Wednesday, December 10, 2014

I have a great deal of difficulty in beginning to write my portion of these pages - let's try to figure out what the narrator of Bleak House is doing

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 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 not 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 is 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 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.


  1. Not getting anywhere would seem very appropriate when writing about Bleak House.

  2. Exactly - I fear I will just recreate the structure of the novel. I don't want to do that!

    I added a link to Pykk that I forgot. He has been writing a bit about characters and will.

    1. Little Dorrit could probably sneak into that list too. Submission is the mode of expression she likes, and no money or cruelty or hardship is going to pry her away. She'll even manipulate other people into dominating her. "I want you to burn something for me [...] If you will put it in the fire with your own hand, just as it is, my fancy will be gratified." Then her eyes shine in the fire. (Is Miss Havisham the unsuccessful version of that same tendency?)

    2. Little Dorrit, definitely; Miss Havisham - plausible. Likely. Dickens is always revising his old characters.

      That may have been the moment when the character of Little Dorrit came together for me, when she goes to Italy and no longer has to suffer, and is nearly destroyed by the absence of hardship.

  3. I think what's really interesting about Esther's introduction is that she clearly knows that she is only writing part of the story, that she is somehow aware of the other half of the book, of the omniscient narrator, as if Dickens has called upon Esther and invited her to write her version of the events. Her self-conscious awareness of the larger project would go a long way toward explaining the commonly-complained of "flatness" of her sections, because she'd be too modest to compete as a writer with Mr Charles Dickens.

    Of course, probably what really happened was that Dickens thought it would be interesting to split the narrative between a witty and cutting omniscient voice, and the voice of a good, modest woman. A sudden flash of insight, and there's the big formal device come into his mind. "Yes," he says. "That could be fun." And you know how much he liked powerful contrasts; it's very similar in spirit at least to all of the light/shadow themes throughout the book.

  4. Imagine Esther's surprise when she reads the other half!

    Yes, the big contrast is the main idea, although technically it solves all sorts of problems. David Copperfield is entirely first person, which means Copperfield always has to be in the right place, so there is lots of fuss just to move Copperfield around the map. Esther moves around plenty, but she's relaxed compared to Copperfield.

    Esther is quite cutting, too, just quieter or more sly about it. Boy I hope I get to that today, some good Summerson shivs.

    1. Esther versus Skimpole is good stuff, certainly. She fights to restrain her pen.

    2. Yeah, that's the kind of example I'm going to use. And given that she has 460 pages to work with, she doesn't fight that hard. By the end of the novel, he is a villain, all from her telling of the story.

  5. I have come to think of this tradition of passive heroines as tortoises, based on Anita Brookner's point that most literature is written from the perspective of the tortoise rather than the hare ... they give us vicarious gratification when they triumph. In Esther's case that's a bit complicated, of course, by just the (possible) trickiness you hint at.

  6. Tortoise is good. These women have strong shells. A longer Brookner quote, from Hotel du Lac:

    "'People love (that story), especially women. Now you will notice, Harold, that in my books it is the mouse-like unassuming girl who gets the hero, while the scornful temptress with whom he has had a stormy affair retreats baffled from the fray, never to return. The tortoise wins every time. This is a lie, of course. . . . In real life, of course, it is the hare who wins. Every time. Look around you. And in any case it is my contention that Aesop was writing for the tortoise market. Axiomatically. . . . Hares have no time to read. They are too busy winning the game. The propaganda goes all the other way, but only because it is the tortoise who is in need of consolation. Like the meek who are going to inherit the earth.'''

    Ellipses and substitutions courtesy of Anne Tyler.

    That is terrific. Funny and ironic.

  7. Late to the party as ever, I am only now catching up on your posts on Bleak House...

    I'm not sure that all the heroines you characterise as passive are indeed quite so passive. Clarissa resists the pressure and bullying that would have floored a weakling such as myself within days. I suppose you could say this was "passive" resistance, but given that she is hardly in a position to put up active resistance, it'll have to do. And it is indicative of a greater strength of character than the adjective "passive" implies. There's something of Clarissa in Fanny Price as well.

    Esther, however, does appear not quite as mentally strong as Clarissa, but even she has teh strength to order Guppy not to proceed further in his investigations; and, interestingly, she does not even tell her guardian Mr Jarndyce about Lady Dedlock's secret. So not entirely passive, after all.

    Her narrative counterpoints the third person narrative so well that it's hard to imagine she wasn't aware of it. But in this counterpoint, an irony does develop of which Esther does not seem aware: she is forever congratulating hereself on bringing order into her immediate world; whereas the other narrative voice shows us insistently a wider world in which order cannot be imposed. What i find particularly interesting are those areas of the narrative where the two narrative voices share the same material. There is little anywhere so ominous as the moment in which Richard Carstone, having disappeared from Esther's narrative, appears in the other one.

  8. No one is as mentally strong as Clarissa.

    On the rest, yes, I agree.

    That little movement with Richard is outstanding.

  9. "Radically passive," is the paradox I come up with when I think about a Dorrit or a Clarissa, characters who are stubbornly attached to yielding. They want some Elizabethan description, "O heavy lightness, serious vanity, | Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms," "magnanimous despair," something along those lines.

  10. Esther is at least a special case. She seem less active than she really is because is so modest, more self-effacing than passive, although not radically so. Maybe rather that she adopts a persona like that of Clarissa or Fanny Price.