The tightly planned, or brilliantly improvised, nature of Bleak House is evident throughout the novel, or in another sense not evident, since so much of the matter that makes up the planning is unlikely to be evident to the first-time reader, nor much of it to the second-time reader, and I doubt that I the third time was a complete charm for me, either. Amazing that Dickens could keep track of it all. I know, he had notes, but so did I.
So of course I did not pay particular attention, when I read the book twenty years, when the heroine dreams that she is “no one,” because I did not know that there was a character almost literally named No One; once I did know, having reached Chapter 10, of course I did not remember Esther’s words from way back in Chapter 4; even if somehow I did, I would not understand the significance. More sneakily, Nemo is first mentioned in Chapter 5, but only as an incidental detail in an advertisement.
Even something as unsubtle as the constant association of the junkman Krook and fire – “the breath issuing in visible smoke from his mouth, as if he were on fire from within” (Ch. 5) – is almost invisible the first time through. Unsubtle once you know what happens to Krook in a scene I might put in the ten greatest scenes in fiction if I thought in terms of Top 10 lists. It is just more stuff in a novel crammed with stuff, and in that case a chapter that features twice as much stuff as usual because it is partly set in a junk shop. “There were a great many ink bottles.” I don’t think that is anything more than scene-setting, but I used to wrongly think that of so much else in the book.
This is Esther writing. She is on her way to Bleak House. It will be the seventh bleak house she has visited in less than fifty pages – another thing I counted this time – but the first one actually named Bleak House:
It was delightful to see the green landscape before us and the immense metropolis behind; and when a waggon with a train of beautiful horses, furnished with red trappings and clear-sounding bells, came by us with its music, I believe we could all three have sung to the bells, so cheerful were the influences around. (Ch. 6, first paragraph)
Now, the last line of the same chapter:
So I said to myself, “Esther, Esther, Esther! Duty, my dear!” and gave my little basket of housekeeping keys such a shake that they sounded like little bells and rang me hopefully to bed.
As Edgar Allen Poe once said so memorably, “bells, bells, bells, bells, \ Bells, bells, bells.” Maybe I should have been keeping track of a bell theme, but I believe it just serves as a lovely way to pull the beginning and end of this chapter together.
Here’s another one. Lady Dedlock, “bored to death,” is vacationing in Paris, where “poor wretches” are “encompassing” the city “with dancing, love-making, wine-drinking, tobacco-smoking, tomb-visiting, billiard card and domino playing, quack-doctoring, and much murderous refuse, animate and inanimate” (Ch. 12) – what could that mean, with murderous refuse? Just a few lines earlier, Lady Dedlock’s French maid was offhandedly mentioned. Why would I think these details are connected? All will be revealed, 590 pages later.
So much of this kind of thing, so much, everywhere in the novel. All those ink bottles.