Bleak House: Dickens And Charity
The England of Charles Dickens was one plagued with disease, pollution, and poverty. This is the England that gave rise to the Salvation Army, the gin craze, and Benthamism, and it is no coincidence that Charles Dickens’ Bleak House has much to say about the question of charity. As Esther proceeds through life she is both the recipient of the charity of others as well as a bit of a philanthropist herself. However, it is John Jarndyce who is the central philanthropist in this novel. It is through his assistance that the causes of Miss Barbary, Mrs. Jellyby, Mrs. Pardiggle, Harold Skimpole, and, indeed, Esther Summerson are furthered. Nevertheless, Dickens does not always paint these characters’ charitable work in the most favorable light. Rather, one gets the feeling that their perspectives are a bit askew, and that they miss much of the good work they could be doing.
The first so-called philanthropist with which the reader has contact is Miss Barbary. Esther’s “godmother,” who is in fact her aunt, does much to provide the necessities of life for Esther, albeit through the generosity of Mr. Jarndyce. Nevertheless, the home she and Esther share is not necessarily a happy one. Esther tells us that though Miss Barbary was quite pious — “[s]he went to church three times every Sunday, and to morning prayers on Wednesdays and Fridays, and to lectures whenever there were lectures –, “she never smiled. She was always grave and strict” (28). It is in this home that Esther spends her early years, a home without friends, birthdays, or very much joy.
After the death of Miss Barbary, it is again Jarndyce who comes to the aid of Esther and arranges for her to attend Greenleaf, a boarding school in Reading. While in transit via coach Esther encounters Jarndyce — though she does not know that it is him at the time –, whom she finds to be “very strange” and a bit scary. As Esther begins to cry about her unknown future, Jarndyce attempts to console her with a plum cake and pie, a trick which the reader soon comes to recognize as his standard means of dealing with an adverse situation:
“In this paper,” which was nicely folded, “is a piece of the best plum-cake that can be got for money — sugar on the outside an inch thick, like fat on mutton chops. Here’s a little pie (a gem this is, both for size and quality), made in France. And what do you suppose it’s made of? Livers of fat geese. There’s a pie! Now let’s see you eat ’em.”
“Thank you, sir,” [Esther] replied, “thank you very much indeed, but I hope you won’t be offended; they are too rich for me.” (37-8)
Though “[s]uch a man is rich and good, warm-hearted and generous, golden at the core,” what Jarndyce fails to recognize is that Esther does not need an imported pie or the finest cakes “that can be got for money” (Goldfarb 144). What she needs is love, acceptance, and comfort — not a hand-out, no matter how luxurious.
Following her six years at Greenleaf, Esther once again finds herself under the influence of John Jarndyce; she is asked to serve in Bleak House, Jarndyce’s home. While en route she and two of Jarndyce’s other wards, Ada and Richard, spend the night at the home of Mrs. Jellyby, yet another cause Jarndyce has chosen to fund. While Mrs. Jellyby spends much time and energy addressing the issue of benefitting Africa, her home is a wreck, and she is abusing her daughter Caddy by forcing her to work so diligently for the cause as well. When Esther brings to the attention of Mr. Jarndyce the fact that “[Mrs. Jellyby] was a little unmindful of her home,” Jarndyce is “floored” (83). Esther suggests that “it is right to begin with the obligations of home […]; and that, perhaps, while those are overlooked and neglected, no other duties can possibly be substituted for them?” (83). Jarndyce responds: “She means well” (84). Such seems to be the whole of Jarndyce’s philanthropic mission: good intentions and well-meaning are all that is necessary to earn the charitable support of John Jarndyce.
While at Bleak House, Esther, Ada, and Richard meet Harold Skimpole, another of Jarndyce’s charity projects and a fine example of his philanthropic mission. A trained doctor, Skimpole has recently opted to live, thanks to the support of Jarndyce, the leisurely life of a dilettante. He manages to get Esther and Richard to contribute to the payment of one of his debts and, indeed, to forego any normal responsibility requisite of a grown-up life. For, “Harold Skimpole loves to see the sun shine; loves to hear the wind blow; loves to watch the changing lights and shadows; loves to hear the birds, those choristers in Nature’s great cathedral. And does it seem to me that I am about to deprive Harold Skimpole of his share in such possessions, which are his only birthright!” (99). Interestingly, it is a doctor, Skimpole, who Jarndyce has enabled to live a life of leisure. In a time and place where there is much suffering and disease — Esther herself becomes afflicted with smallpox — Skimpole should have much to offer to his society. Instead, he lives a comfortable life in Bleak House, allowing others to pay his debts, while he takes time to enjoy the sun shine.
Jarndyce’s young wards Esther, Ada, and Richard, are introduced to yet another of his charitable causes while in residence at Bleak House, Mrs. Pardiggle. “[A] formidable style of lady, with spectacles, a prominent nose, and a loud voice, who had the effect of wanting a great deal of room,” Mrs. Pardiggle takes great concern with her charitable work and with the assistance her five boys provide not so willingly. She is “a School lady, […] a Visiting lady, […] a Reading lady, […] a Distributing lady, […] on the local Linen Box Committee, and many general Committees,” and has done extensive canvassing (125-6). She takes Esther and Ada with her to visit a brickmaker, “a very bad character,” and his family (128). Upon arrival, Esther and Ada see “a woman with a black eye, nursing a poor little gasping baby by the fire; a man, all stained with clay and mud, and looking very dissipated, lying at full length on the ground, smoking a pipe; a powerful young man, fastening a collar on a dog; and a bold girl, doing some kind of washing in very dirty water” (130). To this group, Mrs. Pardiggle, with “not a very friendly sound” warns that she cannot be tired and will continue to make regular visits until the conditions are to her liking. Even though the brickmaker informs her that their situation is as it is, and will not likely be changed by her regular visits, Mrs. Pardiggle is insistent. What Mrs. Pardiggle fails to notice or even take interest in, and that which Esther and Ada do take interest in, is the baby. Upon closer inspection, they discover it is dead.
While the brickmaker is unable to rid himself of Mrs Pardiggle, Mr. Jarndyce has relatively little trouble; it has become his standard method of conflict resolution: writing a check. For, “[d]oing good for the sake of doing good is not his guiding impulse in life. He uses money, his unearned money, mostly to protect himself from the tribulations of life” (Goldfarb 145).
Perhaps it is Esther, a bit of a charity case herself, who is the most effective humanitarian in Bleak House. Where Miss Barbary provided only the most essential resources to Esther during her early years, when it Esther’s turn to provide a nurturing environment for the young girls at Greenleaf, she provides warmth and compassion alongside the requisite instruction. Though Esther does not have the means to offer rich plum cakes or imported kidney pies, she can offer companionship. And it is that companionship that Mr. Jarndyce comes to value quite highly, eventually asking her to marry him. The same is true in the situation with Mrs. Jellyby. Though Esther takes relatively little interest in the problems plaguing Africa, she does take quite an interest in Caddy, Mrs. Jellyby’s over-worked, neglected daughter, who becomes a dear friend. Even though Esther is suspicious of Harold Skimpole’s lifestyle, she does make the effort to help pay his debts. Furthermore, it is she, not Mrs Pardiggle, who takes an interest in lives of the brickmaker’s family, and, indeed, returns to provide some real assistance. “Nobody could seem at times so self-unmaking as Esther but ultimately she is self-making. She needs to receive enough from the past to be educated and to learn to exert herself, but it is not by inheritance, not by high class, not by Christian […] virtues that she progresses” (Blake 15). Esther in many ways embodies the Utilitarian ideal, but with a compassionate human face.
In a world as bleak as that depicted in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, it is no wonder that there are so many examples of people trying to provide for the needs of others. Whether it is Miss Barlaby meeting, through duty, the most essential of Esther’s needs, or John Jarndyce writing a check whenever a cause presents itself, or Mrs. Jellyby tirelessly working towards the betterment of Africa, or Harold Skimpole who has chosen to a live a life dependent on the goodwill of others, or Mrs. Pardiggle who exerts so much time and energy in so many causes that she finds important, everyone seems to be trying to improve the lives of others. Nevertheless, all of these efforts ultimately ring hollow. Indeed, it is Esther who seems to have the greatest impact, without investing any great sum of money, making any great sacrifice, or exerting any great amount of effort.
Blake, K. “Bleak House, Political Economy, Victorian Studies,” Victorian Literature and Culture, 25:1 (1997), 1-21.
Dickens, Charles. Bleak House. London: Penguin, 1996.
Goldfarb, Russell M. “John Jarndyce of Bleak House,” Sutdies in the Novel, 12:2 (1980), 144-52.
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