolves it entirely.