Bleak House Podcast: Chapters 1-31
Welcome to the Bleak House podcast episode covering chapters 1-31! We’ll be discussing the cast of characters involved in Jarndyce and Jarndyce lawsuit. And eventually, we’ll get to a murder …
In Charles Dickens’s 1853 novel Bleak House, 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 Podcast Episode Transcript (All About Jarndyce and Jarndyce)
Sarah Harrison 0:00
Welcome to Tea, Tonic, and Toxin, a book club and podcast for anyone who wants to explore the best mysteries and thrillers ever written. I’m your host, Sarah Harrison.
Carolyn Daughters 0:10
And I’m your host Carolyn Daughters. Pour yourself an Earl Grey tea, a gin and tonic,
Sarah Harrison 0:12
… but not a toxin …
Carolyn Daughters 0:13
and join us on a journey through 19th and 20th century mysteries and thrillers, every one of them a game changer.
Sarah Harrison 0:16
Awesome. What book are we talking about today?
Carolyn Daughters 0:17
In today’s Bleak House podcast, we’re talking about the first half of Bleak House by Charles Dickens. It’s a large book.
Sarah Harrison 0:20
First half being chapters 1 through 31. I loved it. Carolyn, you wrote this awesome synopsis here.
What we want to do is summarize what happens in the half of the book so everyone has context when we start talking about the book.
Carolyn Daughters 0:59
Bleak House by Charles Dickens. The story starts in Victorian London. There’s fog everywhere — fog up the river where it flows among green areas and meadows, fog down the river where it rolls defiled among the tears of shipping, and the waterside pollutions of a great and dirty city. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into another sky of fog with fog all around them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds. We quickly learned that the lawsuit of Jarndyce and Jarndyce drones on the narrator tells us this scarecrow of a suit has in course of time become so complicated that no man alive knows what it means. The parties to it understand it at least. But it has been observed that no two chancery lawyers can talk about it for five minutes without coming to a total disagreement as to all the premises. Innumerable children have been born into the cause innumerable young people have married into it. Innumerable old people have died out of it. Scores of persons have deliriously found themselves made parties in Jarndyce and Jarndyce without knowing how or why whole families have inherited legendary legendary hatreds with the suit. Wards of court have faded into mothers and grandmothers. A long procession of chancellors has come in and gone out. The legion of bills in the suit have been transformed into mere bills and mortality. There are not three Jarndyces left upon the earth perhaps since old Tom Jarndyce and despair blew his brains out at a coffee house in Chancery Lane, but Jarndyce and Jarndyce still drags its dreary length before the court perennially hopeless.
In the first few chapters were introduced to the wealthy, aristocratic Sir Leicester Dedlock and his wife Lady Dedlock. The narrator tells us the family’s greatness seems to consist and they’re never having done anything to distinguish themselves for 700 years. Lady Dedlock is a cold, insolent woman, who is fatigued and bored everywhere she goes in Paris, at her fashionable London townhouse, and at her country house called Chesney wold. There’s a rumor that she’s not of noble birth. Now one day sir, Sir Lester Dedlock’s lawyer, the steely Mr. Tulkinghorn, read some legal documents to them. Lady Dedlock turns pale and asks who wrote the paper. Mr. Tulkinghorn explains that anonymous law writer penned the document. Lady Dedlock that she feels faint and retires to her room. We also meet Esther Summerson, an orphan raised by her godmother Miss Barbary, a hard pious woman. Esther longs to be loved but Miss Barbary hides her away and tells her she was her mother’s disgrace. In time Miss Barbary has a stroke while Esther reads to her from the Bible about the fact that he who is without sin, should cast the first stone. Miss Barbary dies soon thereafter.
At the godmothers funeral, Esther is approached by Mr. Kenge, who tells her that Miss Barbary wasn’t her godmother but was really her aunt and that Esther will be sent to school under the care of her new guardian, a man named Mr. Jarndyce. Esther is amazed and grateful. She’s happy at school and she’s trained to be a governess. After six years at school, Esther travels to London to become the companion of a young woman who’s a ward of the court in Jarndyce and Jarndyce, the lawsuit. Esther arrives in London and is directed to the court by a clerk named Mr. Guppy. There she meets her new companion Ada Claire, and Ada’s cousin Richard Carstone. The Court of Chancery is a large archaic institution that deals with property disputes. Many of the cases like Jarndyce and Jarndyce have lasted generations and torn families apart.
Esther, Ada, and Richard spend their first night at Mrs. Jellyby’s house it’s a chaotic house filled with dirty and neglected children. Mrs. Jellyby is a philanthropist interested only in her charity work in Africa. Esther befriends Mrs. Jellyby’s eldest daughter, Caddie. Esther, Richard, Caddie, and Ada go for a walk the next morning and they meet an old lady, who seems quite mad. Her name is Miss Flte, and she invites them to her home. Miss Flite lives above a rag and bone shop owned by a man named Krook, whose shop is a jumble of old law papers he himself can’t read as he is illiterate. Miss Flite’s room is sparse. In her window, she keeps birds in cages, which she says she’ll release when the Jarndyce and Jarndyce Chancery suit is resolved. A law writer known as Nemo also has a room in the house.
That next day Esther, Ada, and Richard finally meet their new guardian, John Jarndyce. They arrive at Mr. Jarndyce’s house which is called Bleak House. Esther is given housekeeping duties and grows very fond of her new companions. At Bleak House, Esther, Ada, and Richard meet Mr. Harold Skimpole, an unprincipled, irresponsible man who acts like a child and expects others to take care of him.
Sarah Harrison 6:55
Meanwhile, Mr. Tulkinghorn goes to Krook’s shop and asks for the writer named Nemo. Krook directs him to Nemo’s room. When Mr. Tulkinghorn gets there, he discovers that the writer has died of an opioid overdose. Mr. Tulkinghorn searched the room for any important legal documents and discovers that a poor old orphan street sweeper named Jo. Jo lives in squalor and is considered repugnant by most people who meet him because of his poor education, filth, and poverty. Jo is sent for at the inquest, where he’s interrogated. The narrator tells us his name is Jo. “Nothing else that he knows on? Don’t know that. Everybody has two names. Never heard of such a think. Don’t know that Jo is short for a longer name. Spell it? No, he can’t spell it. No father, no mother, no friends, never been to school. What’s home? Knows a broom’s a broom and knows it’s wicked to tell a lie. Don’t recollect who told him about the broom or about the lie, but knows both. Can’t exactly say what will be done to him after he’s dead. If he tells a lie to the gentleman here, but believes it’ll be something very bad to punish him and serve him right. And so he’ll tell the truth. The coroner then says “can’t exactly say won’t do. We can’t take that in a court of justice, gentleman. It’s terrible depravity.” So Jo isn’t allowed to testify.
Not long after a mysterious veiled woman dressed in black offers Jo money to show her Nemo’s grave. Sometime later, Mr. Tolkinghorn summons Jo to his office, where detective called Mr. Bucket asks Jo to identify a veiled woman dressed in black. Jo is confused, but insists it’s not the same woman because she doesn’t wear rings.
Meanwhile, Mr. Jarndyce tries to help Richard choosea profession. But Richard struggles to settle on one and dreams of his future wealth when the Jarndyce and Jarndyce lawsuit is resolved. Richard abandons several professions before he begins working in the law. Ada and Richard fall in love and announce they’re engaged. One afternoon Esther and Ada accompany the overbearing charity worker Mrs. Pardigle to the house of two poor women. Ginny and Liz, wives of two poor brickmakers Mrs. Pardigle lectures the family on religion and morality, remaining oblivious to the family’s inability to feed themselves or care for their children.
Mr. Jarndyce takes Esther and Ada on holiday to stay with his friend Mr. Boythorn, who lives near Chesney Wold, the country house of the Dedlocks. We learned that a ghost lurks around Chesney Wold. There, Esther meets Lady Dedlock and feels a strange connection to her. Lady Dedlock has a haughty French maid, Mademoiselle Hortense. Mr. Guppy proposes marriage to Esther, who refuses him. Also a kind-hearted doctor named Mr. Woodcourt visits before leaving on a trip to China in India. And Richard decides to leave the law practice and join the army. Mr. Jarndyce tells Ada in Richard to end their romantic relationship, at least for the time being. Guppy visits Lady Dedlock and tells her he thinks there’s a connection between her and Esther. He says Esther’s former guardian was someone named Miss Barbary and Esther’s real name was Esther Hawdon. He says Nemo was actually named Hawden, and that Nemo left some letters. Guppy leaves, and Lady Dedlock realizes Esther is her daughter, who her sister claimed had died at birth. Lady Dedlock cries, “Not done in the first hours of her life, as my cruel sister told me, but sternly nurtured by her after she had renounced me and my name. Oh, my child, oh, my child.”
Around the same time, Esther learns Jo is sick. Esther and her beloved maid Charley take Jo in and nurse him. But Jo disappears during the night. Charley soon falls ill, and Esther and Charley isolate from the others in the house. Esther nurses Charley to health, and then Esther falls ill herself. Esther calls Charliey to her and says “Now, Charley, when [Ada] knows I’m ill, she will try to make her way into the room. Keep her out, Charley, if you love me truly to the last, Charley, if you let her in by once, only to look upon me for one moment as I lay here. I shall die. When Esther tells Charley to come and sit beside it for a while as chapter 31., Esther says, “I cannot see you, Charley. I am blind.”
That’s a great summary, Carolyn. I was just thinking that it’s like trying to make a book into a movie. There’s all these subplots that have to get left out. but overall the sense of it is there. So if you haven’t read it yet, dear listener, now you can still follow our conversation. I really enjoyed Bleak House.
Carolyn Daughters 12:26
It’s one of my favorite books ever. It’s my favorite Dickens. It’s amazing. I’m reading it for the second time for our Tea, Tonic, and Toxin book club and podcast. And I feel so grateful to have this opportunity to read it again. I love it so dearly. Dickens is so funny.
Sarah Harrison 12:53
And bitingly dry.
Carolyn Daughters 12:56
There are times where I’m giggling and putting little smiley faces in the margins of the book. Other times, he hits you right in the heart, right in the gut.
Sarah Harrison 13:11
I did cry. I cried actual tears. I loved Dickens in junior high and high school, but I just hadn’t read any Dickens since. I now remember why I really loved Dickens.
Carolyn Daughters 13:33
If you haven’t started Bleak House yet, we’re thrilled you’re listening to the podcast. It’s a transformative book. It’s a book that will keep you thinking long after you put those pages down.
Sarah Harrison 14:24
And we would love to hear your thoughts. Our Facebook and Instagram pages are @teatonicandtoxin. Also check us out on our website, teatonicandtoxin.com. Now, we want to dive into this Bleak House podcast and get started talking about the Jarndyce and Jarndyce lawsuit. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover. Let’s let’s dive in.
Carolyn Daughters 15:12
The book opens with an indictment of the legal system, especially the Court of Chancery. And after setting the scene with mud and fog, you really get a strong sense of place. The narrator talks about how Jarndyce and Jarndyce is a legal mire, “tripping one another up on slippery precedents, groping knee deep in technicalities.” The legal difficulties in this book feel all encompassing and and complex, almost maybe so complex that you can’t break through them. Sarah, what were your thoughts?
Sarah Harrison 16:18
A lot of this book felt really modern. A lot of the things that Dickens is pointing out still resonate. I was thinking through my own personal experiences with the legal system. And, while not a Jarndyce and Jarndyce multi-generational lawsuit, we’ve been trying to build a house for five years now.
Carolyn Daughters 16:47
I thought it was 15 years.
Sarah Harrison 16:50
It feels that way. It does. It has been mind blowing, just trying to build the house. We looked into if there’s anything legally that we can do. A couple of lawyers told us they’re definitely in breach of contract. They said there’s not a lot we can do. We can sue them, and we’d be right. And they will declare bankruptcy and fold up. It would cost us $40,000 to litigate, and we might not get any money at all. I think certain parts of the system are more broken than others.
Carolyn Daughters 17:48
In just reading about Jarndyce and Jarndyce in Bleak House, I get this sense of something you can’t break through. All these characters in the book are trying to be the ones who settle the lawsuit. They think it’ll be settled in their lifetime or even really soon. Like Miss Flite, the mad old woman, has a bird she’s gonna set free when Jarndyce and Jarndyce is settled.
I love her birds.
Jarndyce and Jarndyce is an actual lawsuit that seemingly has no end. I certainly felt at times like I can’t muddle my way through something. Like I can’t see the forest for the trees. But that doesn’t stop me in most cases from continuing to try to break through it. Because I’m like, “No, I will conquer this.” In reading Bleak House, you can see the futility of something that is so mired in fog, using the metaphors that Dickens himself uses. Nobody even remembers what this Jarndyce and Jarndyce lawsuit is even about anymore. It started way back when, and then after a while, they’re committed and they don’t even remember what they’re fighting for anymore.
Sarah Harrison 19:45
Even Sir Leicester and his wife are somehow associated with Jarndyce and Jarndyce.
They’re so wealthy that it’s not clear why this lawsuit even matters to them. I guess it’s a badge of honor.
Carolyn Daughters 20:11
The originator of the Jarndyce and Jarndyce suit, Tom Jarndyce, committed suicide over the suit.
Sarah Harrison 20:24
Sir Leicester is proud to be associated with like English legal proceedings, which I think probably we don’t appreciate in our day and age. English legal proceedings are extremely foundational to the entire Western world of legal proceedings.
Carolyn Daughters 20:45
Tom Jarndyce, of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, blew his brains out in a coffee shop over this case. When you obsess over something day in and day out, and you think you know what’s “right” and “fair,” and you’re fixated on a particular resolution, and that thing doesn’t happen … your frustration sits inside you and grows. It can drive you mad.
Sarah Harrison 21:15
On a small scale with my house nonsense, I’ll wake up in the night just yelling at some contractor in my mind. It’s just not right. Every week, I get a text, and I’m like, no! Sometimes I start to say not “when we move into the house,” but I really mean “if we ever move into the house.” When we started the house, Nate and I were just engaged. Now we have two kids. So that’s like Jarndyce and Jarndyce. People are being born. If my son becomes a grandpa and this is still going on, I will have to blow my brains out probably.
Carolyn Daughters 22:33
Dear listeners, she is not serious.
Sarah Harrison 22:35
No, it’s just a Boythorn type of exaggeration.
Carolyn Daughters 22:41
Yes, our very boisterous Boythorn. In Bleak House, Miss Flite, Tom Jarndyce, and several others, and maybe Richard Carstone are obsessed. Their obsession makes Jarndyce and Jarndyce their end all be all, their first thing when they wake up, their last thing when they go to bed at night. You, Sarah, have a family, you have a job, you have interests. As much as your house situation could take over your entire life, it won’t because of who you are and because of the circumstances of your life. Thankfully that’s the case.
Sarah Harrison 23:26
But you can certainly see what it’s like to be caught up in an affair not of your own doing, and it’s not just not resolvable in a simple manner.
Carolyn Daughters 23:44
At the end of Chapter 29, Mr. Guppy comes to see Lady Dedlock. She asks if he’s the one who has been writing her letters. He admits he is. She asks if he has something to tell her, and, if so, why didn’t he just write another letter? And he says he doesn’t want to put in writing anything that could be used against him. And I thought, wow, we should all learn this lesson. I mean, a lot of this book just feels very modern.
Sarah Harrison 24:27
Mr. Bucket, the detective inspector, says something like that later in Bleak House, too.
Carolyn Daughters 24:36
It feels very contemporary. The third-person narrator says any honest practitioner would ward off anyone who wants to be party to Jarndyce and Jarndyce, or really any lawsuit, saying, “suffer any wrong that can be done you rather than come here.” That’s how this the narrator is positioning this obsession with this lawsuit. He’s letting us know right off the bat in the first chapters that there’s this dark cloud, this fog, over the narrative. Run, don’t walk, away from this lawsuit if you can. The cure can be worse than the disease.
Sarah Harrison 25:37
In high school, which was late 90s, I had the opportunity to go to Russia. This was after the Cold War, but not that far after. Late 90s Russia was a very rough place. We were there for like a month. We had several Russian friends who were our escorts there. And one of the things that they were adamant about was that we shouldn’t go to the hospital. Their saying was, you go in well, and you come out sick. That really reminded me of Victorian legal proceedings — the cure is worse than the disease.
Carolyn Daughters 26:44
Be careful what you ask for, because you might get it — or, in this case, you might not get it. You’re so obsessed with this thing that it starts to obliterate other options and other courses of action that might be healthier or happier. You can lose track of what you’re doing the thing for in the first place. You’re going to the Russian hospital because you want to get well. But if you really want to get well, maybe the Russian hospital is the last place you should go. So what is your actual aim? I think a lot of the characters in this book think that when the Jarndyce and Jarndyce lawsuit is all wrapped up, everything is going to be good and well. All our problems will go away, and we’ll live happily ever after. Richard Carstone increasingly wants to put his time and energy and attention to the Jarndyce and Jarndyce lawsuit because he can picture it wrapping up. And when it does, he and Ada and will be married, and their lives will be perfect. But that’s not how the world works. It’s not like you come into millions or become famous and suddenly life is perfect. Like it’s nothing but happiness from from morning to noon to night.
Sarah Harrison 28:29
I think you’re speaking to an even broader concept there, which is putting stuff off until the time is right. There are better and worse times for things. But you see this mentality. I think of the house, we’re always saying stuff like, when we have a kitchen where we don’t bump into each other constantly, or when the kids can have a bedroom, then if we were both able to work from home. Other people might say, “I’ll buy a house when I have a spouse,” or “I’ll take this trip when I have someone to go with.”
Carolyn Daughters 29:17
Delayed gratification … I can’t have the thing I want until all of these pieces of the puzzle align.
Sarah Harrison 29:23
We create these conditions. People will do this with children — I’ll have a child when … I think that it’s rare for the stars to align so you can create the future as you’re envisioning it.
Carolyn Daughters 29:54
The guardian, John Jarndyce, in fact, has washed his hands of the Jarndyce and Jarndyce lawsuit. He’s one of the three or so Jarndyces who’s still alive. He doesn’t want anything to do with it, which arguably makes him one of the smartest and healthiest characters in the book.
Sarah Harrison 30:10
He’s certainly one of the happiest. Other than just like taking on ward after ward, he’s just living his life, and it seems to be working for him.
Carolyn Daughters 30:23
Exactly. He’s not waiting for some special day in the future when the stars align and everything falls into place.
Sarah Harrison 30:32
I also like the character of Sir Leicester. He’s fascinating.
Carolyn Daughters 30:41
The narrator calls him honorable, obstinate, truthful, high spirited, intensely prejudiced, perfectly unreasonable. Wow, that’s a bunch of adjectives that you wouldn’t necessarily expect to see together.
Sarah Harrison 30:59
We intuitively know that they do. We know people are complicated. And yet I think our tendency as humans is to simplify people into categories like good, bad, friend, enemy. Those categories have utility, but it’s probably important to remember that people are complicated,
Carolyn Daughters 31:26
Sir Leicester is complicated. He’s honorable, truthful, intensely prejudiced, perfectly unreasonable. He’s wealthy but still involved in the Jarndyce and Jarndyce lawsuit. On some level, those things work together. He has his picture of what the world should be, and anything that falls outside that is problematic to him.
Sarah Harrison 31:52
The truthful part was very interesting. Dickens reviews that in several points of the book, where he’s talking to someone that he’s philosophically and emotionally opposed to, but he’s like, “well, he’s well-spoken, he’s right about that. I gotta give him that.” He is truthful. But he has this perspective that’s skewing his worldview to a large extent.
Carolyn Daughters 31:51
I think we do tend to paint people with a broad brush and say, this person is my friend, so we build a bridge from positive trait to positive trait and maybe ignore some of their negative or problematic traits. Whereas if it’s someone we don’t like, the things that stand out for us are all the things that they do and say that we don’t like. Dickens has a reputation for creating two-dimensional characters. It’s a common criticism of his novels. I would argue there are many three-dimensional characters in this book. The narrator doesn’t say Sir Leicester is a bad guy. He’s rich, and he’s powerful, and he’s aristocratic, and we don’t like him. But It’s more complicated than that.
Sarah Harrison 33:25
Sir Leicester gets more and more interesting, I feel, like as the book goes on. In modern society, we’re always turning each other into two-dimensional characters instead of appreciating that people are complicated. I always took for granted that someone may be terrible in many ways, but fundamentally there’s this element of humanity that is deserving of respect. But I don’t get the sense that everyone thinks that.
Carolyn Daughters 34:16
It’s easier to take a snapshot of somebody and think that’s what they are. I don’t think we think that we’re looking at somebody two dimensionally, but it’s easier than processing the complexity of every human being we interact with. Because then our brains would be exhausted. I mean, I would be exhausted.
Sarah Harrison 34:34
So this is going to turn into a podcast about my house apparently.
Carolyn Daughters 34:44
If Sarah ever moves into this house, we will film a podcast episode in every room of the house. But don’t anyone put it on your calendar or anything because that would be crazy. That would be Jarndyce and Jarndyce lawsuit crazy.
Sarah Harrison 35:13
If I’m getting very angry, and I’m popping off, I can make someone out to be like a total worst person. But if I choose to be honest, I can step back and say, “you know what, they’re making zero money on this. And they have not walked off the job. And so while I resent that they might feel like a hero, I can understand why they might feel like a hero. It’s complicated. People are trying, maybe they’re bad at what they’re doing, or it’s not working out, or it’s exacerbated by a global pandemic and civil unrest. I do feel like there’s a short path to emotional catharsis when we put people in a category we can be mad at.
Carolyn Daughters 36:21
In Bleak House, the lawyers in Jarndyce and Jarndyce are the only people making money. Nobody else is making money off of Jarndyce and Jarndyce.
Sarah Harrison 36:34
It’s in their interest that the Jarndyce and Jarndyce lawsuit continues indefinitely.
Carolyn Daughters 36:42
We talked about how the narrator is complicating Sir Leicester. This book also does something I think is super interesting. There are two narrators in this book. There is a third-person narrator who starts the novel and has a particular voice. And then we have Esther Summerson, who narrates first person and tells her own story in retrospect. The first-person narrator is present tense, it’s happening right now, present tense in fiction is always interesting and it’s not all that common. And then having two different narrators was not common at the time either. So Dickens is really experimenting. And I would argue experimenting successfully here. So Sarah, what are your thoughts about these narrators?
Sarah Harrison 37:39
We talked about this a bit, and you asked me, “Do you believe Esther?” And I was really surprised by your perspective.
Carolyn Daughters 37:55
I’ve read a lot of Dickens. So I tend to know whether the character is meant to be good, bad, complicated, or what have you. Esther herself says that “my friends have told me that wherever I am was sunshine and summer air.” At some point, you have to ask if she’s for real. Are we getting a skewed, unreliable narrator through Esther? So much of her self-deprecation — and there’s a lot of it — feels real. And so much of her love for the other characters feels real to me. So I don’t call into question whether she is real or telling a false story. It feels as if Dickens is coming at the story from two different directions, but two perspectives that I think are in some cases aligned. So I trust Esther.
Sarah Harrison 39:22
I thought that was super interesting that I did trust the third-person narrator. To me, that’s the voice of the author and the story he wants to tell. But I really loved reading Esther’s chapters. They flowed right along. Very interesting. I like that first-person perspective. But she was so sweet. To me, her self-deprecation was a little too much to be believed. It felt a little bit fake to me. So I came at this book like, Okay, this book is on our list of mysteries. I know this is a mystery. But where’s the mystery? So all the time, I’m in the background searching for the mystery. And what I started landing on was this Esther character. She’s writing from the future about the past. Why is she doing that? And I was like, is she in trouble? Is this she’s writing her view of something? And I’ll tell you, too, you read about Esther’s childhood and how messed up it was with Miss Barbary. She’s just cruel to her. And Esther had this best friend that was just a doll. And she told her doll all of her secrets. And then when Miss Barbary died, Esther went to boarding school, and she buried her doll in the earth. And I was like, what? That is so dark. I was more of a stuffed animal person. I would never do that ever. And so when she did that, I immediately thought like she murdered her best friend. What is she capable of? In her abused psyche, what is she justifying? What is she hiding? That incident really put me on the alert.
Carolyn Daughters 41:51
From our modern sensibility, we hear about this buried doll, and we’re like, what? I was blown away by how disconnected from the world Esther was growing up and how she goes off to school and immediately everybody loves her. I’m going to argue if most of us had been sequestered most of our life and then are introduced into a society or group, maybe we wouldn’t fit in all that well. Because we have no practice. But she’s a natural.
Sarah Harrison 42:54
I’m a person that’s been introduced to a lot of new groups. And I had to take a very tactical approach to it. Like, nobody just naturally loved me. If you can imagine.
Carolyn Daughters 43:08
Because you’re not Esther Summerson.
I’m definitely not. But if you don’t have a lot of social experience and then you’re thrust into the situation, kids aren’t naturally loving and nice.
But she is so pure. I don’t think Dickens is going to name someone Summerson who’s a bad guy.
Sarah Harrison 43:37
That’s fair and unfair, because you’re drawing on your knowledge of Dickens and how he does things. I’m just going with like the idea that you’re not going to be that socially adept.
Carolyn Daughters 43:52
I’m also using this book as my basis. If you are Mrs. Pardigle, you might be parsimonious, and if you’re Harold Skimpole, you’re skimping on something, maybe humanity, Dickens oftentimes uses characters’ names to give you a sense of who they are. Even in this book, I’m getting a sense that Lady Dedlock and Leicester Dedlock have names that aren’t accidental. I’m also not getting a sense from Esther or from the third-person narrator that anything Esther is saying is untrue. ohn Jarndyce says Harold Skimpole is a nice guy, and he’s like a child. The narrator calls that into question over and over and over again. Harold Skimpole seems sneaky to me and stealthy and more aware of the world than he presents himself. It’s incredible privilege for him to be able to wash his hands of his own responsibilities, let alone in his interactions with other people. I never saw the narrator call Esther into question.
Sarah Harrison 45:27
That’s true. She only gets called into question by her own narration.
Carolyn Daughters 45:34
When the third-person narrator talks about Skimpole, you get a very clear sense that the narrator doesn’t like him.
Sarah Harrison 45:42
That’s fair. But also I would argue that Esther’s unrealistically nice.
Carolyn Daughters 45:54
As are many female protagonists in Dickens’ novels. They are the model of decorum. They are the model of how one would behave in society and also in one’s home. The domestic housewife is the purest form of womanhood for Dickens. Esther is given the housekeeping keys at the beginning of the book. She’s given the keys to the domestic kingdom and honors them and does justice by them and is truly Dickens’ purest form of woman.
Sarah Harrison 46:38
I think if that was true then something miraculous is happening. When I look at how she grew up, and how she was treated, and how she was isolated, there is no human way that she would have become the person that she is without years of therapy.
Carolyn Daughters 46:59
It’s not clear how she became so amazing. Almost perfect.
Sarah Harrison 47:05
It seems quite natural. It’s just in her heart.
Carolyn Daughters 47:09
We see in so many other cases the parents and the children. And we see how Mrs. Pardigle’s boys are spiteful and angry. We could argue rightfully so. But we see the direct correlation between the way children are raised and and the people they become. So where did Esther come from?
Sarah Harrison 47:39
If we are to believe that Esther is how she presents herself, then that is part of the fiction of the book. I wouldn’t say that it’s true to life. She’s very likable, I quite liked. But I wouldn’t say she was true to life. And so for that reason, I suspect her. Since she buried her doll.
Carolyn Daughters 48:02
It’s a very advanced mystery for its time. Sarah’s mystery, because Sarah’s mystery is that basically, Esther’s going to murder somebody in the second half of the book.
Sarah Harrison 48:13
Is she on the stand trying to explain her perspective because she’s on trial for murder? That’s where my head went. But I’ll tell you about my childhood toy.
Carolyn Daughters 48:30
I want to hear.
Sarah Harrison 48:31
I was, like I said, as stuffed animal person. And my favorite toy was a little white teddy bear. I was a toddler. I named him Whitey. I didn’t know actually what happened to Whitey. I had him all through high school, He was in my room, I graduated and went to college. I don’t know what happened to all the toys in my room yntil recently. My mom presented my son with Whitey. So now Whitey is back in his bedroom on his bedm his little toy. That’s what you do with your most beloved childhood toy. You don’t bury him in the ground with all your secrets,
Carolyn Daughters 49:24
I feel like Esther would not be this judgmental.
Sarah Harrison 49:27
She buried her doll.
Carolyn Daughters 49:30
My childhood toy I had a shapeless stuffed pillow.
Sarah Harrison 49:37
My son also loves his pillow.
Carolyn Daughters 49:39
And it’s just this weird pillow. And I called it teddy bear.
Sarah Harrison 49:45
That actually feels like a sad story.
Carolyn Daughters 49:47
The picture on it was actually was of a dog. Everybody in my family who saw me lugging around this shapeless pillow with a print of a dog on it. I called it teddy bear. My family would get so frustrated with me. Like, Carolyn, it’s a dog. I was like, this is my teddy bear. Because I wasn’t associating it with a bear.
Sarah Harrison 50:22
No, that was his name. Like Whitey.
Carolyn Daughters 50:24
It was his name. And I was being told over and over again that I couldn’t name a dog “teddy bear.”
Sarah Harrison 50:34
Adults are so stupid about names. What happened to him?
Carolyn Daughters 50:41
I’m gonna find it and take a picture of it. If I can find it. He doesn’t have stuffing him in him anymore. And he was made of such a thin, aging material that it’s barely recognizable at this point. But I think I have him.
Sarah Harrison 51:02
So you didn’t bury him in the earth either. Interesting. He named another bear Off Bear. He named his llama Mama. Which I really like. If you say Mama Llama, he’s like, no, Mama. We’ll see if he buries anything in the earth. If he does, I guess I shouldn’t be suspicious because it could mean you’re a sterling character. I have actually heard some more sad stories of cherished childhood things, but we won’t go into all those sad stories. Maybe we should move on to Dickens being funny.
Carolyn Daughters 52:15
The third-person narrator can be funny. Some of the things that some of the characters say are funny. We’ve talked a little bit about Mrs. Jellyby. She is obsessed with philanthropy. She grossly neglects her family so she can focus on the people in Borrioboola-Gha, which is an area in Africa. And at one point, Mr. Jarndyce asks Esther what she thinks of Mrs. Jellyby. She says, “Well, she exerts herself very much for Africa, sir.” Which is her way of critiquing her without openly critiquing her. You get a sense of what Esther is thinking. She doesn’t even think negative thoughts for the most part, let alone articulate them. She wouldn’t say Mrs. Jellyby is an awful person, and a terrible mother, and those children should be removed from the home. That’s not Esther. But she’ll get her point across in a roundabout way.
Sarah Harrison 53:22
That’s interesting. I get the sense that Mr. Jarndyce had some association with Mrs. Jellyby because he sent all his wards there to spend the night. I don’t know if he’s donated money to this … coffee plantation in Africa or something that somehow is supposed to help. I don’t know if he has donated money, or he has thought about donating money, or he’s concerned for the family. He seems to have some sense that things aren’t right there. And he’s asking Esther, who has like spent the night at Mrs. Jellyby’s house and had a vision of the inner workings of it. He wants to know what she thinks. I get the sense that she didn’t really know the relationship, and she didn’t want to say anything. But she wanted to give an honest answer. She’s honest. She exerts herself very much for Africa. And I circled that, and I was like, brilliant! Do more of this, Sarah.
Carolyn Daughters 54:35
What she does is very clever.
Sarah Harrison 54:38
I am 100% literal that I need to do more of that. People ask for an opinion …
Carolyn Daughters 54:46
You give the opinion or you don’t give the opinion?
Sarah Harrison 54:52
I was almost a programmed robot. I was like, you ask me a question, and I will tell you what I think the answer is. I was trying to get out of this seemingly bad employment situation, as I recall, and I didn’t want to have to explain to my boss. I knew he was gonna ask why. And then I would have to tell him why. And then it would be an argument. And my therapist was like, just repeat yourself. Say it’s not a good fit. What? My mind was blown. So we practiced. I probably sound like, a real Esther Summerson. Like, isolated my whole life and can’t relate. Just the idea that you didn’t have to answer with your exact opinion. That there are other ways. If Jarndyce and Mrs. Jellyby were best friends, you don’t want to say she’s a terrible person.
Carolyn Daughters 56:04
I don’t think Esther would speak out even if he weren’t very good friends with Mrs. Jellyby.
Sarah Harrison 56:12
Right. She wouldn’t.
Carolyn Daughters 56:13
She doesn’t stand on high in judgment of people. Let he without sin cast the first stone. I think she’s always putting things through her filter. Mrs. Jellyby is not perfect. I’m not perfect, either. However, her imperfections are quite troubling in one particular area. And so she spins the response. Like, it’d be like listening to two people fight loudly. And then someone asks you, oh, did you run into these two people? And you say, yes, they had a very lively discussion earlier today. And you don’t want to be like, yes, they were absolutely insane and fighting loudly. Instead, you might find another way to say it.
Sarah Harrison 57:00
I feel like there’s still this balance of being truthful and trying to see the best in people. I tend to try to always be very even handed, which I think isn’t always fair, because that might prejudice me towards being negative. Maybe it’s more fair to try to see people in the best light because I think that’s, that’s certainly the light people see themselves in.
Carolyn Daughters 57:39
And Mrs. Jellyby and Mrs. Pardigle are both ridiculous.
Sarah Harrison 57:48
They are, and if you are to trust the third-person narrator, he just basically tears them up
Carolyn Daughters 57:54
The chapter where I think Mrs. Jellyby is introduced is called “Telescopic Philanthropy.”
Sarah Harrison 58:02
I thought that was a clever way to think about it.
Carolyn Daughters 58:04
It’s how you ignore what’s happening close to home, including the misery your own family might be experiencing, and instead look very far into the distance and involve yourself whether you’re needed or welcome or wanted. Esther tells Mr. Jarndyce, “We thought perhaps it was 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.” So this is her speaking her mind, but doing it in a very delicate manner once she’s pressed by Mr. Jarndyce. It calls into question a lot of things. Can you be involved in cares and concerns outside your four walls, and, if so, to what degree? It’s quite extreme here, right? Like Mrs. Jellyby doesn’t know what’s happening with our kids. They’re not bathed. They’re little ruffians.
Sarah Harrison 59:11
They wander off. They’re completely incompetent in society.
Carolyn Daughters 59:16
And Mrs. Pardigle gives her boys an allowance and then takes it back for them for them to make donations.
Sarah Harrison 59:25
Yeah, they are the angriest children, which again made me think that Esther’s not real. These kids are so mad at their mom/ And Esther didn’t even know who her mom was. It just didn’t ever seem to occur to her but. Or her godmother who was actively mean. She just wanted to be loved.
Carolyn Daughters 59:57
Esther was her mother’s disgraced She was raised believing that she was a shameful and thinking everybody else was better than her. And I think that affects the way she sees the world, where she sees promise and potential and goodness everywhere and then calls into question when she sees a Mrs. Jellyby and thinks, I don’t know about this lady. Or even about Miss Barbary, who was her godmother or her aunt. Esther thinks, well, she seemed very harsh and stern, but I’m sure she had her reasons.
Sarah Harrison 1:00:31
She talked about how good she was. And she regretted that she was such a good lady, and she just couldn’t seem to love her at the level she wanted to.
Carolyn Daughters 1:00:44
Maybe she was raised to believe she wasn’t very important.
Sarah Harrison 1:00:48
We’ll see, listeners. Hopefully. Read on.
Carolyn Daughters 1:00:59
Dickens is basically tearing down all of the philanthropy that is happening, cross-continental. If you’re in England and spending your time, money, and domestic energy, and attention on Borrioboola-Gha, for example, there’s a big problem in Dickens’ mind.
Sarah Harrison 1:01:33
This was one of the topics that I felt was extremely modern. And I think it’s still extremely difficult if you start thinking through it. It’s like, hey, you, pay attention to yourself, like, are you where you need to be, is your family where it needs to be?There’s very little within your control. It’s even hard to get ourselves in control. It’s hard enough to get myself in control, how hard is it to control this external, cross-continental issue. But I think instead, we maybe see those sometimes in simpler terms. Oh, well, if we just inject a little money here … You still hear stories about the ramifications of thoughtless charity work, and then it can cause damage. So what do you do?
Carolyn Daughters 1:02:48
I was once on the board of an organization for African children, and the the organization was extremely complicated because there are so many organizations working to support children in Africa. And along the way, I realized that I probably should be supporting one of them. Because it wa I think misguided for the individual who started the organization to want to start her own organization. She had never once been to Africa.
Sarah Harrison 1:03:26
Carolyn Daughters 1:03:26
She cared deeply. There was no question she cared deeply. But she didn’t understand what they needed because she had never been on the ground. She had never really met the people and understood what they really needed. And so from on high, and from a distance, we were all coming up with strategies and plans and educational programs for these children. This was a good 20 years ago, but it hit me that there is something extremely privileged to be able to just start a nonprofit organization, and “help people” without really understanding what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, who we’re helping, how we’re helping. And I would argue that there is an increasing tendency over the last decade, and certainly over the last couple of years to care almost exclusively about what’s happening within our four walls and to not care very deeply about things that happen outside of those walls. Sarah, I know you and I have talked about this before. As someone who has no children, I, my whole adult life, have signed up for anything I could ever do for other people’s children. Whether it’s donations, volunteering, mentoring, tutoring, I’m on board. I feel like, increasingly we as a culture want to figure out how we can give the people inour four walls every possible advantage? And we don’t maybe look too much further outside those walls.
Sarah Harrison 1:04:51
That’s the other side. So you get your house in order. How in order does it have to be before you pay attention to someone else? I think there’s got to be an in-between phase. And you and I, we’ve both done mentoring, and I think we feel like really strongly about it. And then you have the Jellybys and Pardigles, who were looking down on people like Jo in the street, who’s another child who’s needy and hungry and sick right outside their door. And instead, it’s easier to focus on someone very far away.
Carolyn Daughters 1:05:10
And in fact, Mrs. Pardigle takes Ada and Esther to the house of a poor family, the family of a bricklayer. And she lectures them on religion and morality while Jenny, one of the two women, is holding her dead baby. So many characters are obsessed — with Jarndyce and Jarndyce, with religion, with “saving people” without really seeing people, with charity in foreign lands.
Sarah Harrison 1:06:20
That scene was horrible. And that’s the other thing, too, is what kind of shape does this philanthropy take? Mrs. Pardigle is just marching around. Apparently she takes her kids’ money and gives it to someone. But she’s not giving it to this family. They’re just getting some weird lecture. Then she’s like, I’ll never be tired. I’ll come back and lecture you some more. And she doesn’t even notice that Jenny is holding her dead baby.
Carolyn Daughters 1:06:48
The lecturing on some level is actually understandable. The two husbands are drinkers, they spend all their money on drink.
They abuse their wives and their children.
These are these are problem homes. However, the bricklayer says in one of the chapters, “I have so little money, I don’t have enough money to take care of my family. I couldn’t feed the family with what I make. I can’t keep my children bathed the water is filthy. It is toxic. It’s unhealthy. It’s unsanitary. So why bother trying?” Instead of trying to get to the core of the issue and help them, Mrs. Pardigle and people like her are lecturing them on morality, religion, behavior, ethics. And then triumphantly with their chin raised, they march out the door and leave them with their dead baby.
Sarah Harrison 1:07:57
Mrs. Pardigle doesn’t even see it. It was horrible. And her kids are punching themselves in the fist with rage. It goes back again to this idea that they’re not great providers, but also things are complicated. How do you address these complex situations?
Carolyn Daughters 1:08:24
I’m not giving these husbands a pass, like Sure. abuse your family and drink away whatever little money you have. What Dickens is saying is that in the Victorian times when he lived, there are these slums that are so horrifying. The third-person narrator pulls no punches. You feel it when you are reading this book. It’s genius what Dickens does. You can’t leave this book without understanding what life was on some level for the majority of people in this society. How horrifying it was. No food. Barely any clothing. No sanitary water, no education. I mean, we read at the beginning that plot summary. Jo doesn’t know who his parents are.
Sarah Harrison 1:09:19
He doesn’t know his last name.
Carolyn Daughters 1:09:21
He doesn’t know people have a last name, that they have a second name. How do you spell Jo? “I have no idea.” And he is looked upon by many of the characters with disgust.
Sarah Harrison 1:09:31
He’s referred to as subhuman very often, not just by the court, which won’t take his testimony because he’s barely a human. The narrator compares him to a stray dog and getting even less sympathy than that.
Carolyn Daughters 1:09:48
All these people are waiting around for their Jarndyce and Jarndyce cash, while Jo isn’t worth the time of day. It makes me wonder if there times when I put somebody in a category where they’re not even worth my time or energy. The very thought is sickening. And yet, you’re reading this book and you’re realizing that people can do this.
Sarah Harrison 1:10:17
I think people naturally do it. In Psych 101, I learned about the fundamental attribution error. Basically, it’s how you attribute things. When something negative happens in your life or something like that, you attribute it to your circumstances. When something negative happens to someone else, you attribute it to their character. And so everyone external, when you do something wrong, there’s always a very good reasons why you’re failing at something. But when someone else is in this situation, they brought that on themselves.
Carolyn Daughters 1:11:15
Fundamental attribution error. So interesting. People often think their own circumstances are special, so they cut themselves slack.
Sarah Harrison 1:12:23
It’s human tendency. I’ll throw this out there as a connection point. Have you seen the Victoria series on Masterpiece? They’re bringing up all this stuff that Dickens discusses, including the toxic air and the slums and the famine. It has been really interesting to see the Dickens perspective echoed.
Carolyn Daughters 1:12:58
You have Lord and Lady Dedlock. Their lives are so cush. She’s bored wherever she goes. She’s in her London townhouse. She’s in Chesney Wold? She’s in Paris? Boring …
Sarah Harrison 1:13:13
That’s certainly the mantle she puts on. Because that’s the societal expectation.
Carolyn Daughters 1:13:21
You’re not excited about anything. You’re not happy or grateful for anything. It’s just taken for granted that servants bring me everything that I need. I have everything I’d ever want. If I get bored here, I just go to one of my other homes. The disparity in the book is shocking. It’s hard for me to read. It’s hard to stomach.
Sarah Harrison 1:13:50
I realized how society has changed when one of the characters puts up all of these like prints of landed aristocratic women. Pictures, like little posters, in his apartment. And I was like, Oh, they’re like celebrities. Lady Dedlock is a celebrity. He has a poster of her. I did not get that for all the years that I’ve been reading Victorian novels. They were the celebrities. And they were also the companies. This is a really unique time when manufacturing is starting. And it’s the Industrial Revolution and they’re taken aback by this iron master. But at that time, they were the companies. They employed the whole household, they built schools, they built the city, they have their own inn, they employed hundreds of people for their own comfort and the stewardship of their property. That was their kind of company. They were the employers. And now you might have Tesla or Amazon or Brad Pitt or somebody, and I don’t have enough insight into how they live. Take any one of them and hold them up next to some poor person …
Carolyn Daughters 1:15:47
They’re the celebrities. Mrs. Rouncewell is the housekeeper for the Dedlocks. Her son, Mr. Rouncewell, is talking to Lady and Sir Leicester Dedlock. And he’s basically having a “we’re on par with each other” kind of conversation with themabout his son possibly marrying one of their maids, Rosa. And the Dedlocks are shocked that this conversation is happening this way by this upstart man.
Sarah Harrison 1:16:43
It wasn’t even quite on par. He wanted this handmaid of Lady Dedlock’s to get educated to be able to marry his son. And I think it gives insight into how Sir Leicester did not realize this guy is an iron magnate. He has become his own town owner. He owns the factory. He’s like sending his son to Europe to become educated. He employs hundreds of people in like ironworks. Yeah. So thinks that not only are they equals, but that he wants someone a little better for his son, a little more educated to the class of life he belongs in. And Leicester just can’t even comprehend.
Carolyn Daughters 1:17:40
He can’t. Sir Leicester says, “well, we’ve sent her to school.”
Sarah Harrison 1:17:43
“She was educated in the school I built!”
Carolyn Daughters 1:17:46
And the school is, of course, training a young woman like herself to be a handmaid.
Sarah Harrison 1:17:52
It’s just a little town school.
Carolyn Daughters 1:17:57
We’re seeing a class shift. We’re seeing signs of things to come in many decades, certainly. We’re seeing examples of characters pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. We’re seeing some characters who are not staying in the class in which they were born. And characters waiting around for their “birthright” the Jarndyce and Jarndyce lawsuit is settled. And there are hints that maybe even Lady Dedlock is not in the class in which she was born. There are rumors that she may not have been of noble birth.
Sarah Harrison 1:18:33
I like that. At the beginning, we learn that Sir Leicester married her for love. He’s not just this pompous, prejudiced character. He is that guy. And he’s also somebody that loves.
Carolyn Daughters 1:18:59
The narrator says he’s obstinate, so when he decided he was in love with the future Lady Dedlock, he decided to marry her.
Sarah Harrison 1:19:08
He’s truthful. And he can love, and he can be prejudiced and obstinate Well, what about Harold Skimpole? He’s a weirdo.
Carolyn Daughters 1:19:20
I honestly dislike him more than I dislike Mrs. Jellyby and Mrs. Pardigle.
Sarah Harrison 1:19:31
He was a difficult character. I had a hard time with how the other characters kept finding him charming.
Carolyn Daughters 1:19:40
It made me question Mr. Jarndyce’s judgment
Sarah Harrison 1:19:44
Yes, big time.
Carolyn Daughters 1:19:48
He calls himself a child a million times in the book. He’s self referential. “I’m but a child of the world.” He has no idea of time or money. He borrows money liberally with no thought of repaying it. When Jo is sick near the end of the first half, he suggests they just let them fend for himself. Put him out. He even borrows money at one point from Richard and Esther.
Sarah Harrison 1:20:20
The wards. As soon as he meets them. Instantly, when he first meets them. There’s a bail bondsman, Neckett. Charley’s father.
Carolyn Daughters 1:20:35
He calls Neckett “Coavinses” because Coavinses is the name of the business.
Sarah Harrison 1:20:40
He’s like a debt collector.
Carolyn Daughters 1:20:42
He has tried to collect money from Harold Skimpole. Then we learn that the debt collector dies and left behind three orphaned children. Their mother is passed as well. And Harold Skimpole just finds this the most charming thing he’s ever heard.
Sarah Harrison 1:21:01
So romantic. And he like considers himself a benefactor now of the Coavinses because he got paid to try to collect debt from him. It was very bizarrely positioned.
Carolyn Daughters 1:21:20
He’s hard for me to stomach. Other people take responsibility for you and you have no role or position in the world. You don’t have to care about anything, do anything, help anybody, care about anybody? I believe he has children. He has his own family.
Sarah Harrison 1:21:39
He does have children. He has a wife.
Carolyn Daughters 1:21:43
Something’s happened with them, I’m sure. I don’t know what it is. That absence of accountability is horrifying to me.
Sarah Harrison 1:21:56
Why doesn’t Mr. Jarndyce see through him? He never seems to.
Carolyn Daughters 1:22:03
That was one of the biggest question marks I had about John Jarndyce. He seems like a really good man on almost every level. And then, wow, what a weird friendship with Harold Skimpole.
Sarah Harrison 1:22:20
The same way that I think like Esther would not have turned out this way, and no human can live up to Esther’s perfection. I also think like John Jarndyce wouldn’t have been okay with this guy in real life.
Carolyn Daughters 1:22:35
It made John Jarndyce feel two-dimensional to me, which I did not like. By the second half of the book, Esther has trouble looking at Harold Skimpole. Then you keep getting these hints that John Jarndyce looked at him with aggravation and a slight smile.
Sarah Harrison 1:23:25
He would get uncomfortable, he would feel the wind blowing, he’d go to the growlery and then talk himself out of it. In that sense, I think it can be realistic. I feel like Dickens is creating a bunch of types. These are the types of people who are being irresponsible towards their households in many different ways. Or they’re obsessed with Jarndyce and Jarndyce. Or they’re misusing resources in many different ways. Harold Skimpole I think is just one of those weird types who sees himself as a charity case. I think Jarndyce has a hard time with boundaries. And being direct, he always has to go to the growlery and growl. He doesn’t know how to address things.
Carolyn Daughters 1:24:21
It’s a room in his house. When he’s out of humor, he goes there and growls.
Sarah Harrison 1:24:27
Which I loved. If I should ever move into another house, perhaps there will be a space where I can grow. I think it’s a really cool idea to have a rumination space to sort through stuff that’s upsetting you.
Carolyn Daughters 1:24:51
I’ve always loved the word “growlery.” I read this book the first time maybe 20 years ago, and I saw the word “growlery,” and I thought, I’ve gone my entire life without knowing this word existed. This word is amazing.
Sarah Harrison 1:25:08
I think Jarndyce has to go there. And when he runs into Harold Skimpole, I feel like he wants to take him at face value. He wants to believe what he’s saying about himself.
Carolyn Daughters 1:25:25
Sarah, we now know that Esther’s the murderer. We’re sorry to have to break that to our listeners. So where is this book going? Where’s the mystery?
Sarah Harrison 1:25:39
That was actually so like I said, I I’m trying to imagine I was glad I came to this book without knowing much about it. But I did know it was a mystery. And so I think I came at it through this lens of what I know about mysteries. Unless it’s “The Purloined Letter,” someone’s get killed. Who is it? In the book, some people would die, and they always died weirdly. I mean, Esther’s godmother did die in the most ironic of ways while reading about hypocrisy in the Bible. And then she had a stroke.
Carolyn Daughters 1:26:46
Such a sanctimonious, arrogant, haughty woman. And Esther’s dutifully reading to her from the Bible.
Sarah Harrison 1:26:57
He who is without sin cast the first stone. So Miss Barbary dies. I guess that was relevant. And then Nemo dies. I thought that was the murder. Because he had an opium opioid overdose right before Tulkinghorn walks in. Something must be connected here. Like Tulkinghorn tracked him down. I wondered, did Esther kill him? What’s going on? I don’t think she even knows who this guy is … or does she?
Carolyn Daughters 1:27:50
There’s also a spontaneous combustion scene that’s worth the price of entry.
Sarah Harrison 1:28:01
There are these weirdo deaths, and I was like, what is the mystery? Is it related to the Jarndyce and Jarndyce lawsuit? I was super confused.
Carolyn Daughters 1:28:18
The book is not in itself necessarily a conventional mystery. In a conventional mystery there’s often a status quo that is destabilized, often a crime. Sometimes a purloined letter, sometimes a murder. If we’re expecting a conventional mystery, and we’re halfway through the book, and that murder hasn’t happened yet, we’re thinking, well, I guess it’s one of the previous deaths.
Sarah Harrison 1:28:59
Then I thought, maybe it’s not even about murder. Maybe this is like some Purloined Letter stuff. And the mystery is Esther’s identity story. But then I thought, you can really see that coming. It wasn’t that mysterious. And then it’s revealed in the first half of the book anyway.
Carolyn Daughters 1:29:20
In the first half of the book, Lady Dedlock learns Esther is her daughter. She had thought her daughter had died at birth. But Esther doesn’t know who she is. She doesn’t know her origin story.
Sarah Harrison 1:29:44
I was pitching around at the whole beginning of the book. And I was like, well, it will resolve itself for me. I don’t need to anticipate where it’s going.
Carolyn Daughters 1:29:56
In addition to the Jarndyce and Jarndyce lawsuit, Dickens is really interested in questions about class and society and philanthropy and identity. And we’ll get into an actual more pure mystery in the second half of the book, where we’ll see in more depth Mr. Bucket, our detective inspector. The narrator says, “This person stands there with his attentive face hat and sticking hands, his hands behind them composed in a quiet listener, stoutly built steady, looking sharp eyed, about middle age. There’s nothing remarkable about him at first sight, but his ghostly manner of appearing.” And then we learn he notices things in general. He seems to possess an unlimited number of eyes. And he has a certain what I would call like Jedi mind trick where he talks to somebody, shakes their hand, and he’s like, you are thinking this right now. The person’s nodding and listening. And he’s like, oh, yeah, so I guess I’m that kind of person.
Sarah Harrison 1:31:23
Jedi mind trick. That’s a good way to put it.
Carolyn Daughters 1:31:27
We’ve had Auguste Dupin, and now we have Inspector Bucket.
Sarah Harrison 1:31:35
Bucket is very interesting. I have mixed feelings about him. He certainly doesn’t seem bumbling. He seems good at his job. Like in the Edgar Allan Poe stories, what struck me is that these detectives basically work for the rich. They get called in by Tulkinghorn. The aristocracy puts out a reward. It doesn’t seem like there’s a chief detective calling the shots. Wealthy landowners call them in as needed, and they perform work for them. That’s their job. That’s they do. I think that contributed to my mixed feelings about Bucket.
Carolyn Daughters 1:32:40
It’s like law and order apply only to a particular class.
Sarah Harrison 1:32:43
Right. Who’s paying the bills?
Carolyn Daughters 1:32:53
We get the sense that Tulkinghorn is paying some bills.
Sarah Harrison 1:32:57
Tulkinghorn is a very powerful character. He gets more and more powerful, as you read on. It’s very interesting.
Carolyn Daughters 1:33:06
I personally would not cross Mr. Tulkinghorn.
Sarah Harrison 1:33:09
At the beginning, I liked him. He seemed straightforward and thoughtful. As it goes on, it’s this power accumulation. And then he’s running over people.
Carolyn Daughters 1:33:25
Tulkinghorn seems to have a grudge against Lady Dedlock.
Sarah Harrison 1:33:30
The book refers to Tulkinghorn as knowing everyone’s secrets. And it seems like he has stumbled upon some weird secret and maybe even just resents not knowing the whole story yet. He is the knower of secrets. And I’m wondering if he took that personally.
Carolyn Daughters 1:34:01
We will see more about Mr. Tulkinghorn in the second Bleak House podcast episode. And more Inspector Bucket. And when we leave this story, at the end of Chapter 29, Lady Dedlock has realized Esther is her daughter. And in chapter 31, Esther is sick, and she’s blind.
Sarah Harrison 1:34:38
If you haven’t read it, you should read it. I know it’s long, but it clips right along.
Carolyn Daughters 1:34:48
I feel confident in saying your life will be better if you read this book. It’s an experience.
Sarah Harrison 1:34:58
It’s still so modern. I think really great books are. I think that the books that you’ve picked out as this foundation of mysteries will all be those kinds of books. I’m super excited to read them all. We’ll finish Bleak House and wrap up the Jarndyce and Jarndyce lawsuit. Then we’ll move on to The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins.
Carolyn Daughters 1:35:25
If you read Bleak House, it’s going to feel like you just read 10 novels. So just check 10 novels off your list.
Sarah Harrison 1:35:46
It’s vast. It’s multi-layered. But it’s still very accessible. And I think it really resonates. So. I’m glad you picked this book.
There is also a Bleak House miniseries starring Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock. She makes a really good Lady Dedlock.
One way to make sure you’re seeing the social posts is to visit @teatonicandtoxin on Facebook or Instagram.
Sarah Harrison 1:39:13
All right, Bleak House part two. Keep listening!
September 11, 2023
Sarah, Carolyn, and Mike Nugent keep the Maltese Falcon conversation flowing with LOADS more thoughts about Sam Spade, Effie Perine, Casper Gutman, Joel Cairo, and, of course, the ever-elusive Brigid O'Shaughnessy. Folks, we have a lot of ground to cover. Join us, won’t you?Listen →
August 4, 2023
Author Mike Nugent joins Sarah and Carolyn to talk about noir, crime fiction, and all things Sam Spade (who’s described as resembling a blond satan). The Maltese Falcon changed the way crime fiction was written. You’ll want to read it in one sitting and then give our podcast a listen.Listen →
July 30, 2023
Hey, Continental Op, what’s your deal? Are you a hero? Anti-hero? Something else altogether? Hear our thoughts about the Op, Dinah Brand, Whisper, and all the gang – and let us know your tally of how many people wind up dead in the book. It’s hard to keep track.Listen →