I’d rather be Jane than Esther.
The book review part of this little blog of mine has fallen by the wayside, and here’s why (of course I have a reason. We introspective [read: navel-gazer] types have a reason for everything.): Since I’ve been reading classics this year (Les Miserables, Anna Karenina, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Bleak House) (ok, yes, I’m bragging) my book reviews aren’t really just to tell you what they are about– rather, they assume some sort of insight into the book. You know, like thesis paper insight. And lately I’ve been fresh out of insight.
However, that said, I read Bleak House in March. First, a note about my edition: like every other book-lover in the world, I’m completely obsessed with the Penguin Clothbound Classics. The covers are gorgeous and clever (the birdcage motif on Bleak House is one of my favorites, but all the covers convey some sense of the novel within) the print is clear and readable, and the end notes and introductory essays are intelligent and up-to-date. (Doris Lessing’s intro to Lady Chatterley was especially great–she puts the novel into the cultural context of the Great War, and the return to nature impetus makes a lot more sense when contrasted with the first modern war.) Anyway. The editions are great. Absolutely wonderful. My absolute only qualm is that I’m so afraid I’m going to mess them up that I think about the book (rather than just the plot) a bit more than usual when I’m reading. No eating, no drinking, no bubble baths. At least for now. So yeah, I highly recommend the edition.
And Bleak House is highly recommended. There weren’t really any surprises in store–I’ve watched the BBC version with Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock more than once, so I anticipated the dreadful illness, the shocking revelation of Esther’s birth, and Krook’s mysterious demise. (If you haven’t seen this, do yourself a favor and make the time, for Gillian Anderson alone.)
So, since I wasn’t really as focused on the plot twists, I focused on Esther Summerson’s narrative. In case you haven’t read this, Dickens uses two voices throughout the novel–part of it is done in first-person reminiscence by Esther Summerson, who tells about her childhood, her life at Bleak House as the companion to Ada Clare, her shifting relationship and responsibilities to her guardian, and the revelations about her family. Basically, Esther is the eye inside–and her narrative is, for the most part, reliable. The other voice in the novel is a more impersonal third-person omniscient that discusses the things that Esther would have no knowledge of, such as the slums in London or the inter-workings of the Chancery Court. It’s an interesting, if somewhat unsettling, narrative technique. I never quite trust first person narrators–thanks to Agatha Christie for that–I’m always wondering what they are hiding, but Esther’s obfuscations seem to be pretty apparent–her refusals to discuss Dr. Woodcourt are (wink-wink-nudge-nudge) acknowledged in the text, and beyond that she seems pretty straightforward.
It’s a little foolish to compare characters from different works by different authors, but Esther’s first person narrative made it impossible for me not to compare her to good old Jane. Jane Eyre was published in 1847, Bleak House appeared five years later in 1852-3. While the scope of the two novels is quite different, since Esther provides the heart of Bleak House–she is the only character who is allowed an unmediated voice– I think you could argue that her story is most central to the novel as a whole.
First, the ways in which they are similar: both Esther Summerson and Jane Eyre are orphans, raised in very unsympathetic circumstances. Both leave an uncomfortable home with terrible relatives to be educated, and later teachers, in a girls’ school. Both then move into the homes of older, wealthy gentlemen to take care of wards. As such, both exist in kind of a satellite role–they have no real security (both could be abandoned without shame or trouble on the part of their protector) but they have some (limited) authority. (Both Dickens and Bronte explicitly or implicitly position the governess/companion/housekeeper in a different social strata than the actual servants.) Both are implicated in some sort of shame narrative–Esther because of who she is (her illigitimate birth), Jane because of who people try to make her (the bigamist’s wife, the unnatural child, the missionary wife.) (Not because being a missionary wife is implicitly shameful, but because according to Jane’s stated beliefs about marriage without love, to marry St. John would, in effect, be prostitution.)
Here’s where the similarity ends: I think Esther’s compliance with Jarndyce’s matrimonial plans (she doesn’t love him, he’s at least old enough to be her father, likely older, she basically just feels grateful) is what St. John was expecting from Jane he tells her she is expected to accompany him to India as his wife. Jane adamantly rejects the exchange of her hand merely for security, and then gets the in-the-nick-of-time call across the moors. Esther, on the other hand, seems content to sacrifice any sort of personal fulfillment on the altar of gratitude. She’s in love with Dr. Woodcourt (not, of course, that romantic attachment is the pinnacle of personal fulfillment, but still), he’s in love with her, yet she feels that the debt she owes to Mr. Jarndyce needs to be repaid by the gifting of herself. Even though Esther repeatedly marvels at her good fortune in being surrounded by people who love her, after a while all of that lovely self-sacrifice seems more like the price she is paying for the love rather than its fruit.
It “works out” for both Esther and Jane –Jarndyce sees the error of his ways and arranges, all in secret, the marriage of Esther to Dr. Woodcourt, and Bertha, of course, takes a fiery leap leaving Rochester free to marry Jane and St. John heading to India alone. But Esther is rescued from her fate–she essentially is a playing piece on the board that the good-hearted owner decides to put somewhere else. Jane rescues herself.