Cover Bleak House 1852 3

Esther Summerson, the protagonist of Dickens’s Bleak House – insofar as that outrageously ambitious and wide-ranging novel can be said to have a protagonist – has come in for a lot of criticism over the decades. Charlotte Brontë found her “weak and twaddling”; Terry Eagleton calls her “insipid”; examples could easily be multiplied. She’s often linked with Agnes Wickfield of David Copperfield and Amy Dorrit of Little Dorrit: exemplars, it is said, of a certain Victorian ideal of femininity — serious, responsible, endlessly patient, methodically virtuous. I agree with this reading of Agnes, who is perhaps the only tiresome character in a wondrous book, and I think it at least defensible as an interpretation of little Amy Dorrit; but Esther is a different character altogether and doesn’t deserve the criticism she gets. Dickens is doing something quite subtle with the character of Esther; when she’s properly understood I think she stands forth as one of Dickens’s greatest creations.

Let’s have some context. 

Marshalsea prison London 18th century 3

As is well-known, when Dickens was eleven years old his father was arrested for debt and sent to the Marshalsea, a debtors’ prison on the south bank of the Thames, and young Charles was removed from school and sent to work in a factory. Charles, who was already ambitious and full of hopes for himself, hated every minute of it and felt that he was wasting away; moreover, he was separated from his family and lived in lodgings near the factory. He could scarcely believe — as, decades later, he told his friend and biographer John Forster — “how I could have been so easily cast away at such an age.” This situation lasted for about a year, and even after John Dickens was released — his mother died, and his inheritance enabled him to pay his debts — Charles’s parents considered keeping him working at the factory. It was John Dickens who decided to send Charles to school, over his wife’s objections. The adult Dickens to Forster: “I never afterwards forgot, I never shall forget, I never can forget, that my mother was warm for my being sent back.” (We cannot know what Elizabeth Dickens was thinking, but I suspect she knew that her husband would soon be in debt again — as indeed he was — and wished to find some means of keeping him out of the Marshalsea.) 

It’s hard to overstress the influence of this experience over the thought, and the fiction, of Charles Dickens. It touched him and shaped him in many ways, but one of the chief consequences was this: he acquired an abiding interest in how children respond to injustice and suffering of all kinds — if we can use a word now common, to trauma.

Only gradually in Bleak House do we discover Esther Summerson’s story — only gradually does she herself discover it. She was an illegitimate child, the product of an affair between one Captain Hawdon and an unmarried woman named Honoria, and nearly died in her first minutes of life — indeed, Honoria’s sister told her that the baby had died, and, shocked and horrified by the gross sin that had produced this child, immediately cut Honoria out of her life, and determined to raise the child herself. Of course, Esther was never told any of this; and while her aunt — never acknowledged as such; she called herself Esther’s godmother — gave Esther physical sustenance, she gave her no love. Once, Esther’s birthday was marked by this outburst: “It would have been far better, little Esther, that you had had no birthday, that you had never been born!” And she gave Esther this advice: “Submission, self-denial, diligent work, are the preparations for a life begun with such a shadow on it. You are different from other children, Esther, because you were not born, like them, in common sinfulness and wrath. You are set apart.” And from this point on Esther never for a moment forgot that she was “filling a place in [her godmother’s] house which ought to have been empty.” Filling a place which ought to have been empty — that’s quite a phrase. 

Again, what especially interests Dickens is how children respond to trauma, and here is how Esther responded to hers: 

I went up to my room, and crept to bed, and laid my doll’s cheek against mine wet with tears, and holding that solitary friend upon my bosom, cried myself to sleep. Imperfect as my understanding of my sorrow was, I knew that I had brought no joy at any time to anybody’s heart and that I was to no one upon earth what Dolly was to me.

Dear, dear, to think how much time we passed alone together afterwards, and how often I repeated to the doll the story of my birthday and confided to her that I would try as hard as ever I could to repair the fault I had been born with (of which I confessedly felt guilty and yet innocent) and would strive as I grew up to be industrious, contented, and kind-hearted and to do some good to some one, and win some love to myself if I could. 

“Guilty and yet innocent” of a life-blighting “fault.”

In George Orwell’s lacerating essay “Such, Such Were the Joys,” he narrates his years at school under the tyranny of abusive schoolmaster and his wife, and describes how he was constantly being told of his inferiority — he was a scholarship boy; his parents couldn’t afford the school’s fees — and the likelihood that he was headed for financial ruin or, at best, a miserable hand-to-mouth existence.

To grasp the effect of this kind of thing on a child of ten or twelve, one has to remember that the child has little sense of proportion or probability. A child may be a mass of egoism and rebelliousness, but it as no accumulated experience to give it confidence in its own judgements. On the whole it will accept what it is told, and it will believe in the most fantastic way in the knowledge and powers of the adults surrounding it.

And you can see that for just this reason Esther believes what her “godmother” tells her: that she should not exist, that her very being is “set apart” for unique shame, that she must devote her life to the service of others not in order to make her life worthwhile — that could never be — but to reduce, if only slightly, the humiliation of her very being. Esther believes it, and acts accordingly. 

Much later on, when the adult Esther contracts smallpox — something that happens because her kindness towards others puts her in danger — she nearly dies, and emerges with a deeply scarred face. She realizes that whatever looks she might have had are gone, and feels certain that the man she can barely bring herself to acknowledge loving could now never love her in return. Then, when the infinitely kind older man who has become her guardian plans to send her to a friend’s house for further healing, here’s what she thinks:  

When my guardian left me, I turned my face away upon my couch and prayed to be forgiven if I, surrounded by such blessings, had magnified to myself the little trial that I had to undergo. The childish prayer of that old birthday when I had aspired to be industrious, contented, and true-hearted and to do good to some one and win some love to myself if I could came back into my mind with a reproachful sense of all the happiness I had since enjoyed and all the affectionate hearts that had been turned towards me. If I were weak now, what had I profited by those mercies? I repeated the old childish prayer in its old childish words and found that its old peace had not departed from it. 

The point I want to make here is simply that everything Esther does and thinks — her investment in the lives of others; her perpetual kindness; her refusal of self-pity; her determination to give endlessly while expecting nothing in return — all arises from the profound trauma of being taught, and coming wholly to believe, that she is “filling a place … which ought to have been empty,” that her life can never be truly worthwhile, that the only love she will ever get is the love she can “win” through strenuous effort. 

Esther is a wounded healer; her goodness and compassion are real and admirable, but they are also a continual testimony to an injury that cannot be cured. Esther will never be able simply to rest in the love of her family and friends; she must always strive to earn it, again and again and again. In this sense she has indeed been “set apart”; her viciously judgmental aunt ensured that. In the end, things go well for Esther; but they go well for her in large part because of the character that she develops and demonstrates; and that character, in turn, is marked but also in a sense made by a grief and a shame that goes all the way down to the bone. “Insipid”? Anything but.

Dickens’s reflections on how children are affected by trauma always circle around a great mystery: some people get trapped in their trauma, remain perpetually victimized by it, re-enact the same patterns of mean-spirited or self-destructive behavior, all their lives; but others prove strikingly resilient, and find creative ways to meet that trauma, though it always marks them in some way. Dickens saw these two paths in his own family: his brother Fred ended up simply imitating the dissolute and improvident ways of their father, while his sister Fanny seems largely to have ignored her chaotic family life and made a decent career in music (though, sadly, she died in her thirties of tuberculosis, leaving behind a husband and two children). Who can say why some of the early-wounded take the one path and some the other? Dickens, as far as I can tell, didn’t think he knew, but, as one who escaped, he seems to have striven not to judge the ones who failed to manage it. When Fred died he wrote to Forster, “It was a wasted life, but God forbid that one should be hard upon it, or upon anything in this world that is not deliberately and coldly wrong.” Perhaps the striving was not wholly successful. 

Esther Summerson is not likely to be a role model for anyone today, in part because I don’t think our book-reading culture (such as it is) admires resilience. To our cultured folk, I think, a resilient person can’t have suffered all that badly; the only way you can authenticate your suffering is to succumb to it. But this is an unfortunate attitude. Esther’s story has some powerful — and not altogether comforting — lessons for those with ears to hear. 

Bleak House is, I think, one of the two greatest novels in English, the other being George Eliot’s Middlemarch. I used to teach it regularly, but since coming to Baylor I haven’t had the opportunity, so recently I picked it up to re-read for the first time in a decade. It has kept its hold upon me. I think in the coming days I’ll write a post or two on other elements of this marvelous book.