(Note – I read the book “blind”, that is with no idea what it contained. I wrote the essays immediately after reading, so they are first impressions.)
Today I want to do something just for fun. Before I go on, I need to warn you that there will be some spoilers in here. Maybe not the biggest ones, but spoilers none the less.
Bleak House is written by two different pens. Well, obviously it was one, Charles Dickens, but he wrote it from two different points of view. One point of view was first person from Esther. She several times mentions that she knows that it is “her part” of the story she is telling, that is, there is another writer, but she doesn’t know who commissioned her to write, or even if it was a male or female.
So, who commissioned her to write and who did write that part that is in third person?
OK, I understand Dickens might not have had anybody in mind, he just wrote it the way he wrote his other third person narratives.
But what if he did have a person in mind? Even if it was subconscious…
Let’s pretend that there really was a mysterious person who commissioned Esther to write her part but was also responsible for the other part.
The first thing to note is that this narrator is almost omniscient, that is, it can “see” into many people’s heads, i.e., know what multiple people are thinking.
Or does it know?
It rarely says, “XXX thought YYY.”
Well, in ways it does, though. For instance, we know that Mr. Snagsby is confused as to what all of the secrecy concerning Jo, Mr. Bucket, Mr. Tulkinghorn and the French maid. He gets paranoid and starts acting strange. Then we know that his wife decides that he is having an affair and that Jo is really his love child.
So we know Mr. and Mrs. Snagsby’s thoughts, right?
All of the above was known to Mr. Bucket, who was watching them to protect “the secret”. He spied on all of them, and did his best to hush up Jo, who talked too much.
OK, I just gave it away. I would say around two thirds of what people knew and even thought would have been known to Mr. Bucket. He even gave a brief outline of most of it when talking to Sir Leicester and later to Mrs. Snagsby. He had been working the case long before it was a case and was in on many of the main dealings. He had a close working relationship with Mr. Tulkinghorn, observed most of the others and questioned many.
A small hole – We see more of Mr. Tulkinghorn’s thoughts throughout and we even know Mr. Tulkinghorn’s exact thoughts concerning Lady Dedlock as they talk that very last time. Neither of them related it to someone else. Did Mr. Bucket assume from what he knew? Did a maid overhear and witness it? Mr. Bucket did question the entire household about that night, what did he learn? But it is still hard to account for Mr. Tulkinghorn’s last evening. On the other hand, there are only a few anomalies like this, so…
But, beyond some of Mr. Tulkinghorn’s thoughts, there are many things that occurred at Chesney Wold (Sir Leicester’s estate, but you knew that since I told you not to read the post unless you read the book…) that Mr. Bucket might not know, as well as the day-to-day dealings in the Dedlock household.
The only answer is that he didn’t just ask Esther for a narrative, but talked to Mr. George as well.
First, Mr. George is a pretty major character and is in many chapters. Some of what Mr. George knows and saw Mr. Bucket would have known about as well, but he was also involved in so much more than most of the other characters.
More than that, Mr. George had a few major resources.
First, of course, was his mother. She had been on the staff at Chesney Wold since before Sir Leicester was even born and was the main housekeeper. So with a staff that might be counted in dozens, hundreds even, she was the top person. She had a personal relationship with the Lord and Lady and knew much more about what went on in the house, who visited (like Mr. Guppy) and such than any other human. She knew the characters, and could read them.
Then there was his brand-new niece, Rosa. She was Lady Dedlock’s personal maid for a big chunk of the book, by her side at almost all times, when she was in Chesney Wold, London or even Paris. She would have had a huge amount of inside information on what was on my Lady’s mind. And at the end of the book, she was preparing to marry Mr. George’s nephew, and he was to be invited to the wedding.
And then, of course, there was Sir Leicester himself. At the end Mr. George became his almost constant companion. It is possible the old baronet would have confided in this old friend of his. Don’t doubt that sometimes people like Sir Leicester felt more comfortable confiding with a servant they have known their entire lives than people of their own social standing. Remember that Sir Leicester was almost dead until he discovered that George was around. Just that piece of information revived him like nothing else would have. And then, in the narrative, several times it let us know that the Lady was reacting in one way or another by Sir Leicester’s observation, or his supposed lack of observation, such as stating that Lady Dedlock’s cries and sobs were just the moving air to his ears. Really?
So, pretending that Bleak House was a true history instead of a work of fiction by Charles Dickens, we can imagine a few years out Lord Dedlock passes away and Mr. George, having by then found out much more through means given above, wants to write a history. He contacts Mr. Bucket, who knows so, so much more. In fact, Mr. Bucket knows almost the full case and only needs those personal bits from the manor to fill it in. Except, something is missing. So he uses a proxy to reach out to Esther. Esther, thinking of her mother, takes the matter very seriously and writes a 300 page book about her own life and how it related to the case. Remember, early on Esther says, “as if this narrative were the narrative of my life!” Yes, it was the narrative of Esther’s life, but obviously the instructions were to write all that she remembered about somebody else. Her mother? Or was she told to write about the case Jarndyce and Jarndyce? No matter.
In ways it makes sense. Most of those keen observations about society could have come from Mr. Bucket, who was a shrewd observer of human nature, none the better before Sherlock arrived on the scene (maybe better than Sherlock when it comes to sympathies for his fellow man!). And there are odd inconsistencies between points of view, and even contradictions in some of the things history shows Dickens believed, so having (obviously) Esther talking, and then a combination of two other voices, Mr. Bucket and Mr. George, those inconsistencies and even contradictions disappear – sometimes it is one person’s view, and other times another person. It all makes sense then.
As I said, this was just for fun. It is very probable Dickens never even gave a thought as to who this other narrative belongs to, just writing as he usually did for that part.
Having Esther’s first-person narrative counterbalance that third person narrative, though was a stroke of brilliance on Dickens’ part. It turned this book into something else that it couldn’t have been without it, something much more personal. And having the third person was very much needed since there was so, so much she could have never known. This book needed both.
I hope you enjoyed this flight of fancy. What do you think? Who wrote that other narrative?
A quick aside – Mr. Bucket was an odd character. My opinion of him was fluid. He seemed ruthlessly efficient, and yet he did show sympathy to those he arrested (and harassed!). His harassment of poor Jo was almost unforgivable, and yet he did it to try to protect Lady Dredlock – Jo talked too much. He was very manipulative and made people trust him to give him the information he was looking for. At the same time, he was “decent” enough in his manipulations, as can be seen in his arrest of Mr. George. He was a very shrewd judge of people and could read them, and yet he had his sympathies for his fellow human. When Mr. Bucket went to arrest the dying Mr. Gridley he tried to encourage him and was genuinely sad that the man he had arrested so many times in the past was deathly ill. This was the first time I thawed at all towards him, but it is how he tried to help at the end that won me over (at least a little…). And there were so many weird mixed feelings when he was being so polite and yet you knew he was just biding his time to arrest Mr. George! But it all made sense later. He worked tirelessly to find the real perp in the murder case because he wanted justice done, and he felt sorry for those falsely accused, even those who might not get many people’s deepest compassion. That all night journey through the blizzard, well, you can’t not like him after that. Or can you? An interesting bloke all around.