(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.)
I have given a few character sketches as part of my posts over the last few days, so I want to do a few “stand alone” sketches, starting with Mr. Jarndyce (John Jarndyce).
Mr. Jarndyce was one of the main characters, in the top three or four (Esther and Lady Dedlock being the only two I’d put before him, though he might have a lot more “screen time” than “my Lady”), but who was he?
He was obviously rich. Bleak House wasn’t a giant manor like Chesney Wold, but it was multi-storied and rambling, so not small. It had full-time live-in servants, even when Mr. Jarndyce and his wards weren’t there, possibly quite a few. A half a dozen? A dozen? Two dozen? More? They are rarely talked about, but I would guess a minimum of half a dozen, though it could approach that biggest number. He didn’t seem to work and was able to afford to rent a large house in London for months at a time. He was very free and giving with his money, almost as if there was an endless supply.
Although he was not in the same class as the Lord and Lady Dedlock, Sir Leicester paid a visit to Bleak House to apologize for not being more welcoming when Mr. Jarndyce and his wards were close to Chesney Wold. I doubt Sir Leicester did that to everybody in England. Just saying…
Mr. Jarndyce was a generous, giving man that had a lot of compassion for those around him. He helped many people and gave freely, too freely in Mr. Skimpole’s case. He sponsored several people, obviously Esther, but including others, such as the “Coavinses” children, whom he took under his wing after discovering they were alone on the death of their father.
And he was a bit of an odd duck.
Although he was very friendly, he was obviously an introvert. He had a habit of disappearing, sometimes for weeks or months, when he felt uncomfortable, even for something as small as a 14-year-old girl not accepting a gift of a sweet, though his running away did not occur after he brought in his wards, so he did understand his responsibilities. And perhaps his wards helped him to grow…
He demanded that nobody ever thank him, and there was the idea that he might disappear if someone dared to say “Thank you.”
He could be moody and liked to be alone. He had a room, the Growlary, where he would go to be alone to think and just “enjoy” his bad moods. He would sometimes become very pessimistic – an East Wind was blowing… (The photo at the top, the cover of the book I read, is just showing that East Wind. Although not talked about as much later, the idea was always there.)
He was described as very neurotic when first introduced, but seemed to be more and more settled as the book progressed, though some of the idiosyncrasies still occasionally showed up.
He was a caring and even a loving man, and had a streak of the Romantic, but he was not romantic (creating the second Bleak House was the closest he came to being Romantic), which, to me, plays a major role at one point in the book. He could write a letter filled with love, but never a love letter. I’d say, if he were a real man, he was most likely gay, but in an era where he would have to be closeted even to himself. “Life long confirmed bachelor” is what they used to call that type.
The Lady Dedlock has to be brought up.
Paraphrasing the second chapter of the book, I had earlier described her this way:
In chapter two, we go out on that same bleak day that opens the book but move to a far, far more fashionable part of Town where Dickens introduces us to Lady Deadlock, a woman who couldn’t move a finger without the action being reported by the fashion journalists in the leading three papers. The fashion world knew she had bored of Lincolnshire and was spending a few days in Town before crossing to Paris for a short visit. After Paris? Not even the leading fashion experts could guess.
Married to the baronet Sir Leicester, Lady Deadlock had climbed to the pinnacle of British society, was part of the highest elite. This was the top of the ladder and the idea in fashion circles was that she had grown bored that she had nowhere to go from that lofty perch.
At 50, the Lady Deadlock was in the prime of her life. She was strikingly beautiful and held herself in a way to make her seem taller than she actually was; stand out. She embodied the best characteristics of the females of her class and knew it. She was cold and haughty, her beauty seen as a marble on Mt. Olympus, not a mere mortal.
And she was as inscrutable as that marble Hera.
In many ways my Lady is the main character of the book. In my opinion, the story of the lawsuit is the glue that holds the book, and the characters, together, but the main story is Lady Dedlock’s story. She appears in name or person in so many chapters from the second chapter (about her – see above) to the second to last chapter (she is talked about), perhaps more than any other person in the book. Well, other than Esther. Her story is the heart and soul of the book. I stated earlier that perhaps the biggest theme is motherhood, and it centers on her.
And yet she is always just sketched, never drawn with detail. We are often close to her, but always seen as if from someone else’s eyes. We enter the heads of others, read their minds, but her mind is forbidden to us, her thoughts betrayed only by a flash of the eyes or sighs, and those are often few and far between. Most of the time she presents us that false front she always shows the world. It is like there is a mist or a vail between us. She is almost already a memory even when she is still alive.
As stated earlier, my Lady Dedlock is beautiful, haughty, noble, above those around her and bored with everything. But then we discover that she is this way to hide her real self. That real self is only revealed in those quick flashes, her secret actions and the few pages she shares with Esther at the center, heart, of the book, where she allows her true inner self to come out for a moment.
And perhaps, just perhaps, even in the third person narrative, we only truly see her the way she is seen by Esther, through the rose-colored mist of Esther’s memory, a memory of beauty and love, her childhood dream made real.
We left Sir Leicester riding around the park, leaning on Mr. George for support. In my mind, we leave Lady Dedlock as a memory in a lonely mausoleum. I think of the island that holds Princess Diana and hold a similar picture of my Lady, a soft vision of beauty as if from a different age, always there, just beyond our reach.
Richard Carstone is one of the central characters around Esther. I don’t want to go into many details about him, but he deserves mention.
Near the beginning of the book, he does a giving, selfless act. All should be good. Even that Mr. Jarndyce pays him back shouldn’t discredit his initial actions.
And yet, in ways this is the start of the downfall of his character.
His sense of giving actually grows after he is paid back. That is, the idea that he was willing to make a sacrifice, but never did, taints the way he relates to the world and to money. His accounting gets off whack. His sense of “luck” grows. He quickly grows careless with his money.
And then there is a distinct lack of “seriousness” and responsibility. He becomes foolish with his funds, goes into debt, doesn’t worry about the future – he has always been cared for, and doesn’t believe there will come a time when he isn’t cared for. He can’t stay on task when trying to find a vocation.
In ways he is almost a Mr. Skimpole light.
And then he discovers the case, Jarndyce and Jarndyce. Yes, of course he knew about it his entire life. But when he found out about it for real, it changed him for the worse.
Dickens has two other characters talk about their cases before the Chancery. We discover how these very, very simple cases have gone on forever and have ruined lives. Richard hears these cases, but can’t see how they relate to him, nor the very complex Jarndyce and Jarndyce case, which he thinks is on the verge of being settled.
It is very sad, and Dickens does as much as he can to make it sad. And yet, he also gives Richard those “spoiled brat” characteristics from the beginning, so it is hard to not feel he is at least partially to blame. We feel a lot of sympathy, but much more for the people around him that are hurt by his actions than for Richard himself.
I am going to skip all of those other characters. Ada is simultaneously interesting and boring. The light of Esther’s (and Richard’s) life, being such a huge part of the action, she should be at the top of the character sketches, and yet….
Oh, I do need to mention Ada’s “opposite”, Caddy Jellyby. Her mother, of course, typifies philanthropy gone wrong. And the Jellyby family was half horrifying and half humorous. But Miss Jellyby herself? Perhaps most importantly she is Esther’s only friend who is not related to the Jarndyce and Jarndyce case or a friend of one of the principles first, though, actually, maybe the same could be said Allan Woodcourt. And those two friends of Esther, though not really knowing each other, are bound together throughout in many ways, including a bouquet of flowers.
Esther is Caddy’s best friend, and perhaps only friend. Miss Jellyby grew to rely on Esther, and Esther became a bit of a surrogate mother (theme of motherhood in proxy).
Miss Jellyby is in the odd world where she is not part of the poorest of the poor, she associates a little with the rich, but isn’t really part of that upper class either. She’s between classes. In some ways, this is a trait that Esther has as well – Esther has nothing, not even a real name, and yet she associates with the rich.
In many ways Miss Jellyby is a person to pity, and it is almost as an afterthought that Dickens mentions that her kind of odd, sickly child is deaf and dumb. More pity? An odd thing for him to strike down this child in such a casual way.
But what is she in the book? A reminder of what Esther might have been without Mr. J.? Something to show Esther’s motherly side? I’m still not sure.
I did talk about Mr. Bucket and Mr. George a little. The other very big character is Mr. Tulkinghorn. I could write several posts about him. But I won’t. I’ll leave that for someone else.
And there are so many other interesting people that I could talk about! But I won’t bring up any of the major characters, like Allan Woodcourt.
Which should bring us to the end of these little sketches.
I do, however, want to bring up one other character, Jenny, the poor bricklayer’s wife.
She, and her family, play several roles in the novel, like the recipients of misguided “charity” and the often brutish nature of the poor. The role I want to bring up is that of the mother who loses a baby. She loses her baby “on screen”, so in ways her grief is there to represent all mothers who lose their infant. And she does grieve through the entire book, stuck in the amber of that the time of that death, never moving on. How much time passes in the course of the book? And yet Dickens stuck poor Jenny as always just a very short time away from having just lost her child.
Isn’t it interesting that Esther’s handkerchief, left with that dead infant, is taken by one who had thought she had lost a baby and was afraid that she might lose that “baby” a second time during the time Esther was at death’s door? And then think about the ”changing places” Jenny performs at the end. Isn’t it very appropriate that it is Jenny, not Liz, the other bricklayer’s wife, that does that little trick? Because in ways, so different, the two women who did the switch-a-roo, from vastly different social and economic classes, are one and the same, aren’t they?
Clever as the Dickens is our Charles!