Monday, June 4, 2007

Book Review: Bleak House - Charles Dickens - Scenes of Purpose and Drama - Summer Reading Challenge - Dickens' Bleak House cont'd

What a dramatist Dickens is. I just read two terrific chapters in Bleak House that I wanted to post on briefly.

Dickens creates a marvelous scene between a husband and wife - Sir Leicester and Lady Dedlock, who are bastions of feudalism, and a character called the Ironmaster. He is the son of their long-time housekeeper, a "working man." His son wishes to marry Lady Dedlock's new and very beautiful ladies maid. Right before the Ironmaster enters, Sir Leicester and their houseguest Miss Volumnia - an upperclass woman by birth, but actually a pauper who moves perpetually from the homes of one rich friend and relation to another - discuss the regretable dissolution of clear class distinctions:

"And it is a remarkable example of the confusion into which the present age has fallen; of the obliteration of landmarks, the opening of floodgates, and the uprooting of distinctions," says Sir Leicester with stately gloom; "that I have been informed by Mr. Tulkinghorn that Mrs. Rouncewell's son has been invted to go into Parliament."

Miss Volumnia utters a little sharp scream.

"Yes, indeed," repeats Sir. Leicester. "Into Parliament."

"I never heard of such a thing! Good gracious, what is the man?" exclaims Volumnia.

"He is called, I believe - an - Ironmaster." Sir Leicester says it slowly, and with gravity and doubt, as not being sure but that he is called a Lead-mistress; or that the right word may be some other word expressive of some other relationship to some other metal.

Volumnia utters another little scream.

Is this not pitch perfect? If I were adapting this for the stage, I wouldn't change a thing. The scene PLAYS. I see these characters, I hear their inflections. You know Sir Leicester knows that the man is called an Ironmaster; that his uncertainty is pretense. Sir Leicester is established from earlier chapters as the descendant of a great 'line.' He has inherited everything - his wealth, his land, his gout - he is outraged yet still can laugh at the little chink he sees in the wall of his privledge, but Volumnia is even more desperate to hold up the institution of class than Sir Leicester is, for without it, she has nothing at all.

Mr. Rouncewell, the Ironmaster - a man of 50, enters. He apologizes with ease and without embarrassment for intruding:

"In these busy times, when so many great undertaking are in progress, people like myself have so many workmen in so many places, that we are always on the flight"

Sir Leicester is content enough that the ironmaster should feel that there is no hurry there; there, in that ancient house, rooted in that quiet park, where the ivy and the moss have had time to mature, and the gnarled and warted elm, and the umbrageous oaks stand deep in the fern and leaves of a hundred years; and where the sun-dial on the terrace has dumbly recorded for centuries that Time, which was as much the property of every Dedlock - while he lasted - as the house and lands. Sir Leicester sits down in an easy chair, opposing his repose and that of Cheney Wold to the restless flights of ironmasters.

The Ironmaster explains of his son's love for their maid, Rosa and that, if he marries her, she would not be able to remain in their employment.

"Am I to understand, Mr. Rouncewell, and is my Lady to understand, sir, that you consider this young woman too good for Chesney Wold, or likely to be injured by remaining here?"

"Certainly not, Sir Leicester."

"I am glad to hear it." Sir Leicester very lofty indeed.

We have three daughters, besides this son of whom I have spoken; and being fortunately able to give them greater advantages than we had ourselves, we have educated them well; very well. It has been one of our great careas and pleasures to make them worthy of any station."

It makes me think that in the 1910s Virginia Woolf was still not able to attend Cambridge, but in the 1850s Dickens was writing of education of the English working class as preparing them to be "worthy of any station!!" I know that university is not what he's talking about - but wasn't this must a surprising notion in the 1850s?

And yet, Mr. Rouncewell too has pride of his station:

"All this is so frequent, Lady Dedlock, where I live, and among the class to which I belong, that what would be generally called unequal marriages are not of such rare occurrence with us as elsewhere. A son will sometimes make it known to his father that he has fallen in love, say with a young woman in the factory. The father, who once worked in a factory himself, will be a little disappointed at first, very possibly. It may be that he had other views for his son, 'I must be quite sure that you are in earnest here. This is a serious matter for both of you. Therefore, I shall have this girl educated for two years' ....

If at the expiration of that time, when she has so far profited by her advantages as that you may be upon a fair equality, you are both in the same mind, I will do my part to make you happy." I know of several cases such as I describe, my Lady, and I think they indicate to me my own course now."

Sir Leicester's magnificence explodes. Calmly, but terribly.

"Mr. Rouncewell," says Sir Leicester, with his right hand in the breast of his blue coat - the attitude of state in which he is painted in the gallery: "do you draw a parallel between Chesney Wold, and a - " here he resists a disposition to choke - "a factory.?"

'I need not reply, Sir Leicester, that the two places are very different; but for the purposes of this case, I think a parallel may be justly drawn between them."

Sir Leicester directs his majestic glance down one side of the long drawing-room, and up the other, before he can believe that he is awake."

"Are you aware, sir, that this young woman whom my Lady - my Lady - has placed near her person, was brought up at the village school outside the gates?"

"Sir Leicester, I am quite aware of it. A very good school it is, and handsomely supported by this family."

"Then, Mr. Rouncewell," returns Sir Leicester, "the application of what you have said is, to me, incomprehensible."

"Will it be more comprehensible, Sir Leicester, if I say," the ironmaster is reddening a little, "that I do not regard the village school as teaching everything desirable to be known by my son's wife."
This is such marvelous scene writing because it presents serious content - a battle between representative of two distinct classes. Dickens is chipping away at an important institution. It makes me continually wonder what will be said next. And it's really hilarious!

I also read another chapter that reveals some important details about one of the central mysteries of the plot, so I won't reveal anything, except to say that I really held my breath through the whole chapter. It was very suspenseful.

And now, back to reading


Anonymous said...

Hey Ted - turns out that Orwell essay on Dickens is online. I don't know how you feel about reading such things online (I myself have trouble with it) ... but here it is anyway:

Ted said...

Thanks, Sheila! I tend to like paper but I'll try.