Thursday, December 11, 2014

a story of goodness and generosity in others - Esther Summerson writes her book

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.


  1. I apologize for my previous comment at your previous posting. I have deleted that incoherent comment.

  2. That's all right. What else is the internet good for?

  3. I think I need to reread _Bleak House_ . . . your close-reading observations remind me that I must have not read the novel very carefully. I was too busy enjoying it.

  4. The details are enjoyable. Reading carefully is enjoyable. Reading Dickens carefully is intensely enjoyable.

  5. Perhaps I am affected by post-op doldrums, so I might be a bit foggy in my thinking (which is appropriate for BH), but I wonder why I so often feel repudiated (insulted?) by you when you and I "chat" about reading?

  6. I don't know why.

    Like Myers, I take literature pretty seriously, and think arguments about how it works are meaningful. I am not Jewish, but I am in the tradition of The Argumentative Jew:

    "For the sake of truth we are not only permitted to make a quarrel, we are obligated to make a quarrel."

  7. Well, I have trouble taking anything too seriously right now. Perhaps it is illness. Perhaps it is senescence. Perhaps it is dimwitted drug-induced stupidity. In any case, I now reject being too serious.

    However, did you not once reject my proffered "opinion" -- which I think factors prominently in your referenced tradition -- because, as you said, "opinion" lacked the rigor of argument? (Perhaps that was someone else.)

    I could not in a hundred years have the chutzpah to compare myself in any way with D. G. Myers. That, however, is simply because . . . Hell, I have no idea why I lack the chutzpah . . . or why I would avoid the comparison . . . so we'll let that comment melt away into nothingness.

    But wait . . . I am being drawn again into the entangling web that I ought to avoid. My words get ahead of my better sense. So I think I will withdraw into silence for a while. I hate quarrels. And I will avoid this one by ending this one.

    The rest is silence. (Hey, I couldn't resist that line.)

  8. Sorry for butting in. I blame the media in which our conversations take place. Sadly, the interwebs are horrible for friendly debate. Tone is lost, irony is masked, well meaning statements sound like putdowns and clumsy sentences are seen as personal attacks; under those conditions, to have a good-natured, humorous exchange of ideas can be challenging sometimes.

    In order to bypass those obstacles, building trust is very important. People in comment threads realize that, and so, any new commenter who disagrees too much with the established way of thinking of the website, forum or blog is often driven out by the others: this is sad, but maybe necessary to create a sense of community. After all, a discussion among trusting, like-minded friends is unlikely to become offensive, and trolls and sea-lions are dangerous creatures.

  9. Note to all: I am neither a troll nor a sea-lion (whatever the latter might be), but perhaps I am ill-suited at this point in my life for . . . well, for too many things. Forgive my literary and blogging offenses. (Did I really offend? Again, I do not pick up quickly on ironies and subtleties.) Ah, so I move on (sort of) before the blogging door hits me in the commenting ass, which I explain in cryptic terms at my blog, Beyond Eastrod. Any estrangement that has occurred between myself and others may be attributed, I suppose, to my state of mind and body. I cannot rise to the heroic and intellectual level of someone like D. G. Myers. I'm not so gifted. Damn, I'm babbling again. So, I should instead choose silence.

  10. See?, that's exactly my point. I was trying to agree with you, and to explain away what seemed to me like a little misunderstanding between friends.

    I feel nothing but admiration and respect for you R.T. (ditto for our gracious host), and I apologize if this was not conveyed by my clumsy post. In a sense this just proves my point about the internet medium being opaque to the intent of those using it.

  11. I wrote a bit about this several years ago, using a John Henry Newman quotation:

    "A liberal philosophy becomes the habit of minds thus exercised; a breadth and spaciousness of thought, in which lines, seemingly parallel, may converge at leisure, and principles, recognized as incommensurable, may be safely antagonistic."

    "Safely" is important, but so is "antagonistic." We are all peers. Argument is a form of respect.

    As I remember it, I rejected not RT's opinion, but my own!

  12. Should we not all go to court in an endless litigious whirl, as a sort of celebration of B.H.?

    1. I think I will sit this one out and observe.

  13. Yes, except that argument is not about he case but the costs of the case, whatever that would mean.

  14. For the record, this is the original source of the sea lion meme.

  15. Egads, am I the cause of all the confusion? I apologize. This would be much easier in a face to face encounter. Perhaps blogging is a venue I should avoid. Mea culpa? And so it goes.

  16. Now that is what I call a modern classic. Although I do have a lot of sympathy for the sea lion. He is so reasonable!

    No confusion, RT, no offense, no apologies necessary.

  17. " encounter so powerful that she can only write about not writing about it."

    Beautifully put!

    Sorry for not instigating a quarrel here, but that really was beautifully put.

  18. Thanks, Such a fine passage, not at all flashy, but profound.