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    Registered User kev67's Avatar
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    Esther Summerson

    Apparently George Bernard Shaw said she was maddening prig and that she was sanctimonious and sentimental. I read also that she is often hard to adapt to television, because she is basically too good to be interesting. In the book everyone loves her, except as a little girl by her aunt and Mrs Chadband. Without her disfiguring illness, she might have been difficult to sympathise with by the reader. I don't know if this is fair. She's a goody goody, a very conscientious, hardworking one; but so is Mr Woodcourt, and so is Mr Jarndyce. Ada was just as dull.

    All the same, she is not an interesting a narrator as Pip from Great Expectations. Pip developed serious character flaws. He became a snob and dropped his only close friends from childhood. By the end of the book, he is possibly an emotional cripple. I don't know if that makes him more likeable, but maybe it makes him more interesting. He also has an unreliable memory, which is apparent in particular regarding Estella, the girl he adores and aspires to be worthy of. Esther's narration might have been more interesting if she hinted some discrepancy between her perception of the events and the reality, but she seems to be telling her story pretty straight. Is there any suggestion that Esther is being unfair or misrepresenting anyone?

    Maybe all her goodness, her conscientiousness, and her work ethic results from her being unloved as a child. She craves love and approval. Maybe she is just a product of her Victorian, Protestant upbringing.

    https://thevictoriansage.wordpress.c...her-summerson/
    Last edited by kev67; 10-11-2014 at 07:03 PM.
    According to Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence once said that Balzac was 'a gigantic dwarf', and in a sense the same is true of Dickens.
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    I just watched a YouTube video in which Donna Tartt discussed Bleak House, one of her favourite books. She said that Esther Summerson was the first unreliable narrator in British literature. How so? She has a certain perspective; she is scathing about Mr Skimpole, Mrs Jellyby and Mr Turveydrop. Other characters obviously see things differently, but I would have said everything she said was fair comment, and probably reflected the views of the author. To me, she does not seem like Pip from Great Expectations, who definitely was a little unreliable as a narrator.
    According to Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence once said that Balzac was 'a gigantic dwarf', and in a sense the same is true of Dickens.
    Charles Dickens, by George Orwell

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    Here is an interesting review of Bleak House. This is what it says about Esther Summerson:

    They should read Bleak House too if they're convinced that omniscient narrators are the only kind you find in novels of the 1850s. To be sure, Dickens has one of these... But there's another narrator too: Esther Summerson, as slippery and blind as any postmodern trickster. The two narratives wind round each other like a double helix, generating new kinds of mysteries between them.

    Anyone too who likes to trot out that old line about Dickens not being able to do psychology, or women, or both, should try Bleak House. In Esther Summerson, the little busybody with the jangling keys and the plain face, he created an uncannily accurate portrait of how sanctimoniously awful someone with low self-esteem can be. Once you realise it's OK to want to slap Esther around a bit, she becomes a wonder of psychological observation.


    Is she sanctimonious? Other characters seemed to genuinely like her. Three men proposed marriage to her. She couldn't be that bad.

    The only hint to me that she is slippery, blind or sanctimoniously awful is that other characters seem to like the characters she is highly critical of. John Jarndyce and Richard Carston like Harold Skimpole, even though he does seem so reprehensible it is difficult to see how. She is critical of Mrs Jellyby, but Mrs Jellyby has supporters who think she is doing good work. Esther is also very scathing of the young man who visits her regularly to talk about her African project. When the Borioboola-Gha project collapses, Mrs Jellyby starts a campaign to get female MPs into Parliament. That does not sound so unreasonable these days. Lastly, Esther is very scathing about Mr Turveydrop's deportment, but her friend Caddy does not seem to mind him a bit.
    According to Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence once said that Balzac was 'a gigantic dwarf', and in a sense the same is true of Dickens.
    Charles Dickens, by George Orwell

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    Quote Originally Posted by kev67 View Post
    I just watched a YouTube video in which Donna Tartt discussed Bleak House, one of her favourite books. She said that Esther Summerson was the first unreliable narrator in British literature. How so? She has a certain perspective; she is scathing about Mr Skimpole, Mrs Jellyby and Mr Turveydrop. Other characters obviously see things differently, but I would have said everything she said was fair comment, and probably reflected the views of the author. To me, she does not seem like Pip from Great Expectations, who definitely was a little unreliable as a narrator.
    I first read Bleak House years ago, and found myself of two minds about it. It was structurally stunning, devastating in its satire, frequently hilarious, and had the power to shock after all the years. On the other hand--and I kept it a secret at the time--there was, well, Esther. I didn't so much find her boring and priggish as irritating as hell with all her "I'm-not-a clever-persons" and "Oh-he-derseves-someone-betters," and "A-disfiguring-skin-disease-sort-of-suit-mes." It wasn't that she was too good to be likable, it was just that she was just such a victim, and such a limp rag about it, too. Yes, there was the psychological development from a childhood in which she was repeatedly told that she was worthless, but there seemed to be something a little unsavory going on, too--as if Dickens saw Esther as being so good specifically because she was such a victim. Worse yet, there was an erotic quality to her that made the character seem especially unhealthy to me. Her relationship with John Jarndyce in particular gave me the creeps.

    Quite a few years later I watched a BBC production of Bleak House on television (at least I think it was from BBC--I was living in America at the time, so I actually saw it on PBS). The actress who played Esther, in my opinion, did a brilliant job. She gave the character a quasi-feminist interpretation (the last thing I would have expected) in which Esther's words and manners were subtly belied by her eyes and facial expressions, as if the things she said were a kind of code for the things she actually believed or wanted to achieve. (The parts with Jarndyce in the growelry still made me want to wash).

    I was so intrigued by this interpretation that I reread the book to see if the problem had been me all along. (I'm an old coot now, and I tend to be as critical of younger versions of myself as Esther was of her intellect and looks). Bleak House, of course, was greater than I could have appreciated when I was an idiot kid, and Esther now seemed more gentle, plain, and virtuous to me than just annoyingly useless. And though the feminist interpretation was not unambiguously evident on a second reading (Esther can be a bit of a limp rag at times), for one of Dickens' "suffering virgins" she has more control over her happiness than some.

    I wonder if Donna Tartt could have been referring to something along those lines. Esther could be taken as a subjective narrator simply because her statements do not always reflect her real motives, views, or modus operandi. In that reading, the real Esther knew her worth from the start and beat the system at its own game--because how else would a woman like Esther get what she wanted in Victorian England? (And get it, of course, she did).

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    The one who irritates me as a limp female rag is Ada. But we only see her through Esther's eyes, and Esther is liable to idealise those who are nice to her. But she sees through Harold Skimpole, Mrs Jellaby and Mr Turveydrop Senior without being *****y about them.
    Previously JonathanB

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    Quote Originally Posted by JonathanB View Post
    The one who irritates me as a limp female rag is Ada. But we only see her through Esther's eyes, and Esther is liable to idealise those who are nice to her. But she sees through Harold Skimpole, Mrs Jellaby and Mr Turveydrop Senior without being *****y about them.
    It's odd that a book filled with bizarre and arresting characters has two such bland ones at its center (or three perhaps--Richard's nothing to write home about). At least Jarndyce is a bit bipolar. But Richard seems like a one-dimensional illustration from The Rake's Progress. Skimpole's vile but at least he's fun to watch--and the reason that Richard and Ada's story works at all.

    But neither of them bothered me as much as Esther, at least on my first reading. The reason was simple: there was no escaping her. Dickens was so in love with Esther that he gave her half the narration. All those bizarre and arresting characters were filtered through her lens. Resistance was futile.

    I suppose Dickens virgins are just the price one pays for his genius. I'm in the back chapters of Little Dorrit at the moment and find Amy somewhat easier to bear than Esther (but only somewhat). It helps that she is not telling the story. When Dickens wants to call attention to her child-like stature or submissive postures, he has to do the dirty work himself. For me, this gives Amy Dorrit a kind of integrity that is less evident in Esther Summerson. It is easier for me to see Amy as acting to help herself and her pathetic family, despite them and despite her social status as "Daughter of the Marshalsea." If Esther is a heroine (and of course she is), she remains a rather passive and manipulative one.
    Last edited by Pompey Bum; 10-19-2014 at 09:43 PM.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Pompey Bum View Post
    I first read Bleak House years ago, and found myself of two minds about it. It was structurally stunning, devastating in its satire, frequently hilarious, and had the power to shock after all the years. On the other hand--and I kept it a secret at the time--there was, well, Esther. I didn't so much find her boring and priggish as irritating as hell with all her "I'm-not-a clever-persons" and "Oh-he-derseves-someone-betters," and "A-disfiguring-skin-disease-sort-of-suit-mes." It wasn't that she was too good to be likable, it was just that she was just such a victim, and such a limp rag about it, too. Yes, there was the psychological development from a childhood in which she was repeatedly told that she was worthless, but there seemed to be something a little unsavory going on, too--as if Dickens saw Esther as being so good specifically because she was such a victim. Worse yet, there was an erotic quality to her that made the character seem especially unhealthy to me. Her relationship with John Jarndyce in particular gave me the creeps.

    Quite a few years later I watched a BBC production of Bleak House on television (at least I think it was from BBC--I was living in America at the time, so I actually saw it on PBS). The actress who played Esther, in my opinion, did a brilliant job. She gave the character a quasi-feminist interpretation (the last thing I would have expected) in which Esther's words and manners were subtly belied by her eyes and facial expressions, as if the things she said were a kind of code for the things she actually believed or wanted to achieve. (The parts with Jarndyce in the growelry still made me want to wash).

    I was so intrigued by this interpretation that I reread the book to see if the problem had been me all along. (I'm an old coot now, and I tend to be as critical of younger versions of myself as Esther was of her intellect and looks). Bleak House, of course, was greater than I could have appreciated when I was an idiot kid, and Esther now seemed more gentle, plain, and virtuous to me than just annoyingly useless. And though the feminist interpretation was not unambiguously evident on a second reading (Esther can be a bit of a limp rag at times), for one of Dickens' "suffering virgins" she has more control over her happiness than some.

    I wonder if Donna Tartt could have been referring to something along those lines. Esther could be taken as a subjective narrator simply because her statements do not always reflect her real motives, views, or modus operandi. In that reading, the real Esther knew her worth from the start and beat the system at its own game--because how else would a woman like Esther get what she wanted in Victorian England? (And get it, of course, she did).
    I found her self-denigration slightly irritating. You don't like to hear people run themselves down or show too much false modesty. It was bogus too, because, after all, she did not think William Guppy was good enough for her. Mr Woodcourt was good enough, but Mr Woodcourt is rather special: a philanthropic doctor from a fine family. He is not a ridiculous, lower-middle-class articled clerk.

    Regarding her relationship with John Jarndyce, there were a couple of things I found unsettling. Jarndyce calls her by a lot of nicknames, such as little woman, Dame Durden, and several others. However affectionally meant, they are also a little demeaning. Esther can hardly object, given that she is entirely dependent on him. When later Jarndyce proposes to her, it is disturbing, and not just because of the age difference. Jarndyce is certainly fond of Esther but is not passionately in love with her. He is a confirmed batchelor, who maybe does not like to live on his own in his big house. He was certainly in no great hurry to set a date. iirc, he proposes to her when Mr Woodcourt is thought to have been lost in the shipwreck, but anyway, after she had been disfigured by smallpox. Maybe he reckons he is doing her a favour. Maybe he thinks she'd like family and children, but now no man would touch her. Despite Jarndyce in his letter saying that if she rejected his proposal, everything would be fine, Esther must have felt it very difficult to turn him down.
    According to Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence once said that Balzac was 'a gigantic dwarf', and in a sense the same is true of Dickens.
    Charles Dickens, by George Orwell

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    There similarities between Esther Summerson and Jane Eyre. Both are brought up by uncaring aunts. Both are unloved as children. As little girls, both have only their dolls to confide in. Both are sent away to school, where eventually they are happy. In Jane's case this was only after an outbreak of typhus fever had led to a reconstitution of the school governing board. Jane also had to cope with the death of her best friend, but her later years at the school were happy. Both are a bit self denigrating. Esther says she is not clever. Jane says she is small and plain. To me they both seem a little brittle, and they can both be very critical of others. Jane is more pro-active than Esther. She applied for her position at Thornfield Hall and was considering applying for a position somewhere else before Mr Rochester's arrival. Jane runs away from Thornfield Hall rather than compromise herself. Both consider marrying men they do not love, when marriage to their true loves seems no longer possible. Jane is more up front than Esther on why she does not relish marrying St John Rivers.
    According to Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence once said that Balzac was 'a gigantic dwarf', and in a sense the same is true of Dickens.
    Charles Dickens, by George Orwell

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    Quote Originally Posted by kev67 View Post
    I found her self-denigration slightly irritating. You don't like to hear people run themselves down or show too much false modesty. It was bogus too, because, after all, she did not think William Guppy was good enough for her. Mr Woodcourt was good enough, but Mr Woodcourt is rather special: a philanthropic doctor from a fine family. He is not a ridiculous, lower-middle-class articled clerk.

    Regarding her relationship with John Jarndyce, there were a couple of things I found unsettling. Jarndyce calls her by a lot of nicknames, such as little woman, Dame Durden, and several others. However affectionally meant, they are also a little demeaning. Esther can hardly object, given that she is entirely dependent on him. When later Jarndyce proposes to her, it is disturbing, and not just because of the age difference. Jarndyce is certainly fond of Esther but is not passionately in love with her. He is a confirmed batchelor, who maybe does not like to live on his own in his big house. He was certainly in no great hurry to set a date. iirc, he proposes to her when Mr Woodcourt is thought to have been lost in the shipwreck, but anyway, after she had been disfigured by smallpox. Maybe he reckons he is doing her a favour. Maybe he thinks she'd like family and children, but now no man would touch her. Despite Jarndyce in his letter saying that if she rejected his proposal, everything would be fine, Esther must have felt it very difficult to turn him down.
    It's an interesting point about poor Guppy, a hilarious character, but who exposes a degree of hypocrisy in Dickens' 19th century liberalism. Henry Fielding, in an earlier generation, would have made Guppy just as ridiculous and then shown how Woodcourt was really no better. That's definitely not our Chuck, though.

    In Dickens I have sometimes wondered whether there may be a self-deprecating, autobiographic quality to Guppy. Dickens, of course, labored unhappily as a law clerk during a difficult period of his life. I'm just speculating, to be sure, and more likely he is merely lampooning what he remembers of his fellows during that time. For all his magnanimity, I don't think Dickens shows a great capacity for self-mockery. But I suppose I could play the shrink and say that he is mocking his youthful self whether he knows it or not.

    I think that the point of the Jardyce "romance" is that Esther is tempted, after her disfiguring illness, to settle for the wrong man--albeit a good man for whom she holds a kind of spiritual love--because she is convinced that the right man will not have her now. To this odd couples credit, they recognize their mistake in time, and Esther is finally able to overcome herself (and the voices of her childhood) enough to "get the guy" and win the day. My only problem with it is the age difference (was Esther also Jarndyce's ward? He was supposed to be her protector in any case) and Dickens general coziness with the situation. Yes, the past is a foreign country, but it still retains a certain yuckiness to me.

    Dame Durden, by the way, was a mildly bawdy popular tune in Dickens time, about a group of milkmaids and "laboring lads" who throw caution to the wind one Valentine's morn. It's a cute song.

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    Ha, Shaw said that? Esther? Sanctimonious? She's not making a show of being good. She is good. Sentimental? Dickens is always sentimental. Maddening prig? Why, that's just his taste speaking.

    Yeah, of course Pip is more interesting. The whole Great Expectations is a story of his tragedy after all. Esther is just one piece of Bleak House. Bleak House doesn't really have a main protagonist like Great Expectations.

    I believe Esther is one of your usual ideal Dickensian character, full of kindness and love and whatnot. As usual, it's to contrast with the likes of Mrs. Jellby and Mrs. Pardiggle and Mr. Chadband. I don't think Dickens cared what upbringing caused her to become like that. She is a paragon character (one we don't see much these days thanks to people like Mr. George Bernard Shaw)

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    Quote Originally Posted by kev67 View Post
    I just watched a YouTube video in which Donna Tartt discussed Bleak House, one of her favourite books. She said that Esther Summerson was the first unreliable narrator in British literature. How so? She has a certain perspective; she is scathing about Mr Skimpole, Mrs Jellyby and Mr Turveydrop. Other characters obviously see things differently, but I would have said everything she said was fair comment, and probably reflected the views of the author. To me, she does not seem like Pip from Great Expectations, who definitely was a little unreliable as a narrator.
    Yeah, Esther views things like Dickens does. That's why we got some social criticism moments from her mouth, which may feel a little jarring to her all good, non-sarcastic personality.

    Which one is first? Little Dorrit or Great Expectations? It's either Pip or Miss Wade's chapter, both are an excellent display on unreliable viewpoints by Dickens.

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    Quote Originally Posted by kev67 View Post
    Here is an interesting review of Bleak House. This is what it says about Esther Summerson:

    They should read Bleak House too if they're convinced that omniscient narrators are the only kind you find in novels of the 1850s. To be sure, Dickens has one of these... But there's another narrator too: Esther Summerson, as slippery and blind as any postmodern trickster. The two narratives wind round each other like a double helix, generating new kinds of mysteries between them.

    Anyone too who likes to trot out that old line about Dickens not being able to do psychology, or women, or both, should try Bleak House. In Esther Summerson, the little busybody with the jangling keys and the plain face, he created an uncannily accurate portrait of how sanctimoniously awful someone with low self-esteem can be. Once you realise it's OK to want to slap Esther around a bit, she becomes a wonder of psychological observation.


    Is she sanctimonious? Other characters seemed to genuinely like her. Three men proposed marriage to her. She couldn't be that bad.

    The only hint to me that she is slippery, blind or sanctimoniously awful is that other characters seem to like the characters she is highly critical of. John Jarndyce and Richard Carston like Harold Skimpole, even though he does seem so reprehensible it is difficult to see how. She is critical of Mrs Jellyby, but Mrs Jellyby has supporters who think she is doing good work. Esther is also very scathing of the young man who visits her regularly to talk about her African project. When the Borioboola-Gha project collapses, Mrs Jellyby starts a campaign to get female MPs into Parliament. That does not sound so unreasonable these days. Lastly, Esther is very scathing about Mr Turveydrop's deportment, but her friend Caddy does not seem to mind him a bit.
    She likes Skimpole though, but she's critical enough (Dickens' critical eye) to see that he got issues which became problematic later on.

    Mrs Jellby is legit abandoning her kids. Look at Caddy.

    And the ending part was just saying that Mrs Jellyby kept on trucking even though her African project was a failure, while her husband and children are still abandoned. I don't even think that was written in Esther's perspective.

    The last one about the deportment is a legit one though, but it's obvious it was Dickens parodying gentlemen who aren't doing anything except being gentle. It's true we don't get any other viewpoints about him.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Pompey Bum View Post
    I first read Bleak House years ago, and found myself of two minds about it. It was structurally stunning, devastating in its satire, frequently hilarious, and had the power to shock after all the years. On the other hand--and I kept it a secret at the time--there was, well, Esther. I didn't so much find her boring and priggish as irritating as hell with all her "I'm-not-a clever-persons" and "Oh-he-derseves-someone-betters," and "A-disfiguring-skin-disease-sort-of-suit-mes." It wasn't that she was too good to be likable, it was just that she was just such a victim, and such a limp rag about it, too. Yes, there was the psychological development from a childhood in which she was repeatedly told that she was worthless, but there seemed to be something a little unsavory going on, too--as if Dickens saw Esther as being so good specifically because she was such a victim. Worse yet, there was an erotic quality to her that made the character seem especially unhealthy to me. Her relationship with John Jarndyce in particular gave me the creeps.

    Quite a few years later I watched a BBC production of Bleak House on television (at least I think it was from BBC--I was living in America at the time, so I actually saw it on PBS). The actress who played Esther, in my opinion, did a brilliant job. She gave the character a quasi-feminist interpretation (the last thing I would have expected) in which Esther's words and manners were subtly belied by her eyes and facial expressions, as if the things she said were a kind of code for the things she actually believed or wanted to achieve. (The parts with Jarndyce in the growelry still made me want to wash).

    I was so intrigued by this interpretation that I reread the book to see if the problem had been me all along. (I'm an old coot now, and I tend to be as critical of younger versions of myself as Esther was of her intellect and looks). Bleak House, of course, was greater than I could have appreciated when I was an idiot kid, and Esther now seemed more gentle, plain, and virtuous to me than just annoyingly useless. And though the feminist interpretation was not unambiguously evident on a second reading (Esther can be a bit of a limp rag at times), for one of Dickens' "suffering virgins" she has more control over her happiness than some.

    I wonder if Donna Tartt could have been referring to something along those lines. Esther could be taken as a subjective narrator simply because her statements do not always reflect her real motives, views, or modus operandi. In that reading, the real Esther knew her worth from the start and beat the system at its own game--because how else would a woman like Esther get what she wanted in Victorian England? (And get it, of course, she did).
    lol erotic? What the hell are you reading? John Jarndyce is being perfectly reasonable with his proposal. He even lets Woodhouse win when he realizes Esther is too good to realize she loves him more.

    And Dickens would never write Esther like that. The guy values honesty and love above all else. That attitude of "we must beat the patriarchy in their own game!" gets criticized in Hard Times. There is a reason why some people say Dickens' solution to poverty is for rich people to be nicer to the poor.

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    Quote Originally Posted by kev67 View Post
    I found her self-denigration slightly irritating. You don't like to hear people run themselves down or show too much false modesty. It was bogus too, because, after all, she did not think William Guppy was good enough for her. Mr Woodcourt was good enough, but Mr Woodcourt is rather special: a philanthropic doctor from a fine family. He is not a ridiculous, lower-middle-class articled clerk.

    Regarding her relationship with John Jarndyce, there were a couple of things I found unsettling. Jarndyce calls her by a lot of nicknames, such as little woman, Dame Durden, and several others. However affectionally meant, they are also a little demeaning. Esther can hardly object, given that she is entirely dependent on him. When later Jarndyce proposes to her, it is disturbing, and not just because of the age difference. Jarndyce is certainly fond of Esther but is not passionately in love with her. He is a confirmed batchelor, who maybe does not like to live on his own in his big house. He was certainly in no great hurry to set a date. iirc, he proposes to her when Mr Woodcourt is thought to have been lost in the shipwreck, but anyway, after she had been disfigured by smallpox. Maybe he reckons he is doing her a favour. Maybe he thinks she'd like family and children, but now no man would touch her. Despite Jarndyce in his letter saying that if she rejected his proposal, everything would be fine, Esther must have felt it very difficult to turn him down.
    lol are you for real? Why would you accept a proposal from some guy who came out of nowhere and just kneeled and said "Would you marry me?". And then he stalks her around like a creeper.

    What is this bull**** negative reading?

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    Quote Originally Posted by Pompey Bum View Post
    It's an interesting point about poor Guppy, a hilarious character, but who exposes a degree of hypocrisy in Dickens' 19th century liberalism. Henry Fielding, in an earlier generation, would have made Guppy just as ridiculous and then shown how Woodcourt was really no better. That's definitely not our Chuck, though.

    In Dickens I have sometimes wondered whether there may be a self-deprecating, autobiographic quality to Guppy. Dickens, of course, labored unhappily as a law clerk during a difficult period of his life. I'm just speculating, to be sure, and more likely he is merely lampooning what he remembers of his fellows during that time. For all his magnanimity, I don't think Dickens shows a great capacity for self-mockery. But I suppose I could play the shrink and say that he is mocking his youthful self whether he knows it or not.

    I think that the point of the Jardyce "romance" is that Esther is tempted, after her disfiguring illness, to settle for the wrong man--albeit a good man for whom she holds a kind of spiritual love--because she is convinced that the right man will not have her now. To this odd couples credit, they recognize their mistake in time, and Esther is finally able to overcome herself (and the voices of her childhood) enough to "get the guy" and win the day. My only problem with it is the age difference (was Esther also Jarndyce's ward? He was supposed to be her protector in any case) and Dickens general coziness with the situation. Yes, the past is a foreign country, but it still retains a certain yuckiness to me.

    Dame Durden, by the way, was a mildly bawdy popular tune in Dickens time, about a group of milkmaids and "laboring lads" who throw caution to the wind one Valentine's morn. It's a cute song.
    I don't see the point of making Woodcourt ridiculous really.

    Bleh, age difference shouldn't be a hindrance in romance. I thought you 21st progressives would agree. Yuckiness is the word conservatives would use against gay marriage.

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