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.

Dick Knows a Thing or Two About Marriage!!!

“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.


Sick Body, Sick Society

As I read this second half of Dickens’ hefty tome my mind kept returning to the illness that is sprinkled—often quite liberally—throughout the novel. Certainly anyone familiar with his works isn’t surprised to see suffering characters, particularly the poor, but I was curious to determine how illness was functioning in Bleak House in particular.

In this half of the novel, the illness begins with poor Jo. This particular instance seems to be primarily to create drama and pull on readers’ heartstrings. Jo is a sympathetic character that we love, which makes his death even more devastating. Also implicit in his suffering is the suffering of the poor as a whole. When fever runs rampant in the slums, the poor are not safe. Certainly with Jo’s fever and ultimate death, we see Dickens’ familiar transparent social criticism. In this case, illness very much functions as a physical manifestation and as well as consequence of social malady.

However, as we consider the other prominent cases of ailment in this second half, it would seem that Dickens is doing something more. Illness is also something that does not respect class divides. Charley catches Jo’s illness, which is then passed on to Esther. In this communication we can see the Victorian anxiety about disease. No one is quite sure about its potential contagious nature. But further, we also see Dickens’ suggestion that across the social strata people are just as vulnerable. Even in the clean rooms of Bleak House, they are frightened that Esther won’t survive. 

Thus, this seems to be one of the reasons that Esther becomes ill, but there also seems to be something more to her ailment. Why smallpox (a diagnosis I’m guessing)? Clearly the most apparent consequence of this illness is scarring of the skin. Is Dickens simply using it to garner more sympathy for Esther? But, if I remember correctly, Esther’s appearance was never presented as one of her strengths—particularly next to the darling Ada. Did she really need another means for self-deprecation? On a more positive note, we could read her illness as yet another difficulty that she successfully overcomes in a life stacked against her. Further, Dickens may be critiquing the premium placed on women’s beauty—but I hesitate to give him too much credit, as the drama of the whole scenario seems to take center stage. Take Esther’s fleeting blindness for example. We hardly see the consequences of this brief symptom, and it reads more like a cliffhanger for Dickens’ serial audience. Ultimately it seems that like Jo, Esther’s illness highlights her as a victim of circumstance.

These are only two primary examples from the text, but certainly there are notable others. Richard comes to mind, as he seems to slowly deteriorates from the poison that is the Jarndyce case. Miss Flite warns against the dangers, but Richard doesn’t heed them and falls victim as many do before him. In Richard’s case, as with Jo’s, Dickens uses bodily illness to critique social ills, here the absurdities of the legal system. Thus on one hand, illness seems to be functioning as a physical manifestation of the social evils and dangers that Dickens is attempting to critique. But it also seems to function as a means to garner sympathy as Dickensian descriptions tug on our heartstrings. Further, I don’t think we can ignore the problematic way that these illnesses also seem to afflict the powerless—the poor, children, and women—with Richard being the exception. Even as Dickens draws on sympathy to craft these critiques, he further disempowers the powerless for the sake of entertainment.

By Means of Education

Throughout Bleak House everyone is concerned with knowing—what is the truth behind Jarndyce and Jarndyce, who is Nemo, who were Esther’s parents? And of course, Dickens seems to delight in drawing out the mystery—weaving storylines in and out as his audience attempts to piece together who’s who and which characters will eventually collide (or have done so in the past!). Even the narration plays with this idea of knowing, Dickens switching between the third-person omniscient (though, does this narrator reveal all?) and the limited Esther, by which the story is certainly mediated through a shaded lens. One of the notable manifestations of this theme is through another of Dickens’ common themes—education. Though Eliot’s novels tend to come to forefront of my mind when I consider education and Victorian prose, Dickens’ Hard Times isn’t far behind, and now Bleak House joins the ranks. Indeed, through several of the characters in this giant tome, Dickens’ considers the role and goals of education

The first character that comes to mind is the understated Esther Summerson. Her’s is the education most formally treated, as she goes to a boarding school, ostensibly to become a governess. Because of her awful godmother/aunt, school seems to be a haven for Esther where she learns and then teaches. Notable as well is that this is paid for by Mr. Jarndyce—an education she would not have had access to apart from his guardianship. It is because of this education that she becomes a companion/governess for Ada Clare and thus encounters all the other characters of the novel. Caddy Jellyby yearns after this sort of learning, abhorring the letter writing she must do for her mother, and crying to Esther, “If you only could have taught me, I could have learnt from you” (62). In this scene, as in others, education is framed as a means for escape from poverty—the Jellyby’s house being a prime illustration of such devastation. Esther’s education is a valuable tool, one gifted to her and accepted with gratitude.

In contrast to this is Richard Carstone’s education. Privileged and male, but also flighty, Carstone does not fully appreciate the opportunities offered to him as he dabbles in the various professions open to him. Esther, Ada, and Mr. Jarndyce discuss the avenues available—medical, military, legal—and though Carstone is enthusiastic, his fervor wanes upon application. Medicine cannot keep his attention, and attempting to understand his family’s legal case turns him off of the law. Carstone has the benefit of an education that allows him these opportunities, but he fails to follow through. With him, Dickens shifts to a critique of education, or rather a critique of its application, the insinuation being people like Caddy or perhaps even Esther, would be grateful to learn such things.

This particularly pales next to the lack of opportunities available to poor young Jo. Without money, Jo must spend his days trying to obtain the means upon which to live, rather than receiving education. Apart from the many scenes where Dickens’ descriptions of Jo’s sad lot tug at readers’ heartstrings, drawing on their sympathies, one in particular highlights this particular lack. When Jo is picked up for loitering and brought to Mr. Snagsby to defend his possession of extra money, he also encounters Mr. Chadband. Dickens highly satirizes this absurdly pious man as he describes young Jo as a “gem” because he is a “human boy…capable of receiving lessons of wisdom” (313). And thus as he desperately tries to sneak away, Jo is made to sit through a bout of didactic moral education and requested to return again for more. Clearly even as we’re made to pity Jo for lacking an education, Dickens sharply critiques “discourses” such as Chadband’s that fail to educate in a helpful manner.

Only half way through the novel, I am curious to see how else Dickens approaches education. As with all his works, one of Dickens’ main purposes seems to be to offer up a biting societal critique, raising the question of what he seems to be advocating as an alternative. What is the ideal education according to Dickens? Stay tuned.

Our dear Mr. Guppy bids you adieu:

Mr. Guppy

“The Romantic Side of Familiar Things”

At the end of the Preface to Bleak House, Dickens writes a statement that I believe is the key to how we talk about representation and realism in his work: “In Bleak House I have purposely dwelt upon the romantic side of familiar things” (emphasis added). This statement becomes more interesting when taken in the entire context of the preface. For several paragraphs, Dickens has just vehemently defended his narrative choices, arguing that the Jarndyce and Jarndyce is an accurate representation of real cases that have embroiled the Court of Chancery, writing that “everything set forth in these pages concerning the Court of Chancery is substantially true, and within the truth.” The second detail that Dickens defends is the spontaneous combustion of Mr. Krook, which George Lewes had criticized as unrealistic. He writes, “I have no need to observe that I do not willfully or negligently mislead my readers and that before I wrote that description I took pains to investigate the subject,” and then cites a handful of documented examples, including a woman who died in France and an alcoholic man who died in Columbus, Ohio.

I am curious about why Dickens decided to defend these two elements of his narrative above all else. Was it simply because others criticized these parts of his story as unrealistic? Why not defend other, more fantastic parts of the narrative, like the character of Miss Flite and her garret of caged birds? And why, indeed, worry about “truth” in a work of fiction at all?

But, judging by the way he defends his story, Dickens is indeed concerned that his story be “substantially true, and within the truth”– or, at least, that readers perceive it that way. He writes that he doesn’t willfully mislead us, the readers, while at the same time writing over 800 pages of events that didn’t really happen. We know they didn’t happen, Dickens knows they didn’t really happen, but for those 800 pages, we like to play along in our imaginations and pretend they did. In the end, however, the novel form itself is one big deception. So what kind of representational truth is Dickens hoping to achieve?

One obvious answer, judging by Dickens’ research of deaths similar to Krook’s, is that he wanted to limit his story to the realm of things that possibly could happen, or things that are like events that really did happen. Of course, we will never meet Esther Summerson walking down the street (even if time travel to Victorian England were possible), but as we read her narrative, we buy into the fiction and believe that she really could exist, and that we could meet her, if only we could step through the looking-glass. This is the beauty and magic of fiction, that for a moment allows us to buy into Esther’s character, to believe what she tells us, and to gain a new way of looking at the world.

This brings us back to Dickens’ closing statement: “the romantic side of familiar things.” One of the tactics that his fiction employs is defamiliarization: the act of presenting situations like our own in a completely different context, to break down our pre-formed conclusions and encourage us to rethink our established ideas. In the pages of Bleak House, we may laugh at Harold Skimpole or the ridiculous Mr. Guppy, but then we return to our world to find people who, in certain moments, remind us of Harold Skimpole or Mr. Guppy (or, worse yet, discover that we ourselves share some of their unfortunate characteristics!). Dickens’ reader may come away with a critical suspicion of the real Court of Chancery, or a wariness of the overwhelming allure of an uncertain fortune. Though the novel events are romantic– exaggerated, even– the events in our world are not, which (perhaps) prevents us from seeing them as clearly as Dickens would like us to. Thus, while the truth Dickens tries to present is not exactly representational, it allows us to better interpret and represent our own world within the space of our minds.