Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Go before me, and show me all those dreadful places - Tom and Jo - a last bit of Bleak House

Just a bit more anthropomorphism from Bleak House.

The moon has eyed Tom with a dull cold stare, as admitting some puny emulation of herself in his desert region unfit for life and blasted by volcanic fires; but she has passed on and is gone…   and Tom is fast asleep.

Much mighty speech-making there has been, both in and out of Parliament, concerning Tom, and much wrathful disputation how Tom shall be got right. (Ch. 46)

Tom is a slum, Tom-all-Alone’s.  The paragraphs that follow make it clear that Tom-all-Alone’s is also The Destitute Poor more generally.

There is not an atom of Tom's slime, not a cubic inch of any pestilential gas in which he lives, not one obscenity or degradation about him, not an ignorance, not a wickedness, not a brutality of his committing, but shall work its retribution through every order of society up to the proudest of the proud and to the highest of the high. Verily, what with tainting, plundering, and spoiling, Tom has his revenge.

This is Dickens invoking the other Tom, Thomas Carlyle, rhetoric that is pure Carlylese (“verily”), the kind of passage that reminds me that Hard Times will be the next Dickens novel.

I finally understood this time something of the place of Tom-all-Alone’s in Bleak House.  It is just a street, “a black, dilapidated street, avoided by all decent people,” full of squatters in rotting, collapsing buildings – “the next crash in Tom-all-Alone’s may be expected to be a good one.”  The street has taken this turn because of the lawsuit that is the novel’s backdrop.  Dickens plainly says this a few pages into Chapter 16, but I did not understand it.  I did not understand that the winner of the lawsuit wins this, a poisonous tenement.

And Tom-all-Alone’s birthed, somehow, Jo the street sweep who “’don’t know nothink,’” one of the children Esther Summerson tries to save. 

Jo lives – that is to say, Jo has not yet died – in a ruinous place, known to the like of him by the name of Tom-all-Alone’s.

Because someone was kind to him poor Jo becomes an accidental instrument, almost a kind of connective tissue, of the novel’s complex plot, which will resume later in this chapter after Dickens lets Jo walk a round a bit, accompanied by a vagabond dog, “a terrific dog to sheep; ready at a whistle to scamper over their backs, and tear out mouthfuls of their wool.”  What this dog is doing in London is likely a sad story.  But this line does explain why, in Chapter 25, “Jo has been standing on the spot where he woke up, ever picking his cap, and putting bits of fur in his mouth,” an odd habit that I now see he learned from that dog.

“‘Go before me, and show me all those dreadful places,’” another character says to Jo back to Chapter 16.  That’s Jo, and that’s Tom.

Because vacation and Best of the Year celebrations are upon me, I will have to put down Bleak House.  The next post would have been about Little Swills, the Comic Vocalist, who for many novelists would be the best character they ever invented, but for Dickens is just a recurring gag.


  1. I think Tom-all-Alone was a real locale in Dickens' youth, but I would have to verify that by digging into whatever biography suggested that tidbit. Of course, Dickens' actual life experience -- for whatever it might mean to readers -- was a goldmine for his fictional inventions; in other words, the fiction never strays too far from Dickens' real world roots.

    Here is my flashback comment regarding Esther and the narrator: My memory -- which I will have to refresh and verify through rereading (I have just now begun Chapter 3) -- tells me that each narrator's syntax and diction are so remarkably different, with Esther's improving and becoming more sophisticated over time, that it further supports the notion that Dickens was very much in control of the whole novel.

  2. Tom All-Alone's was the prime candidate for the novel's title, apparently, until Dickens stumbled across the idea of calling it Bleak House. I think the rot at the center of English society is the point of the whole book, the axle 'round which the entire thing turns, etc.

    Anthropomorphism, though: this Dickensian world is entirely alive, kicking at the seams of the book. I am sure the animation of the settings and props was a strong influence on Nabokov: think of that writing desk in The Defense, a moody and suspicious piece of furniture, and the reeling, drunken park later in the novel. Pure Dickens.

  3. Gogol can give this sense, too, that any part of the fictional world could leap to life at any moment. That a person's nose can leap right off his face. Nabokov would have sponged up Dickens as a child.

    I really did not understand that central position of Tom-all-Alone's until this visit to the book. Did not know about the title.

    I suppose that the London of Dickens' youth had a number of place like Tom-all-Alone's. Progress.

    1. This has been a fine series about BH. I haven't commented (busy busy busy) but I've read along and nodded, thinking "yes, yes. good stuff." There are still plenty of aspects to discuss when you write about the book again in 2024.

    2. Maybe I wouldn't have spent a day on Littel Swills - and maybe I would! - but I had been knocking around a John Jarndyce post, another example of Dickens solving one of his biggest problems, these sugar daddy characters he liked so much, this time by means of self-parody. But that post did not seem like enough fun.

    3. Have you written a What is to be Done?-as-Dickens-novel post yet? Plenty of material. Wait: that's going in the wrong direction.

      Jarndyce doesn't get talked about enough! Everyone focuses on Esther's half of that relationship.

      There's a fat book to be written about entertainers in Dickens novels, too. That would be a fun book.

    4. So many possibilities. Next time I will read Pickwick or something like that. Simple, restful Dickens.

  4. Amongst other things, I am fascinated by the name Dickens has given this place: Tom-All-Alone's. Once you read it, you realise that this had to be the name of this slum area - that no other name would do. But why is this? it's hardly the most obvious name. If I were to think of a name that would describe a godforsaken hell-hole, I'd have come up with something such as, say, Barebones Alley or something. OK - that's not very inventive: minds more inventive than min ewould have come up with something better. BuT I can't imagine anyone other than Dickens coming up with Tom All Alone's.

    What an imagination the man had!

  5. I agree with Scott, by the way, that Jarndyce doesn't get talked about. And I can't help thinking that, for all my love and admiration for this novel, Dickens rather short-changed us on Jarndyce.

    He is clearly a depressive: his frequent retirings to the Growlery clearly indicates as much. he is clearly a "good man" - but here, his goodness, while not useless as such, is nonetheless powerless to prevent tragedy.

    His proposal to Esther is accepted, as she is, quite correctly, grateful to him; and she also, I think, loves him, though not as a prospective husband. But he realises that he is too old for her, and withdraws his claim when he sees her in love with a younger man. In this, he resembles Hans Sachs in Wagner's "Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg". But where Wagner depicts powerfully the mental struggle Sachs has to go through to arrive at this decision, Dickens, if I remember correctly, gives us very little. I can't help thinking there's an important piece of the jigsaw missing here.

  6. A piece missing - if we think of Esther as someone who is trying to heal a past trauma (the loss or absence of her parents), then the logical question is what trauma Jarndyce is trying to heal. I do not believe Dickens gives much to work with, except what you describe. But something is there. A brilliant use of negative space by Dickens.

    Good question about that name. Even the link between Tom and the Jarndyce case is, well, odd. Perhaps here, with Tom Jarndyce, there is a clue about his relative John. Probably not.

  7. "the winner of the lawsuit wins this, a poisonous tenement."
    Poisonous and probably very profitable.
    The important thing about London slums- and Tom-All-Alone's is the archetypal slum- is that a lot of people paying low rents in neglected property paid better than a few people paying moderate rents in property that had to be looked after. See The Blackest Streets: The Life and Death of a Victorian Slum by Sarah Wise, about that area Arthur Morrison called the Jago.

  8. Very interesting. Wise tells a similar story, but 40, or 60, years later. (Guardian review of her book).

    1. Yes, I quoted Wise because her book was recently published, but the economics and sociology are probably similar and the old Nichol was there in Dickens's time. If I remember rightly, Tom-All-Alone's is further west- near Seven Dials or Covent Garden perhaps

    2. A map of Bleak House's London

      Never having been to London, this is of less use to me than it might be to others. I also can't vouch for the accuracy.

    3. I wonder what the evidence in the novel is for the location of Tom's. Its location is the only thing on that map that looks wrong to me, way way too far west, in the sunset shadow of Buckingham Palace! Roger's suggestions are much better - pretty much where I had vaguely put the place.

    4. You've got the wrong Russell Court, I think, Tom. Peter Biggins's map shows St Mary's in the Strand, just north of Somerset House, While the church is still there, the area around was demolished and the bodies in the graveyard moved in a road-widening scheme in the early twentieth century. The Russell Court which presumably was there wouldn't show on modern maps.
      There's no need to visit London, Scott; the "real" one is an imperfect and deteriorating copy of Dickens's version