As it drove up, we saw that there were two people inside. There alighted from it, with some cloaks and wrappers, first the Frenchwoman whom I had seen in church, and secondly the pretty girl; the Frenchwoman with a defiant confidence; the pretty girl confused and hesitating.
“What now?” said Lady Dedlock. “Two!”
“I am your maid, my lady, at the present,” said the Frenchwoman. “The message was for the attendant.”
“I was afraid you might mean me, my Lady,” said the pretty girl.
“I did mean you, child,” replied her mistress, calmly. “Put that shawl on me.”
She slightly stooped her shoulders to receive it, and the pretty girl lightly dropped it in his place. The Frenchwoman stood unnoticed, looking on with her lips very tightly set….
“I am sorry,” said Lady Dedlock to Mr Jarndyce, “that we are not likely to renew our former acquaintance. You will allow me to send the carriage back for your two wards. It shall be here directly.”
But as he would on no account accept this offer, she took a graceful leave of Ada- none of me- and put her hand upon his proffered arm, and got into the carriage, which was a little, low, park carriage, with a hood.
“Come in, child,” she said to the pretty girl, “I shall want you. Go on!” (Bleak House 311)
Unsurprisingly in such a repressive world, the choice between the susceptible, youthful Rosa and the worldly, antagonistic Hortense favours the former and confirms the economic and social power enjoyed by Lady Dedlock as the acceptable alternative to passion. Hortense’s rejection by her mistress is consummately articulated through Lady Dedlock’s ostentatious benevolence towards Rosa and her strategic indifference to the Frenchwoman. Lady Dedlock attempts to humiliate Hortense through her playful teasing of the unworldly Rosa. There is an arch sexual undercurrent to this exchange that Esther’s narrative apparently colludes with, as she repeatedly positions Rosa as “the pretty girl”; a reference which reinforces the conventional aspects of Rosa’s attractiveness, and accentuates the individuality and passion of Hortense. So Lady Dedlock attempts to rid herself of her sexual nature as reflected in Hortense and opts for a new role as legitimate protectress of her virginal protégée, Rosa. If there were an unresolved sexual component to Lady Dedlock’s relation to her haughty French maid, then the violence that follows this dismissal would again accentuate the unlawful as a primary aspect of passion and would elide Hortense’s villainy as a murderess, with her villainy being linked to her palpable sexuality. The latter eventuality of course sheds an interesting perspective upon Esther’s own relationship with her darling Ada. Esther’s understanding of the Frenchwoman’s feelings of rejection stems from her own feelings of secret attraction to Ada. Once again it is worth noting that it is Esther who renders the scene suggestive through her narrative filter, and Lady Dedlock’s “I shall want you” is as playfully seductive as any accomplished tease could be. Lady Dedlock’s language is here as duplicitly villainous as that of Hortense, and just as loaded sexually.
It is also interesting that Hortense’s rejection is mirrored by Lady Dedlock’s apparent indifference to Esther, who is ignored by Lady Dedlock when her companions are both graciously acknowledged. This parallel surely allies the Frenchwoman with the narrator and raises questions about Lady Dedlock’s seemingly perverse intent. The care and tact bestowed upon Esther by Lady Dedlock earlier in this excursion to Chesney Wold have metamorphosed into purposeful unconcern. This exchange emanates from an oblique awareness of connection between Lady Dedlock and Esther that at this time remains intuitive and therefore susceptible to displacement. Lady Dedlock’s attitude to Esther underlines her ambivalence towards both maternity and sexual desire, and reinforces the insurmountable differences that separate both parent and child. Hence Esther’s need to preserve her fascination with Hortense’s passion through this unusual act of recollection, suggesting that the extraordinary quality of this event is dependent upon some secret truth that supports her autobiography. She suffuses her narrative here with a lyrical, sonorous vocabulary, underlining the balance between Hortense’s emotion and its expression that mirroring the hidden passions of others tears apart the veil of hypocrisy that surrounds relations at Chesney Wold. As the narrative voice is Esther’s, the tranquillity which ensues from this display is engendered by her construction of the Frenchwoman as the accumulative sign of earlier occurrences in this visit, which Esther cannot speak of directly, but which are made manifest through displacement.
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