My apologies for not writing sooner – I’m sorry to say that you were neglected in favor of bathroom renovations this weekend. I even took today off so we could get the tile laid. Happily, that’s done, and since we can’t do anything else until the mortar has dried, I have some time to catch up on our correspondence and let you know how Bleak House is going.
Since last time, so much has happened that I hardly know where to begin. Not only that, but Esther and Mr. Bucket, detective, are hot on the trail of Lady Dedlock, and I almost didn’t want to write until I found out how that turns out. I hope there’s a happy ending in store, but I fear the phantom step on the Ghost’s Walk was not heard for nothing.
Since Esther’s recovery from smallpox, the many separate strands of your narrative have been rapidly converging to create one of the most exciting second volumes, ranking right up there with the riots in Barnaby Rudge. To list a bunch of spoilers in a row, Esther found out her mum is Lady Dedlock, Tulkinghorn also finds out that Lady Dedlock has a daughter, Guppy makes it VERY clear he’s no longer interested in Esther once he sees what smallpox has done to her (ugh, what a hilarious/sad/horrible scene), Richard and Ada go and get secretly married, Mr. Jarndyce proposes to Esther, Jo is found but promptly dies, Tulkinghorn is murdered and George is arrested, Lady Dedlock is suspected, and Bucket finally arrests Hortense, her very angry former maid, for the crime.
Meanwhile, Sir Deadlock suffers what sounds like a stroke on learning about his wife’s past, Mrs. Rouncewell tracks down her son, who is none other than George, and now, as I mentioned, Esther and Bucket (based on an actual detective) are chasing the absconded Lady Dedlock and have just finished questioning Guster, the Snagsby’s epileptic maid.
Good grief, man! We’ve barely paused for breath for hundreds of pages! Like Esther, I feel as if I’m sitting in the back of the carriage you’re driving, slightly dazed at the sheer volume of action.
And speaking of Esther, can I just say how glad I am that you chose her to be your first person narrator for so much of the book? True, she may not be Xena, warrior heroine, but I’ve been completely won over by her calm efficiency, optimism and pragmatism. Plus you gave her a little vanity, making her human enough to be affected by the changes in her appearance wrought by her illness. (This might just be me. Other people don’t seem to find her as likeable.)
Unlike previous books, where males have been the focus of most of the attention, you’ve given us a real sense here of the type of strength it takes for women to survive in Victorian England. There are a lot of women in these pages, my friend, and they all have their own strategies and methods of navigating their worlds. Compared with the obliviousness of Mrs. Jellyby, the jealousy of Mrs. Snagsby, the Vulcan-like suppression of emotion by Lady Dedlock and the blind devotion of Ada, Esther’s path through life may not be the most exciting, but it’s left her the least damaged by far. Only Mrs. Bagnet would appear to have an equally stable outlook, with the kind of independence that enabled her to travel across Europe by herself to be reunited with her doting husband. You even give Detective Bucket a wife with some mad detective skillz of her own (I envision them as the Nick and Nora Charles of Victorian London). It’s refreshing to have so many interesting female characters, many of whom are pivotal to the plot, and not just comic relief or pretty wallflowers.
I’m proud of you, Charlie, for exploring your feminine side.
And now I really must leave you and find out what the heck happens to all of these wonderful characters, male and female.
P.S. Much has changed since your day, Charlie, but here are photos (and an illustration) of some of the places mentioned in the novel.