Chapter eighteen of Bleak House closes with a curious and brilliant image: Mademoiselle Hortense walking barefoot through the wet grass of Chesney Wold, after she has been publicly humiliated by her employer, Lady Dedlock.
We passed not far from the house, a few minutes afterwards. Peaceful as it had looked when we first saw it, it looked even more so now, with a diamond spray glittering all about it, a light wind blowing, the birds no longer hushed but singing strongly, everything refreshed by the late rain, and the little carriage shining in the doorway like a fairy carriage made of silver. Still, very steadfastly and quietly walking towards it, a peaceful figure too in the landscape, went Mademoiselle Hortense, shoeless, through the wet grass. (Bleak House 312; emphasis added)
Esther’s narration surprises us almost as much as Hortense’s distinctive reaction, for the tone and register of Esther’s narrative convey an overriding sense of harmony and integration, which appears to be apparently at odds with the discordant events that have preceded Hortense’s damp walk through the grass of Chesney Wold. The reader rather expects the events to be narrated in terms of the French maid’s feelings of rejection and hostility reinforcing the third-person narrator’s view of Hortense as a mere villainess-in-waiting. Furthermore, in view of Hortense’s later murderous role in the novel, this peculiar narrative accent upon the serenity of the walk seems curiously at odds with her eventual criminality and textual function, so that this elected emphasis must reveal a particular and unexpected narrative on the part of Esther, an investment that is not immediately or obviously apparent. This is further problematised by the fact that Esther’s retrospective narration in Bleak House endeavours to veil this actual retrospect and physical distance from the events in the main body of the text, through Esther’s consistent attempts at chronological integrity. Indeed the moments when Esther breaks the frames of continuity are very clearly delineated and offer a certain ironic commentary upon the past. However, in this episode Esther does not offer any commentary outside of the representation of the events themselves; this raises questions about Esther’s actual reading of Hortense’s final significance within her first-person narrative.
It could be argued that the power and marked sensuality of Esther’s representation of Hortense in this episode emanates primarily from Esther’s first (and penultimate) meeting with her estranged mother, Lady Dedlock, an event relayed earlier in this chapter, but profoundly affecting Esther’s narrative register and voice in the rest of the chapter. Also it secretes aspects of this encounter that can never be presenced or admitted explicitly in the narrative, being symptomatic of the recurring predilection for displacement and emotional surrogacy in Bleak House. If Hortense is an “outlaw” in the novel, then perhaps this function is more intimately considered within Esther’s own autobiographical narrative. Esther’s translation of Hortense’s strange act of retaliation must alert the reader to a version of Esther that has not been previously foregrounded- one which is rejuvenating as it emphasises the sensual and draws attention to a possible sexual geography in the text that we have failed to anticipate, let alone expected to confront within the constraints of Esther’s self-consciously virtuous narrative. This peculiar episode indirectly accommodates Hortense as a member of the narrative community, in so far as Esther positions Hortense within her narrative as a member of the narrative community, rather than being a mere tool and villainess, therefore challenging any temptation on the reader’s part to relegate Hortense to the level of mere functionality in terms of the detective plot.
Esther narrates her version of the events of Bleak House from a retrospect of seven years, a perspective that involves acts of narrative reconstruction and re-evaluation, as well as being delivered through the manipulation of a past tense that affects both immediacy and ingenuousness. If this is so, the Esther’s description of her encounter with Lady Dedlock must on some level reflect both her knowledge of her mother’s true identity as well as her own emotional investment in this knowledge, whilst also obscuring this pivotal information in order to preserve the chronological integrity of the text. And if passion by its very nature can be seen as disruptive as it breaks with imposed decorum, then passion in the world of Bleak House seems emphatically destructive as it is rendered illicit, secretive and finally of course unlawful. It is this unlawful aspect of passion that dramatically unites Hortense and Lady Dedlock against the sterile stagnancy of the lawyer, Tulkinghorn, and adds conspicuous irony to the manner of his violent death, a bullet through his rusty, obsolete heart.
The Woman in Black
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