Friday, December 12, 2014

Lastly, it was no one, and I was no one. - Esther Summerson's prose

My impression is that Esther Summerson becomes a better, more confident writer as she writes her book, which is only reasonable, so reasonable that I have doubts whether it is true.  She does not just silently notice things, but sometimes, even early on, she writes something like

watching the frosty trees, that were like beautiful pieces of spar, and the fields all smooth and white with last night's snow, and the sun, so red but yielding so little heat, and the ice, dark like metal where the skaters and sliders had brushed the snow away (Ch. 3, her first)

None of which is remotely necessary to tell her story.  Young Esther is riding in a coach to her new boarding school, accompanied by a mysterious figure who we later know – and of course Esther, writing over ten years later – knows is her patron and guardian.  So no need for sun of any color or ice like anything, much less those trees.

The omniscient “Dickens” narrator writes stuff like that all the time, on some pages in every sentence, inventive beyond comprehension.  Summerson  is less inventive, relies more on dialogue, and has a more limited vocabulary, writing at a lower reading level.

But she seems to improve.  Thus the description of the ships in Chapter 45, “when the sun shone through the clouds, making silvery pools in the dark sea, the way in which these ships brightened, and shadowed, and changed,” a passage Nabokov picks out as especially good, or the fine variation on the pathetic fallacy in Chapter 51 when, her friend at a low point, describes London as not just rainy, colorless, and smoky, but insists that “there were more funerals passing along the dismal pavements, than I had ever seen before.”

She is at her peak in Chapter 57, at the novel’s climax, or one climax, the only time a chapter of hers stands alone.  

It had set in snowing at daybreak, and it now snowed hard.  The air was so thick with the darkness of the day and the density of the fall that we could see but a very little way in any direction.  Although it was extremely cold, the snow was but partially frozen, and it churned – with a sound as if it were a beach of small shells – under the hoofs of the horses into mire and water.

Or a few pages later:

We were again upon the melancholy road by which we had come, tearing up the miry sleet and thawing snow as if they were torn up by a waterwheel.

Summerson is again in a carriage in the snow.  Now I understand the incidental detail over 700 pages earlier.  The narrator is linking, perhaps unconsciously, these two journeys, the most significant of her life.

I am at the point in the novel when the two halves finally join, when the detective character from the omniscient half figures out Esther’s role in the plot.  Esther always, with one ingenious exception,* narrates events she personally witnesses, while until this point the omniscient narrator only hints at her existence.  In another  kind of novel, this would be “suspicious,” as Scott Bailey says.  Maybe Esther does not exist (which in some sense is true).  Maybe Esther is the omniscient narrator.  Early on, she actually hints that she might be so (Esther is seated; a child is sleeping on her):

I began to lose the identity of the sleeper resting on me. Now it was Ada, now one of my old Reading friends from whom I could not believe I had so recently parted.  Now it was the little mad woman worn out with curtsying and smiling, now some one in authority at Bleak House.  Lastly, it was no one, and I was no one.  (Ch. 4)

Another passage that looks stranger the more I look at it.  “I was no one” of course proves to be a reference to – well, for twenty part 880 page serial novels, this is a tightly written book.

*  Chapter 51, and the ingenious bit is that in retrospect we know who Summerson’s source is.


  1. "I was no one" The image in that paragraph is that of the nurturer and protector, and possibly the guide--the Earth Mother?

  2. These posts have started me thinking about inheritors of Dickens and I keep thinking that there are interesting parallels in the work of William Gaddis that might be worth exploring, if only I can make more time to read. I'm thinking of the language, 'inventive beyond comprehension', the outrage, the concern with children, the exposing of frauds, great opening lines, and of course, long satires on the legal system.

  3. Okay, setting aside all squabbles or misunderstandings or miscommunications, I guess you have convinced me that I need to reread BH in order to understand more completely your perspective. Now, how was that for being neither opinionated nor argumentative? (Note: I am smiling as I jot down these words, so please do not think I am being anything but good natured -- i.e., not snarky, not snotty, not cynical, not curmudgeonly . . . all the attitudes I have over time accidentally embraced.)

    But here is a closing question -- just for good-natured argument's sake: Is BH the best Dickens book (as claims Harold Bloom and many others), or would you nominate another (e.g., Dickens claimed that David Copperfield was his best, and I have a fondness for Great Expectations)?

  4. The "no one" conclusion introduces so many curious possibilities, most of which are not actually pursued in Bleak House - how could they be? But they become available to the imaginative reader.

    Gaddis is essentially Dickensian. No question. Although I have not read his novel that is actually about a lawsuit.

    I would call Bleak House the best book, on my usual grounds of aesthetic complexity and spine-shivering, but there are lots of good candidates. His greatest creation at this point seems to be Scrooge, for example. Little Dorrit and Our Mutual Friend are of comparable complexity. Great Expectations and David Copperfield cannot have the great rhetorical excesses that Dickens does so well, but have their own more psychological strengths, as do all of Dickens' novels, including Barnaby Rudge, easily the worst of the bunch, but once the Gordon Riots start up, wow.