Bleak House

May 21, 2014

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What the poor are to the poor is little known, excepting to themselves and God.”

So, true, except for the God part, of course.  I have begun to read Bleak House, a long-term project, and already I find it enthralling.  The story is wrapped around a lawsuit that has gone on for so long that nobody even seems to know what it is about anymore.  The lawyers don’t care of course:  they are busy making money off the legal costs to both sides.  Dickens was drawing upon his first-hand knowledge of the Chancery Court to attack, ridicule, and satirize the institution, which was, in fact, being reformed at about the time his book was written.

The beginning of the book has a dismal, eerie atmosphere that can’t help but make me think of Kafka’s The Trial (both are comic in a dark way) and Peake’s Gormenghast Trilogy.  I read the latter over thirty years ago, but what stays with me, and what brings it to mind, is the setting in a bizarre self-contained world populated by all sorts of strange creatures who thrive on the strange and stifling current order of things.

Dickens lays into quite a few things in this book, including do-gooders that cannot seem to do good for themselves or their own families.  The Jellybys and the Pardiggles, the women, that is, are philanthropists who most certainly do not think that charity begins at home.  Mrs. Jellyby is called the “telescopic philanthropist,” because her eyes are always on the plight of the distant Africans, while her children grow hungry, dirty, and wild.  The offspring of these women made me think of An American Tragedy, with its protagonist who endured street-corner missionary life as a tot, and Katy Perry, who was raised by evangelicals who would not allow her to listen to or watch…just about anything other kids were watching and listening to. (She’s certainly done all right.)

Here’s a snip about one tortured tot who is referred to as the Bond of Joy on account of some group he’s been impressed into.  Clearly, spiritual discipline is having unintended side-effects:

And the Bond of Joy, who on account of always having the whole of his little income anticipated stood in fact pledged to abstain from cakes as well as tobacco, so swelled with grief and rage when we passed a pastry-cook’s shop that he terrified me by becoming purple. I never underwent so much, both in body and mind, in the course of a walk with young people as from these unnaturally constrained children when they paid me the compliment of being natural.

This passage in which Esther is dragged with Mrs. Pardiggle on an uninvited and unwanted visit to a family in distress is choice:

Mrs. Pardiggle, leading the way with a great show of moral determination and talking with much volubility about the untidy habits of the people (though I doubted if the best of us could have been tidy in such a place), conducted us into a cottage at the farthest corner, the ground-floor room of which we nearly filled. Besides ourselves, there were in this damp, offensive room a woman with a black eye, nursing a poor little gasping baby by the fire; a man, all stained with clay and mud and looking very dissipated, lying at full length on the ground, smoking a pipe; a powerful young man fastening a collar on a dog; and a bold girl doing some kind of washing in very dirty water. They all looked up at us as we came in, and the woman seemed to turn her face towards the fire as if to hide her bruised eye; nobody gave us any welcome.

“Well, my friends,” said Mrs. Pardiggle, but her voice had not a friendly sound, I thought; it was much too business-like and systematic. “How do you do, all of you? I am here again. I told you, you couldn’t tire me, you know. I am fond of hard work, and am true to my word.”

“There an’t,” growled the man on the floor, whose head rested on his hand as he stared at us, “any more on you to come in, is there?”

“No, my friend,” said Mrs. Pardiggle, seating herself on one stool and knocking down another. “We are all here.”

“Because I thought there warn’t enough of you, perhaps?” said the man, with his pipe between his lips as he looked round upon us.

The young man and the girl both laughed. Two friends of the young man, whom we had attracted to the doorway and who stood there with their hands in their pockets, echoed the laugh noisily.

“You can’t tire me, good people,” said Mrs. Pardiggle to these latter. “I enjoy hard work, and the harder you make mine, the better I like it.”

“Then make it easy for her!” growled the man upon the floor. “I wants it done, and over. I wants a end of these liberties took with my place. I wants an end of being drawed like a badger. Now you’re a-going to poll-pry and question according to custom—I know what you’re a-going to be up to. Well! You haven’t got no occasion to be up to it. I’ll save you the trouble. Is my daughter a-washin? Yes, she IS a-washin. Look at the water. Smell it! That’s wot we drinks. How do you like it, and what do you think of gin instead! An’t my place dirty? Yes, it is dirty—it’s nat’rally dirty, and it’s nat’rally onwholesome; and we’ve had five dirty and onwholesome children, as is all dead infants, and so much the better for them, and for us besides. Have I read the little book wot you left? No, I an’t read the little book wot you left. There an’t nobody here as knows how to read it; and if there wos, it wouldn’t be suitable to me. It’s a book fit for a babby, and I’m not a babby. If you was to leave me a doll, I shouldn’t nuss it. How have I been conducting of myself? Why, I’ve been drunk for three days; and I’da been drunk four if I’da had the money. Don’t I never mean for to go to church? No, I don’t never mean for to go to church. I shouldn’t be expected there, if I did; the beadle’s too gen-teel for me. And how did my wife get that black eye? Why, I give it her; and if she says I didn’t, she’s a lie!”

The poor are right in front of Mrs. P’s face, but she cannot know them, and doesn’t want to, really.

At the conclusion of this scene, Esther sees that the sick baby being held by an exhausted women in the room has died, and she is distraught.  The mother collapses in exhaustion while her worn out friend guards the door so she can sleep, as she has not had the chance for several days.

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