Nothin’ but action

Dear Charlie,

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.

The good news: Hey! I’m your mom!
The bad news: You can’t ever tell anyone and we can never see each other again. Kthxbye.

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.)

Mrs. Bagnet does some detective work of her own and finds Mrs. Rouncewell’s lost son, George.

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.

Affectionately yours,


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.

Of parentage and pork chops

Dear Charlie,

You know how you said, “It was one of those March days, where “it is summer in the light and winter in the shade”? Well, here in Calgary it’s April, there’s no sun, and it is winter wherever you look. Good thing I have some Bleak House to make my weekend more enjoyable. And speaking of your wonderful book, two things have happened recently that have caught my particular attention.

Esther and Caddy

Firstly, there was that bombshell of Esther’s parentage revealed in a single cry, which hasn’t been made reference to since (granted, I’m not very much further along in the story). There was always a certain degree of mystery about Esther’s past, but I had sort of assumed that the great secret would be kept until a properly dramatic part of the book’s climax. I was a bit disconcerted by the abrupt reveal at first, but upon reflection, now that only one character and your readers know the truth, I’m looking forward to some deliciously tense moments, and finding how Esther comes to learn of the secret (I’m assuming she will, dear girl, and that she won’t die of smallpox, or whatever illness currently has her bedridden).

As sweet as Esther is, and as interesting as it has been having her story in the first person, while the others are in the third (I’m guessing you found the voice you established in David Copperfield a touch confining when it came to secondary plots and characters), she and her crew are a pretty boring lot, especially now that Richard’s gone off soldiering. That’s not a bad thing – Caddy’s wedding preparations were a wonderful demonstration of Esther’s good nature and good sense, and it was nice to see poor Caddy get out from under her mother’s complete fanaticism.

Much more exciting is the second development. So far, your characters have died off in a variety of colorful ways, when they haven’t wasted away for dramatic effect. I had thought that Mr. Carker’s fabulously gruesome dismemberment under the wheels of a train was the crowning achievement of your inner executioner, but I was wrong.

Spontaneous human combustion.

Holy crap.

Well, that’s one way to liven up a story!

I have to hand it to you, Charlie. I didn’t see that one coming. And now it will be seared into my brain forever. Burnt pork chops indeed. You’re kind of a sick puppy, you know that? I didn’t even think such a phenomenon was prevalent in your day, or would be well enough known to warrant having a character die from it. But after looking into it, it appears that there were a number of previous cases that you were familiar with. The fact that you singled out a relatively minor character is puzzling, especially one whose karmic balance of evil wouldn’t seem to single him out for such a death! I truly hope that there’s some kind of significance to his being offed in such a spectacular manner, and presumably in taking those mysterious papers with him.

Mystery piles upon mystery. How will Esther discover her parentage? What happened to poor little Jo? What’s Tulkinghorn up to? How does George factor in to the thickening plot? Will Snagsby confess his secrets to his overly suspicious wife? What’s Guppy’s part in all of this? And why the hell did you feel the need to have someone immolate themselves?

Now that I’m on to the second volume, I’m sure all things will be revealed. In the meantime, I raise a glass to your dark side, Mr. D.

I remain,

Affectionately yours,


So far, not so bleak

Dear Charlie,

I hope we’re still on speaking terms after my last letter. Not that you’ve been hugely conversational since we started our journey, being dead and all, but I don’t hold it against you.

Another satisfied client…

Now that I’m well into Bleak House, and well away from English Monarchs Doing Un-Victorian Things, my equanimity has been restored. And here you are, clearly, back in your element! Another intriguing story, full of a multitude of moving parts, and with a grave social issue at its core. The English legal system, eh? I’m not sure you’d find it a great deal improved today, but it is hopefully a little less labyrinthine than it was when you sought to call attention to the kinds of painfully drawn-out Chancery cases that destroyed the lives of whole families. I wonder if that means there were more lawyer jokes in your day?

Lady Deadlock, being mysterious

So far, though, there’s been an astonishing lack of bleakness. Other than one mysterious but so far peripheral death, everyone else seems to be getting along swimmingly. Esther’s been rescued from her joyless childhood and her guardian is a genuinely nice guy, Clara and Richard are lovely and in love, Bleak House as a residence has turned out to be quite cozy and endearing, and so far the big bad Chancery case has had very little impact on anyone. Even the little feud between Sir Leicester and Baythorn seems more suited to the pages of the Pickwick Club. Part of me wants to leave the book closed where it is and leave everyone suspended in relative peace.

Of course I won’t do that. You’ve scattered enough mysterious breadcrumbs already to ensure that curiosity will overrule my desire to keep your ensemble in suspended animation. That mysterious death of an apparently minor character has created little ripples in the lives of some very important people, including the perpetually bored Lady Dedlock and the super secretive Mr. Tulkinghorn. There’s more going on here than meets the eye, and eventually the paths of the Deadlocks and the Jarndyce crew will cross, I’m sure. I’m even curious to see what happens to Mr. Guppy and his posse.

But to do that I have to keep reading. And so, my friend, I shall bid you a fond farewell, and remain,

Affectionately yours,