(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.) (A few small spoilers)
I am not British and have never lived in the 12th century (well, I guess it is possible I did, but I don’t remember any past lives), but I have read a lot about the old aristocratic system, both the pre-feudal and the feudal society.
In many ways, partially because of the background of the almost democratic Anglo-Saxon world before the Normans tried to force the feudal system on England, it was never as pure as in other places, and slowly died out, a process that accelerated in the between-the-wars period (early 20th century), a process that is still occurring to this day.
One thing that people usually do not think of, but in a feudal society a Lord has set responsibilities, obligations, to the people under him. It is a two-way street. In 11th century England, the lowest serf working the land was given a place to stay, a certain amount of grain with the ability to increase it through labor, a small plot for vegetables, quite a few days off for religious celebrations/holidays (many, many more than mill workers 800 years later!), etc. All of this was the Lord’s obligation to his people.
Sir Leicester, with over a half a millennium of Dedlocks before him, still thought of himself as part of that 11th or 12th century system. Yes, he knew it was a modern world, but he hated the way England was changing away from the old aristocratic, semi-feudal system where his class was entitled to many things just for being them, and resented the new world where ordinary people were given positions and privilege just because they had the skill and knowledge to do those jobs! Oh, the indignity of it all!
And yet, he did know his obligations to the people in his household and the village around Chesney Wold. He would rather die than neglect these obligations.
For example, the village had a school, what he thought was a very good school, one he was proud of. The village had prosperity, somewhat tied to the lord of the manor. He was not unkind, nor uncaring.
He was just old fashioned.
He was the Lord of the Manor, after all.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote this description of Sir Leicester as seen in the second chapter of the book: Although he was only a baronet, his family was as old as the hills, and far more respectable than the hills. In fact, Sir Leicester could imagine a world without hills, but not a world without Deadlocks (yes, I stole that from Dickens). Sir Leicester at 70 was still dashing, if no longer quite in the prime of his life. And despite his complete devotion to the traditions of the past, he had married out of love and so didn’t mind that she had no family (he had plenty to spare…) and wasn’t in the same economic class as he was. And he continued to dote on her as much as he did the day they were married.
I found the character of Sir Leicester fascinating, particularly at the end. In a Dickens’ novel, we do not feel anything unless Charles has led us to it. And we do feel sympathetic to Sir Leicester at the end.
Of course he is introduced as part of a long married couple that still acted as newlyweds. He truly loved Lady Dedlock with all of his heart. He doted on her.
And, though we find that he wasn’t her first love, probably not even close to “the love of her life”, she obviously loved him very much. In her fashion.
She was willing to sacrifice herself for him. She said many times that she would do anything to protect him
But Lady Dedlock was the love of Sir Leister’s life. That has to be remembered.
Sir Leicester, and the relatives that surrounded him looking for his good graces, represented the aristocratic system, with all of its faults, corruptions and warts.
Dickens did not love this system. In fact, a happy ending in most of Dickens’ novels was a respectable middle class, not too rich, and far from being aristocratic. Little Dorrit lost her fortune, Oliver Twist’s aunt’s lover gave up the aristocratic life and a seat in Parliament to marry the woman he loved (only because her sister bore Oliver out of wedlock – it ruined him!) and Esther and her friends end up, if not poor, not rich. That was Dickens’ happy ending, not a fantasy of becoming Lord and Lady of the manor (something given up in Oliver Twist!)
And yet Dickens obviously didn’t totally hate it. Perhaps it was so ingrained in society that he could not see it going away.
And since he didn’t totally hate the system, he didn’t totally hate Sir Leicester.
Despite his dated views on politics, industry, society, etc., Sir Leicester had good traits. One instance is him going out of his way to go to Bleak House to apologize to Mr. Jarndyce and his wards for something that wasn’t his fault. Sure, he did appreciate being treated as the aristocrat he was on that occasion, but he felt that obligation and was at least a bit friendly.
In the end Sir Leicester discovered what was truly important. His wife, of course, was by far the most important thing in his life. The people who chose to be around him for more than the thought that he might do them favors, whether while still alive or after passing, were important.
Loyalty. Honor. These were as important to him as they were to an old soldier. I love the picture of Sir Leicester, weakened from his stroke, leaning on the strongest, most loyal person around, his old “friend” George. Yes, the son of a servant, and a man of service himself, in many ways George is a far better friend than those cousins who are waiting from some scrap form his hand. Or his will.
And I like that end. It is perfect, and in ways touching. Despite earlier having a grim laugh at Sir Leicester’s self-serving indignation at the changing state of England, we are sympathetic for the old man who has lost his greatest treasure but finds comfort in the stability of an old friend.
Dickens talks about a future where Sir Leicester joins the many generations of Dedlocks, including his beloved wife, in the family mausoleum, but he does not speak of that end as having occurred.
So let’s imagine Sir Leicester and George out for one more ride around the Park, the old soldier proud to be supporting the old man, the old man comfortable in relying in his best friend, the son of his servant.
(Note – I discovered long after I wrote this that “only a baronet” was actually quite the position – although it was the bottom rung of the inherited “nobility”, the aristocracy in Britain was much thinner than in other European countries and represented only one percent of one percent of the populace – 0.01%. So Sir Leicester was part of the elite of the elite.)