Author: Charles Dickens
First published: 1852-53, by Bradbury and Evans
WARNING: Plot spoiler
Bleak House is Dickens’s great indictment on the Victorian legal system, but also his critique of a world that refuses to endorse love in anything but its most conventional and socially-acceptable forms. As in all of Dickens’s novels, there are many stories within Bleak House, but my favorite is the harrowing story of Lady Dedlock and her daughter Esther Summerson. Running alongside the ancient and irresolvable case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, the Dedlock/Esther Summerson plot is the story at the very center of the book—the story that gives the stagnant world of Bleak House not only its momentum, but an emotional force unparalleled in Dickens.
Lady Dedlock and Esther are dead to each other in the sense that neither one knows about the others’ true identity. Lady Dedlock (formerly not a lady at all, but the aptly named Honoria Barbary), believes her child to have died at birth, and Esther, ushered away to hide her mother’s disgrace (Lady Dedlock was not married when she had Esther), is never told what happened to her mother. (“I had never worn a black frock, that I could recollect. I had never been shown my mama’s grave.”) They go through life apart, unaware of each others’ existences, longing for each other all the while and suppressing their longing as the culture demands. (Esther grows up haunted by the bitter castigations of her godmother/aunt: “Your mother, Esther, is your disgrace, and you were hers.”)
One of my favorite scenes not just in Bleak House but in all of Dickens, is the reunion scene between Esther and Lady Dedlock. It is so riveting for the momentary joy Esther experiences and the calamity that shatters the moment, rendering the joy immediately tragic. Discovering who her mother is at last, Esther briefly peeks through an open window into her past; but the window slams shut in an instant when Lady Dedlock, the condemned prisoner of a stratified world, announces that she and Esther can never speak to each other again.
“My child, my child!” she said. “For the last time! These kisses for the last time! These arms upon my neck for the last time! We shall meet no more. To hope to do what I seek to do, I must be what I have been so long. Such is my reward and doom. If you hear of Lady Dedlock, brilliant, prosperous, and flattered; think of your wretched mother, conscience-stricken, underneath that mask! Think that the reality is in her suffering, in her useless remorse, in her murdering within her breast the only love and truth of which it is capable! And then forgive her, if you can; and cry to Heaven to forgive her, which it never can!”
Esther’s and Lady Dedlock’s story is a story of repeated deaths and births. Esther is born, but “dies” in childbirth, and the mother “dies” along with her. Esther is haunted by this dead mother throughout her life, until the dead mother comes back to life, only to “murder” herself and her daughter again. They continue apart, dead to each other once more, until their final reunion in chapter 59 of the novel, when Esther discovers Lady Dedlock’s disguised body at the gates of the poor man’s graveyard: “. . . it was my mother, cold and dead.”
The BBC’s 2005 production of Bleak House, starring Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock, is one of my favorite literary adaptations of all time. Though the writers did alter many parts of the book (including, sadly, the excision of the greatest chase scene in all of English literature—Bucket’s pursuit of Lady Dedlock through the night), the attention to the mood, lighting, and themes of Dickens’s original could not be more faithful.