The Birds of Bleak House

Victorian Woman Reading - Lady Clementina Hawarden

Dickens is a tricky author for me – much like Austen, I think he’ll prove to be an acquired taste.  In Bleak House, I thought I’d finally developed an appetite for him: secret identities, London fog and a smattering of Victorian sentimentality; what’s not to love?

Well…

Now, the first thing I’ll note is that the book is a sprawling and complicated affair, teasingly written.  Reading it is like looking extremely closely at a spiderweb and only understanding the shape of the web as you move further away.  I will admit that this is probably a deliberate artifice used by Dickens, as the form of the novel mimics the convoluted Chancery case that is the core of the narrative, and whilst I can acknowledge that this is very clever, it doesn’t justify what became a bit of a dull book.  In fairness, it was very engaging for the first three hundred or so pages, but the middle portion of the book lagged desperately (especially when all the revelations of plot were either dully predictable or apathetically revealed – with one, fiery exception.  Shan’t spoil it for you) and the conclusion of the book felt just as slow, since is was dragging the deadweight of the middle behind it.  Overall, Bleak House gives me hope that somewhere out there is a Dickens book that will set my mind alight and awaken a Dickensian passion in me.  I just haven’t found it yet.

Victorian Father and Daughter

However!  All of this is not to say that there weren’t aspects of the book that weren’t engaging – there really were.  I especially found the flaws of parental figures particularly interesting, and goodness isn’t there a catalogue of them!  From Mrs Jellyby, who neglects her own children in her fervour to become a white saviour of Africa, to Mr Skimpole, the perennial child who uses his artificial naïveté to manipulate those around him (and ruin the prospects of his own daughters).  Yet, these aren’t, to me, the most sinister parental figures.  For me, Mr Jarndyce is the darkest paternal figure.  Now, he isn’t genetically the parent of any of the characters, but he is the guardian of young Richard, Ada and Esther.  After Esther’s face is scarred (and after she quietly abandons hope of marrying the young man she loves), Jarndyce proposes to her.  Nabokov argues that, given Jarndyce’s protestations that nothing in his behaviour will change as a result of matrimony, he is paternally attempting to ‘protect Esther from the cruel world, and will remain her friend and not become her lover.’  This is possible, but I would argue that since the keys of Bleak House were handed to Esther the very evening she stepped across its threshold, perhaps Jarndyce has been grooming her to be his wife since he became her guardian.  Esther, throughout the text, has viewed him as a father figure, and Jarndyce’s encroachment on her affections – and Esther’s acceptance of them being based primarily on gratitude – reveals that their love isn’t equal, and that Jarndyce is willing to sacrifice Esther’s future happiness (love, sex, and a family) for dubious comfort and hollow safety.  Esther, speaking to her reflection as she weeps, tells herself  “When you are mistress of Bleak House, you are to be as cheerful as a bird.”  This, to me, echoes another unhealthy father/daughter relationship: King Lear and Cordelia.  At the end of the play, all their hopes in ruins, Cordelia tries to find a way to rectify their situation, but Lear says instead: ‘No, no, no, no! Come, let’s away to prison. |  We two alone will sing like birds i’ th’ cage.’  Here, Lear’s desire from the beginning of the play is sinisterly realised: he will be the sole occupant of his daughter’s world.  Jarndyce is committing a similar cruelty as Lear in his proposal to Esther, as making her mistress of Bleak House will remove her from the world and make him the sole occupant of her heart; and this is a cruelty which is repeated in the hints that he will marry the widowed Ada in the end, once Esther is reunited with her young lover.

Feed the Birds

There are some wonderful parallels drawn in the book, which centre of the motif of caged birds.  We’ve seen how Esther herself is a bird that just narrowly escapes the cage of Bleak House, but there are others in the text – and they predominantly centre around Miss Flite (note Dickens’ pun on the name.  Flite/flight – geddit?).  I loved Miss Flite, I could have read an entire book about her.  She’s a tiny little madwoman whose mind has slowly been eroded by the Jarndyce & Jarndyce chancery suit – she seemed to stand to inherit something on what she termed The Day of Judgement.  Bless her mad little mind.  However, she keeps a coterie of caged birds in her rooms which she has named Hope, Joy, Youth, Peace, Rest, Life, Dust, Ashes, Waste, Want, Ruin, Despair, Madness, Death, Cunning, Folly, Words, Wigs, Rags, Sheepskin, Plunder, Precedent, Jargon, Gammon, and Spinach.  Whilst some (like darling Spinach) are perhaps only an indicator of eccentricity, others (Peace, Rest, Life) are attributes that have been lost while she’s waited for Jarndyce & Jarndyce to conclude, and others (Want, Despair, Madness) are arguably all that she has gained.  She adds two birds, which she names the Wards of Jarndyce after Richard and Ada.  Richard is a direct mirror of Miss Flite, as he is drawn irrevocably into the labyrinthine bureaucracy of the suit until his health is ruined, and he dies shortly after the case is, fruitlessly, closed.  Miss Flite weeps as she tells Esther that she has released all her caged birds at last.

There’s so much I’d like to discuss, but I think I’m taxing the patience of a blog reader with anything longer.  All I’ll say is – I find the temporal origami Dickens folds his narrative into fascinating!  His first paragraph has a reference to a dinosaur strolling the streets of London; Skimpole is, supposedly, a grown up who amounts to nothing more than a precocious child, yet Charley is a child who has been forced to behave like a grown up.  No timeline is straightforward, it’s wonderfully done.

Nabokov

If you want to read Bleak House again, Nabokov recommends you keep the following in mind:

  • The misery of children
  • Chancery, fog, and madness
  • Characters given a single attribute which follows them throughout their appearances
  • Inanimate objects which seem to participate in the plot (example: Lady Dedlock’s portrait)
  • The unimportance of sociological aspects (I disagree with him, here!)
  • The whodunit plot of the second half
  • Duality – good characters are mirrored by bad characters, amongst other dyads.

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Coming up next on the blog: Madame Bovary!  See you in two weeks.

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