What Are the 39 Steps? The Book Holds the Key …
This detective novel introduces readers to a British mining engineer – Richard Hannay – who has just returned to London
Tea, Tonic and Toxin is a book club and podcast for anyone who loves amazing mysteries and detective stories. Next up: Bleak House.
In Bleak House, Charles Dickens’s tenacious criminal investigator, Inspector Bucket, is a London police detective who investigates a murder. Inspector Bucket and Poe’s amateur detective Auguste Dupin were the first professional criminal investigators in English literature.
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Bleak House opens with an indictment of the legal system, most especially the Court of Chancery. After setting the scene with mud and fog, the narrator uses similar words to describe a legal mire “tripping one another up on slippery precedents, groping knee deep in technicalities …” Have you ever been tripped up by legal difficulties? Do you think at its heart the intricacy of legal proceedings have a nobility, or do they just serve the system?
2. The book’s third-person narrator tells us that any honest practitioner would ward off anyone who wants to be party to the Jarndyce and Jarndyce lawsuit (or any lawsuit), saying, “Suffer any wrong that can be done you, rather than come here!” When in your life has the cure been worse than the disease?
3. Let’s talk about Sir Leicester. The narrator in Bleak House says he’s “an honorable, obstinate, truthful, high-spirited, intensely prejudiced, perfectly unreasonable man.” Can we with such facility spell out our own good and bad traits? Can we even identify the good and bad traits of others? Or do we perhaps ignore either the good or the bad depending on if we see someone as a friend or an enemy?
4. Let’s talk third-person narration vs. first-person narration (Esther Summerson). At the end of Chapter 30, Esther tells us she’s praised wherever she goes. Wherever she is, “there was sunshine and summer air.” Do we believe her? Is she too good to be true? If she really is as good as she seems, then perhaps the real question is this: How does Dickens create a narrator so loving, delightful, and pure – and trusted? And in what ways is Esther different from the third-person narrator? Do we also trust him?
5. Dickens can be very funny. What’s especially enjoyable is the Victorian politeness his characters use to avoid giving offense. For example, Mrs. Jellyby spends all her time trying to help people in Borrioboola-Gha (the name Dickens gave to the first British settlement in what’s now Nigeria) and neglects her family. When Mr. Jarndyce asks Esther’s opinion of Mrs. Jellyby, Esther says, “She exerts herself very much for Africa, sir.” What conversational techniques do you use when you don’t want to share too honest an opinion?
6. Who are the philanthropists in Bleak House really helping? Do Mrs. Jellyby and Mrs. Pardiggle really care about the poor? Are these “telescopic” philanthropists ignoring those closest to them and causing misery in their own families?
Esther tells Mr. Jarndyce, “[It] is right to begin with the obligations of home, sir; and that, perhaps, while those are overlooked and neglected, no other duties can possibly be substituted for them.” Do you agree? How do you balance putting your own life in order versus trying to better the lives of those in your community or the world at large? Does charity begin at home?
7. Let’s talk about social class. In London, unsanitary slums breed disease and misery. Poor people can’t read or write. As Jo might say, they know “nothink.” Most babies don’t survive infancy. Characters seem disdainful of Jo. Mrs. Pardiggle lectures the brickmaker on religion and morality while his wife holds her dead baby. At the same time, the idle rich live in mansions and are bored all day. How did you feel while reading about such disparity?
8. We have to talk about dear Harold Skimpole. He’s an unprincipled, irresponsible man who acts like a child and expects others to take care of him. He calls himself a “child” and claims to have no idea about time or money. He borrows money liberally with no thought of repaying it. When Jo is sick, Harold Skimpole suggests that Mr. Jarndyce let Jo fend for himself. Why doesn’t Mr. Jarndyce seem to see through Harold Skimpole? Did you see through him?
9. “This, you must know, is the Growlery,” John Jarndyce says. “When I am out of humor, I come and growl here.” Who wants a growlery? (We do!) Where do you go and what do you do when you’re out of humor?
10. Many of the mysteries in Bleak House center on questions of identity. Who is Esther Summerson? Who is her mother? Who is Nemo? Who is Harold Skimpole? Who is Richard? But the questions go beyond factual identity to the characters’ self-perceptions. For example, Harold Skimpole seems to be a lighthearted, childlike being with no concept of money, but who is he really?
11. Where is Bleak House going? What’s the mystery? The first death happens early on when Esther’s cruel godmother dies – ironically during a scripture reading on forgiveness. Later, Nemo (meaning no one) dies mysteriously, seemingly of an opium overdose right before the lawyer Tulkinghorn visits him. Is the primary mystery of the book Esther’s origin story? Where did your brain take you in this first half of the book? What do YOU see as the mystery?
12. Finally, let’s talk about Mr. Bucket. He’s introduced as “a person with a hat and stick in his hand who was not there when he himself came in and has not since entered by the door or by either of the windows. There is a press in the room, but its hinges have not creaked, nor has a step been audible upon the floor. Yet this third person stands there with his attentive face, and his hat and stick in his hands, and his hands behind him, a composed and quiet listener. He is a stoutly built, steady-looking, sharp-eyed man in black, of about the middle-age. [There] is nothing remarkable about him at first sight but his ghostly manner of appearing.”
Mr. Bucket is a detective officer who has a poker face, who “notices things in general,” and who seems to “possess an unlimited number of eyes.” He even seems to play Jedi mind tricks on people. Many consider him the first detective officer in modern fiction. What did you think of him?
1. Birthright: In Chapter 35 of Bleak House, Esther says it’s “not the custom in England to confer titles on men unless they consisted of the accumulation of some very large amount of money.” Miss Flite thinks Allan Woodcourt should receive a title for saving people after his boat is shipwrecked. Esther agrees he deserves it but says he won’t get it.
So let’s talk about privilege and birthright. “Privilege” might be defined as an advantage in life not enjoyed by all. “Birthright” might be defined as one’s rights from birth onward due to one’s inheritance—rights essentially conferred through an accident of birth. Bleak House is in many ways a story about birthrights. What are Jo’s, Charley’s, and Esther’s birthrights? What are the birthrights of Ada and Richard? What’s YOURS?
2. The Many Forms of Neglect and Charity. Mrs. Jellyby neglects her family while she corresponds about far-off Africa. Mrs. Pardiggle brings her family with her everywhere and takes their money to support her efforts closer to home, going about lecturing the poor. Mr. Skimpole’s object of charity is himself. He neglects his family while thinking everyone should support his being “free.” Mr. Turveydrop considers his deportment a gift to family and society. He’s an object of charity, as he contributes nothing, working his wife and son into illness so he can live in the way he pleases. Sir Leicester Dedlock considers hiring Rosa as Lady Dedlock’s servant to be a form of charity and patronage, as does Rosa herself. Yet Mr. Rouncewell finds this patronage insufficient for the wife of his son, and he proposes that she be sent to Europe to finish her education. Thoughts?
3. Mrs. Bagnet is “that rare sort of old girl that she receives Good to her arms without a hint that it might be Better; and catches light from any little spot of darkness near her.” Do you know people like Mrs. Bagnet? Are you yourself like Mrs. Bagnet?
4. Parenting: Esther recuperates from smallpox at Lawrence Boythorn’s cottage at Chesney Wold. One day while out walking, Esther and Lady Dedlock meet for the first time after Lady Dedlock learns Esther is her daughter. Esther writes, “I was rendered motionless by a something in her face that I had pined for and dreamed of when I was a little child.” Esther sees the love she had longed for so desperately as a child.
Mothers play an important role in Bleak House – mothers who neglect their children (Mrs. Jellyby and Mrs. Pardiggle). Mothers who care for their children (Mrs. Bagnet and Mrs. Rouncewell). Mothers who don’t know they have children (Lady Dedlock). Mother figures who torment their children (Mrs. Barbary).
How do love, the absence of love, good parenting, and bad parenting affect children? For example, Esther was denied love as a child. How has that affected her? How has being parentless and unloved affected Esther and Jo? Why doesn’t Mr. Woodcourt adopt his mother’s pretensions? How do Mr. Turveydrop and Mr. Skimpole draw their children into their delusions? And why do Mrs. Jellyby’s and Mrs. Pardiggle’s rebel?
5. Harold Skimpole: He was paid to tell Inspector Bucket where to find Jo. Esther considers this “treacherous” and “passing the usual bounds of his childish innocence.” Bucket tells Esther that people who say they know nothing of money are only after yours, and people who say, “in worldly matters I’m a child,” are just trying to avoid being held responsible. Why do Inspector Bucket and Esther see what others can’t?
6. The Professional Detective: Mr. Bucket is a professional detective who investigates a series of mysterious events. He’s stealthy, observant, polite, and compassionate. He’s discretion itself and accustomed to the most delicate of missions. He appears out of nowhere, moves deceptively through the streets, and sees what others can’t.
In Chapter 49 of Bleak House, Inspector Bucket shows up at the Bagnets’ house. He compliments Mrs. Bagnet, plays with the children, tells jokes, and sings songs. Is it all an act? Bucket mentions how much he and his wife wanted children. Does he really like children? Is he really childless? When Mr. Bucket arrests George, he has brought along a cloak to hide the handcuffs and brought a second pair in case the first pair is too tight. Is Bucket a compassionate guy doing a difficult job or a cold-hearted cop who pretends to be kind and understanding? He’s likeable, but he tricks people a lot. Can we trust him?
As another example, Mr. Bucket’s news about Lady Dedlock seems to give Sir Dedlock a stroke. Mr. Bucket, who seems aware of every little detail and nuance of thought, seems not notice. Are we to believe he doesn’t notice – or that he just doesn’t care?
7. Why is it so important to keep Jo quiet? Bucket wasn’t cruel to Jo. He paid Jo for cooperating in Tulkinghorn’s investigation and took him to the hospital, where he recovered from smallpox. But Bucket did nothing to relieve the greater problems—Jo’s living conditions and his lack of education or training. He puts other considerations before Jo’s long-term welfare. What were those other considerations?
8. The Ghost’s Walk: In Chapter 58 of Bleak House, Mrs. Rouncewell says, “The step on the Ghost’s Walk has been many a day behind her, and now it will pass her and go on.” Lady Dedlock has gone, leaving her suicide note for her husband, Sir Leicester. For years, Lady Dedlock complained of hearing the footsteps of the Dedlock family ghost on the Ghost’s Walk—the steps that foretell death. And that foretelling comes true.
Does Dickens condemn Lady Dedlock here? It seems unclear why she didn’t marry Captain Hawdon. Regardless, she was never unfaithful to Sir Dedlock. She made one mistake prior to knowing him, yet the her secret can ruin her and the Dedlock line. Did Dickens name her Honoria ironically? Did he agree with her “guilty” verdict? Or did he really find her honorable and trapped in an impossible situation?
9. Detective Team: While watching Hortense eating supper that night, Mr. Bucket has a flash of intuition that she murdered Mr. Tulkinghorn and framed Lady Dedlock. He spends all his time investigating while his wife keeps Hortense at home. (He calls his clever wife “a lady of natural detective genius.”) Mrs. Bucket sees Hortense writing the letters incriminating Lady Dedlock. She also finds the paper Hortense used as wadding in the pistol she shot Tulkinghorn with. Hortense takes Mrs. Bucket for tea in the country and throws the pistol into a lake. Mr. Bucket has the water dragged and finds the pistol.
10. Red Herrings: Inspector Bucket allowed his arrest of Mr. George to lull his chief suspect into a false sense of security. Dickens also misleads readers about who is about to be arrested, leading readers to believe he’s going to arrest Lady Dedlock. Thoughts?
Tea, Tonic, and Toxin is a book club and podcast for people who love mysteries, thrillers, introspection, and good conversation. Each month, your hosts, Sarah Harrison and Carolyn Daughters, will discuss a game-changing mystery or thriller from the 19th and 20th centuries. Together, we’ll see firsthand how the genre evolved.
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