With powerless heroines like Esther Summerson, I look for the places they exercise power, the places in the story where they direct their will outward. When Fanny Price rescues her younger sister from her family, for example, and installs her in Mansfield Park. Esther Summerson also saves children, or tries to save them and fails. “The child died” (Ch. 8). The number of failures Dickens allows in her story, especially the final one, at the climax when her portion intertwines with the omniscient narrator, is something I am still mulling over.
But other times she succeeds, she saves the children, one by one, extracting them from want or from their awful, unloving families. The novel is perhaps even overstocked with bad parents – we get the point early, but they keep coming. Introducing herself, Summerson says she always had “a silent way of noticing what passed before me, and thinking I should understand it better” (Ch. 3), a novelist’s talent. Much of what she notices is along the lines of her room at the Jellybys, where “the curtain to my window was fastened up with a fork” (Ch. 4). At this point, the detail seems comic, and Summerson is polite enough, but as the novel goes along it becomes clear that that fork is a moral indictment.
Here Summerson is trying to save a child who has an infectious disease. She is arguing with Skimpole, a comic figure, a clown, a child himself, as he often says:
“In the meantime," I ventured to observe, “he is getting worse.”
“In the meantime,” said Mr. Skimpole cheerfully, “as Miss Summerson, with her practical good sense, observes, he is getting worse. Therefore I recommend your turning him out before he gets still worse.”
The amiable face with which he said it, I think I shall never forget. (Ch. 31)
That last line is Summerson’s description of evil, an evil that only she could see. She does not tease, like the narrators of Cranford or Villette. She condemns.
No, that is wrong. She also teases. Thus all of the digs at Mrs. Woodcourt and her famous Welsh ancestor who “appeared to have passed his life in always getting up into mountains and fighting somebody; and a bard whose name sounded like Crumlinwallinwer had sung his praises in a piece which was called, as nearly as I could catch it, Mewlinnwillinwodd” (Ch. 17). Of course it is not just, or even primarily, Mrs. Woodcourt who is being teased here, but rather her son.
Writing her book is Summerson’s most surprising positive act of will, is what I am saying. She makes it her own; she makes it about herself. She is actually writing “full seven happy years” (Ch. 64) after the events of the novel. Occasionally, rarely, Summerson switches to the present tense, which is what the omniscient narrator uses, even though his present is years before hers.
It matters little now how often I recalled the tones of my mother's voice, wondered whether I should ever hear it again as I so longed to do, and thought how strange and desolate it was that it should be so new to me. It matters little that… [more in this vein]. It is all, all over. My lot has been so blest that I can relate little of myself which is not a story of goodness and generosity in others. I may well pass that little and go on. (Ch. 43)
The repetition, some of which I omitted, is another rhetorical device of the omniscient narrator’s. Esther, the orphan, had met her birth mother, an encounter so powerful that she can only write about not writing about it.
I doubt I noticed any of this the first couple of times I read Bleak House.
Tomorrow, since I brought it up here, maybe a little about Esther Summerson’s prose.