I wonder if Esther Summerson in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House is as unpopular with today’s young readers as she was in my student days? How we sneered with contempt and impatience when her diffident, self-effacing voice took over the narrative.
The coyness and self-consciousness with which she reveals her story and her character still jar today. How can you read, ‘I don’t know how it is I seem to be always writing about myself…you tiresome little creature, I wish you wouldn’t!’ without wanting to hurl the book at the wall?
However, it’s a mistake to let the dodgy tone blind us to the nature of Esther’s life, in particular, her formative years.
Hers is the story of an illegitimate child, brought up by a ‘godmother’ who never tires of telling her that she should never have been born. ‘Your mother is your disgrace,’ she informs the child, ‘and you were hers.’
Esther’s birthday is ‘the most melancholy day at home in the whole year’. ‘Submission, self-denial, diligent work’ are the requirements for a life blighted by such a shadow.
And Esther has to believe the words of her grim, unsmiling godmother, who is a ‘good good woman’ and goes to church three times every Sunday, and to morning prayers on Wednesdays and Fridays, and attends improving lectures.
Oh, Mr Dickens, we see what you’re doing here, but little Esther is confused, and is wracked with self-reproach at her inability to love this appalling woman, who sees it as her duty to blot out all traces of Esther’s existence, until she is ‘entirely friendless, nameless, and unknown’.
Yes, Esther’s really annoying, especially when she says something nice about herself, or repeats others’ positive comments, only to bashfully apologise and half-retract the observation.
But her upbringing has instilled the notion that she does not deserve love, and the mixture of gratitude an disbelief with which Esther receives gestures of affection is understandable.
Poor Esther is a victim twice-over.
She’s a victim of the circumstances of her birth and of her upbringing, and she is the victim of her creator. Dickens fashions Esther to represent a Victorian ideal of womanhood, devoted to domesticity and to acts of selflessness and sacrifice.
This version of womanhood was unpalatable to many even in its historical context. Little wonder that later readers have united in howls of objection as we are asked to admire such a model of virtue in all her grating humility.
Esther gains status and increasing self-esteem through the position she is given in the Jarndyce household.
More than just a housekeeper, the order she creates in the domestic sphere is a bastion against the chaos everywhere else.
Again, it’s the tone and the words which undermine her status. Esther herself calls her methodical approach to housekeeping ‘old-maidish’, and the nicknames she is given such as ‘Dame Durden’ and ‘Little Old Woman’ and ‘Mother Hubbard’ diminish the significance of her role and render her somewhat sexless.
Whenever Esther rises, something slaps her down again and keeps her in her place.
She starts to fall for the nice doctor Alan Woodcourt, who she refers to oh-so-casually at the end of chapters — oh look, she chirrups, I almost forgot to mention him — and Alan shows interest in her.
But the possibility of Esther being allowed to enjoy reciprocated love is threatened when, through an act of charity, she contracts what we believe to be smallpox, although it’s never actually stated. The facial scars caused by the disease alter her appearance, and her innate sense of unworthiness is intensified.
The passage describing Esther looking at her changed reflection for the first time is very moving: ‘I had never been a beauty and had never thought myself one, but I had been very different from this.’
Things work out for Esther in the end. There are a few tricky chapters when it seems that she might marry John Jarndyce, who she loves platonically as a dear friend and father-figure, and to whom she is totally indebted, but a ‘fairy-tale’ ending prevails and she marries Alan.
In the course of time her scars fade and Alan says she is prettier than she ever was. Aah. But a less than happy finale for Esther would have been intolerable.
She is the novel’s moral compass and the voice of reason and compassion in a world marked by viciousness and self-interest. Throughout her journey (as we say these days) she has acquired strength. She has shown the ability to forgive. Her capacity for selfless love encompasses even those who have wronged her, yet at the same time she can speak out against wrongdoing.
Esther might actually be be more favourably received by a contemporary audience attuned to the conventions of misery memoirs.
Nowadays we have a ready vocabulary with which to discuss her situation. Our sympathy is instantly evoked for those we can call victims of emotional abuse.
We know about the damaging effects of low self-esteem, and we understand how those who suffer from it long for the love and affection which they believe they don’t deserve.
Esther could be a poster girl for the confessional genre. A few appearances on Oprah-style shows and some tearful acknowledgments of those who have had faith in her, maybe a link to a makeover programme with advice about how to deal with those annoying scars — yes, Esther Summerson could be a media hit.
Even the irritating housey stuff, all those ‘fidgety ways’ and all that ‘jingling the housekeeping keys’ could be modishly aligned with the zen-like power of de-cluttered domestic order.
However, such a distortion would do Esther a further disservice. She represents more enduring values. Her life of quiet contentment and service of others is enough for her.
She and Alan are prosperous without being wealthy. The thanks which Alan receives for his untiring work as a doctor are riches enough. And Esther herself is viewed affectionately and with respect, although of course she owes all this to Alan…
Oh dear. That coy tone again. If only, like her facial disfigurement, it had faded.