Bleak House Day 4 – Sir Leicester

(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. 

Some points.

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.)

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Bleak House Main Challenge Post

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18 thoughts on “Bleak House Day 4 – Sir Leicester

  1. Marsha

    You have added a lot of insight through your research. I’ve been reading English romance novels of my mom’s for years without doing more than glossing through all the royalty stuff. The plot usually ran: rich man gets the beautiful, poor, smart girl, the love of his life, much like Sir L married Lady D. Esther keeps cropping up in your analyses, and I think she is bugging you about something. I’m still mulling over the possibility that she was an unreliable narrator. Unlike the real Esther, she was never in fear of her life – a going to the King and asking a favor, risking her head. Nothing like that happened. The worst that happened to her happened when she was a child. There was no glory in that really. Children were treated as burdens or slaves most of the time until after World War I. So Esther is not as heroic as Queen Esther. I don’t think George is a hero either. He just found his place of service, and like Esther was devoted to her Guardian, George became devoted to Sir L. He no longer had to face the worries of everyday survival, and he could be of service to someone who treated him well. Again, not heroic, very old-fashioned. I like the reference to the middle class as being Dicken’s goal. My last thought is that Lady D, had she lived, would have been forgiven by both the public and by her husband and would have been happier. She could have begun to get to know her child. That’s it for me this time, Trent. Again, thanks for all the time and thought you put into this. :)

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    1. trentpmcd Post author

      I recently read a huge book on 12 century England, so that bit was independent of reading Bleak House.
      I thought Esther was a very interesting character, and very likable in many ways. Not heroic. She did, however, have time of crises, when she had small pox. She was temporarily blinded and could have come out worse than just the heavy scarring she had. And she did put herself in the danger of getting it by, but one thing is that all of the “rich people” around her were most likely vaccinated against it, so she might not have been as “heroic” in keeping people out of the sick ward.
      George did have a very deep sense of honor. Again, maybe not heroic, and very much in the mind of a military man of his age.
      I think if Lady D died, she would have been forgiven by her husband, but very few people would know about it to forgive or not. There might have been rumors, and possibly even nasty rumors, but I don’t think her star would have set unless she wanted it to. And perhaps if Sir L knew, he would welcome Esther’s and Lady D have a deeper relationship.

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      1. Marsha

        That’s what I think about Lady D’s fate, too. I think she did not have the will to live nor the faith in either society of Sir L. I didn’t know the vaccine was in use so early. I just read that it started in 1796. I wonder how accepted it was.

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        1. trentpmcd Post author

          I read a little about small pox, and it was pretty available to the rich by the mid-19th century. Through the 19th century, it was thought of as a poor person’s decease, and few rich people got it. Of course, it could be that few rich people got it because they weren’t exposed, but I knwo the vaccine was beginning to make its effects seen pretty early. Of course, there had to be some risk of it spreading or Dickens wouldn’t have gone to so much trouble to show how much work Esther did to keep it from spreading…

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          1. Marsha

            Interesting that she did take such care, now that you mention it. She must have been afraid that everyone in the house would get it meaning that no one had the vaccine. :) Hmmm

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            1. trentpmcd Post author

              Esther was mostly concerned about Ada. She tried to keep as quarantined as possible, but Ada was the only person she mentioned by name. Maybe someone of Mr. J’s status (who she didn’t seem as concerned about) would have been vaccinated, but not his poor relations, Ada and Ricard. Maybe none of them were. Maybe they all were, but it wasn’t 100% foolproof and so she was being cautious. And again, it is one of those things that if we lived back then, we would know right off what he meant by it all and not have to guess….

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  2. Pingback: Monday Morning Blooms & Bleak House Challenge A to Z Takeaways📚☀️😊 – priorhouse blog

  3. Pingback: Monday Morning Blooms & Bleak House Challenge is THIS WEEK📚☀️😊 – priorhouse blog

  4. Prior...

    Hi Trent
    I knew the “only a Baronet” still was very high ranking – but the note at the end about how elite it was was new for me!
    And adds to the shame Lady D would feel with her scandal.
    And then also – even if he forgave all – society can be so unforgiving and so even if lady D went back and tried to resume life – things would never be the same!
    Society wouldn’t let it even if Sir L was all okay with it!

    I also find it fascinating to see how George ended up there.
    Some closed doors and hurdles led him to be right wjeee he needed to be – at just the right time!
    And that is the theme of the book of Esther in the Bible –
    She was appointed to a place for “such a time
    As this”
    And so in bleak house we know that Esther’s existence and life did in fact help others and was special – but I sometimes
    Feel George had the more biblical
    Esther life appointments –
    With his business and then ending up by Sir L.

    Enjoyed your history share here too! So interesting –
    And wonder what dickens would have to say about prince Harry leaving for the states with a movie star –
    But i digress with that one!

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    1. trentpmcd Post author

      I think a lot of great houses had their scandals, so with Tulkinghorn not around to threaten releasing it (and he wouldn’t release it if Sir Leicester told him not to) and with Guppy being discouraged from finding the truth. I think they would have been safe. It might not have ever been quite what it was, but perhaps it would have been an even warmer relationship.
      Dickens did reference the Bible quite often, so it is possible he did think about it. I can see Sir L being a King of Persia and Tulkinghorn being the henchman who hated the underdogs (Jews in the Bible, people with a past here.). George Esther, and perhaps Bucket being Mordecai (or however you spell it). Hmmm. I won’t explore it further, but it would be interesting direction for someone to explore.
      I started reading a heavy tome about mid-11th century (Norman Invasion) through early 13th (end of Johns reign) England that went into a huge amount of detail on every day life, with a bibliography bigger than a Dickens book ;) After that I read another book about later medieval England and then watched a few videos. It was interesting how the life of commoners actually went downhill as they gained more rights! By Dickens day, the 19th century, the poor were worse off than they had ever been. As to today’s royalty, we need to look no further than the Queen’s uncle, Edward VIII who abdicated for love…

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        1. trentpmcd Post author

          I have been very interested in post-Norman invasion England since I first read about Eleanor of Aquitaine – what a fabulous story! The more recent studies where about a year ago, but still relatively recent.
          Hope you enjoy #5!

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  5. Pingback: Dickens Challenge – Bleak House Recap Post | Trent's World (the Blog)

    1. trentpmcd Post author

      I think for Lady Dedlock the shift from cold, haughty lady to a person of sympathy happened pretty quick, perhaps from the moment Tulkinghorn first grew suspicious of her knowing the handwriting, but for Sir Leicester, the rehabilitation was slow through the course of the book. I agree, those final scenes with him were very touching, which I tried to pay tribute to at the end of this little essay.

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  6. Pingback: Dickens Challenge – Bleak House Intro Post | Trent's World (the Blog)

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