The first person narrator, Esther Summerson. She is a nobody, an orphan, a housekeeper. In the other half of the novel, all sorts of exciting things are going on: a convoluted lawsuit, blackmail, spontaneous combustion, a section that is the prototype of the murder mystery, featuring a candidate for the first detective in English literature with all of the usual nonsense – master of disguise, unflagging eye for detail, indefatigable etc. He’s even a bit hard-boiled.
Why “Esther’s Narrative,” as many of her chapters are titled, exists is a little puzzle. “I have a great deal of difficulty in beginning to write my portion of these pages, for I know I am not clever” (Ch. 3) – that’s her first line. Right away, difficulties appear.
Esther Summerson is a in an English literary tradition that was a hundred years old at this point. She stands in a line of heroines who are highly virtuous to the point of passivity and readerly aggravation. I am dating them back to Samuel Richardson’s Pamela and Clarissa, but the controversial Fanny Price from Mansfield Park is another example, as is Jeanie Deans from Walter Scott’s The Heart of Midlothian, and as are, although curiously they are rarely seen as such, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and Lucy Snowe. The latter pair are sassy while the others are at all like that. All of these women are, because of their sex or social position or temperament, powerless, or so they seem to other characters. They spend much of the novels in which they star saying “No,” often over and over again. They are in reality unbreakable forces of will, more powerful than they appear.
Esther mostly says “Yes” in Bleak House, mostly because what she if offered is as good as she is: a home (more than once), purposeful work, love, friends. Her will seems fairly domitable. She says “Yes” to recounting her minor role in the crazy events mentioned above. “[M]y portion of these pages.” I am not clear who asked her to write up her story, or why. When Wilkie Collins borrows the device for A Woman in White and The Moonstone, someone is supposedly collecting documents for legal purposes. Maybe that is the case here.
But then what attorney was expecting this woman to produce an autobiography filling 460 printed pages, a detailed account of her own life and opinions which occasionally brushes against other events.
It seems so curious to me to be obliged to write all this about myself! As if this narrative were the narrative of my life! But my little body will soon fall into the background now. (still in Ch. 3)
Esther also uses her book to describe in every detail of her acquaintance with and courtship by her husband while, for most of the book, specifically denying that she is doing so, which is a fine device for looking evasive while drawing attention to the thing evaded.
I have omitted to mention in its place, that there was someone else at the family dinner party. It was not a lady. It was a gentleman. It was a gentleman of a dark complexion – a young surgeon. (Ch. 13)
To this point, Esther has been careful enough to only mention things in her place. But this is a forgivable clumsiness by an inexperienced writer. Curious how only one subject causes these slips. No, easy to explain, since Summerson is more than clever and is a narrator of sophistication and talent. She could always go back and revise her writing. She wrote the text she wants someone to see.
What actually is curious is that Bleak House was completed in 1853, along with Villette and Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford, all books told by self-effacing women with surprisingly wicked wits.
I’ll stay with Esther tomorrow. I have hardly gotten anywhere. The quotations above are good for showing Esther as a simple and rather plain writer. I will have to undo that.