Friday, 6 July 2007

Bleak House 1

The first instalment of Charles D's, Bleak House (published in March, 1852) is very clear on the matter of the weather - November weather - mud, as if the deluge had only just subsided, and the foulest of foul ‘London Particulars’ all compounded with a snow of soot from the countless chimneys of the greatest city on earth.

I am setting out on an Odyssey through this post-diluvian quagmire - I intend reading Bleak House, in monthly instalments, as originally published. What foible sets me off on this year-and-a-half journey I don't know - but the initial step has been taken.

That first magazine edition had four chapters (all the rest, until the last, will have three) and starts in the depressing urban early winter, in both a physical and metaphorical fog - the fog of endless court cases slowly rotting into bad jokes and madness – the unfunniest of them all is JARNDYCE AND JARNDYCE.

In the very heart of the city sits the Lord Chancellor presiding over the High Court of Chancery - described with typical Dickensian viciousness: No one is spared; no one deserves sparing. From the shorthand scribbling hacks, to the madwoman, from the droning lawyers (all those Chizzels and Mizzles, Tangles and Blowers) claiming their fees, to the Chancellor himself – in the midst of the mud, in the heart of the fog.

The High Court of Chancery is both black hole and expanding universe – it drags in the innocent and happy, their fortunes and properties; it throws out desolation and ruin, madness and suicide.

The scene changes, with a spark of light, from, ‘In Chancery’ to ‘In Fashion’ – but it is a false spark – it is only the hopeless, heat-less phosphorescent glow of long rotting wood.

Lady Dedlock is as fixed by the mud and flood as any – indeed, she is involved in Jarndyce and Jarndyce!

She is escaping the expanding waters cutting off her home in Lincolnshire – she is fleeing to Paris, and the fashionable are following – must follow, for Lady Dedlock, although only the wife of a Baronet, has conquered the world of fashion.

Or has the world of fashion – the creation of dressmakers, of maids and Mercury-like servants, of hairdressers and tradesmen – conquered her? Does Lady Dedlock but flap her wings in an impression of flight, as the butterfly caught in the spider’s web?

True to form, the law, in the shape of Mr Tulkinghorn, long standing family lawyer, invades Lady Dedlock’s morose boredom causing her a ripple of animation – forcing a faint.

Progress must be made – we move to a different world, comfortably middle class Windsor - and the narrator transforms from our ‘author’ to the character of Esther, orphan girl, better if she had never been born, raised by the resentful godmother (or is it aunt?) whose life she has mysteriously ruined and who dies on hearing Esther pronounce whilst reading from the bible, ‘He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.’

We are in full melodrama mode – with surging strings and sentiment, the little girl whose only allowed friend is a doll; a sense of bitter self-worthlessness forced onto the sweetness of temperament of a sugar saint.

Another lawyer, another type – portly and important looking, fond of the sound of his own voice – enters the story, and, under instructions from a Mr Jarndyce, places the girl in a school where, happy to serve others, she grows on.

Six happy years.

Then disruption – a letter, an official letter, a legal sounding abbreviation of a letter, giv’in’ sh’t notice – she is to move, she is to be forced to a new situation, she is to become a companion to a ‘Ward of Court’ – a ward of the High Court of Chancery, in the case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce.

A rushed coach journey to London, a meeting with a lawyer’s clerk, Esther’s first encounter with a London particular – straight before the Lord Chancellor, transformed in the privacy of his rooms to an almost father-like humanity, and a bonding with the Wards of Jarndyce – a bonding we already feel the power of as the narration of Esther cannot restrain itself from revealing the future strength of: ‘My love’.

Finally, having been allocated to the care of the unmarried Mr. Jarndyce, of Bleak House, Hertfordshire, Ada Clare, with her new found companion, Esther Summerson, and Ada Clare’s distant cousin, Richard Carstone are shuffled off to spend the night with a friend of the said Mr Jarndyce. Only a brief encounter with the court’s madwoman shadowing a rosy looking future.

A suitable place for Mr Dickens to rest – but, this being the first episode, a coda on charity, calling into question Mr Jarndyce’s judgement (and revealing either his gullibility or insensitivity), is found to be edifying.

What is philanthropy? How can it be telescopic?

Ask the neglected and abused children of Mrs Jellyby! Charitable Mrs Jellyby, philanthropist to the core, frantic letters dictator (to her poorly educated, ink stained daughter) in the cause of Africa. Her children swarm bee-like around the honey-sweet Esther who rocks the littlest to sleep with the love it never felt from its distant sighted mother.

Ask her nonentity of a husband who is helpless to do anything other than bang his head against the wall.

Ask Caddy, the ink stained daughter who curiously seeks the help of Esther by abusing and denouncing the casual visitor for seeing through the horrors of the charitable life her superficial mother tortures her family with.

I am hooked. A month to wait for the next episode?

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